“Iconic” may be the most overused word in architectural writing. Eye-popping new buildings are declared icons when the concrete has barely cured.
But last month, ARCHITECTURAL RECORD and its sister publication Engineering News Record, under the new ownership of BNP Media, moved into a true icon: the Empire State Building. Just as thrilling as the views from our offices on the 60th floor is the knowledge that we are working in a monumental landmark with an enduring hold on the national imagination.
The Empire State Building is the public’s No. 1 favorite work of architecture, according to a survey by the AIA. Its status does not derive just from its height—it was the world’s tallest building for more than 40 years (far longer than today’s top tower, the Burj Khalifa, is going to hold the title) and now ranks 30th. And it doesn’t derive its status only from its form, though as the structure soars 1,454 feet to the top of its spire, with its subtly elegant setbacks, it remains the most arresting peak on the New York City skyline.
Its design was actually more pragmatic than visionary (can you guess the architect?), in order to maximize its real-estate value and minimize its construction time, says Carol Willis, founder, director, and curator of the Skyscraper Museum. “The architecture is streamlined, not so much in the sense of Art Deco design but as a machine-age celebration of efficiency,” she says.
From the start of erecting the steel frame, the construction took a mere 11 months—an extraordinary feat, notes Willis, not only because of the height but because of the scale: more than 2 million square feet of rentable space (the Chrysler Building, almost as tall, was completed in the same amount of time but has less than half the area). Once contracts were signed to design and construct the Empire State Building in September 1929, a deft choreography of fabrication, delivery to the site, and construction began. Materials included 57,000 tons of steel, 62,000 cubic yards of poured concrete, 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone to clad the exterior, along with 6,500 windows, most with cast aluminum Art Deco spandrels—all standardized, of course—installed beneath them. The skyscraper’s frame rose at the rate of more than one story a day. It was “an architectural design so magnificently adapted to speed in construction,” Paul Starrett, head of the construction company Starrett Brothers and Eken, later wrote in his memoirs—in which he also confessed that after his company completed the project in record time, he suffered a nervous breakdown.
“It is the most amazing can-do success story in American building,” says Willis.
The skyscraper, which cost $25 million (more than $350 million today), was an instant star, with New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt among the luminaries attending its ribbon cutting in May 1931. Two years later, King Kong made Hollywood history climbing its pinnacle, and, over the decades, Charles Boyer, Cary Grant, and Tom Hanks all waited on the observation deck for ladies who never showed up. The building’s celebrity outlasts them all: about 4 million people a year visit the observation decks on the 86th and 102nd floors.
Today, the Empire State Building is a national model for the sustainable retrofitting of aging commercial office properties. In 2011, after a $550 million renovation, it became the tallest building to be certified LEED Gold. In addition, the firm of Beyer Blinder Belle meticulously restored its sumptuous landmarked lobby, providing a splendid welcome not only for tourists but for the thousands of people who come to work here each day.
Now, that’s an icon.