Born from a combination of lack of place in business centers and commercial speculation, the skyscraper is considered the quintessential American architectural genre. The conditions of this new type justify the office function of the first skyscrapers during the 19th century last years.
However, these buildings verticality also posed serious aesthetic problems for architects, who were still accustomed to the classical monuments' horizontality. Nevertheless, many American builders were graduates from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris: remembrances of French Gothic cathedrals helped them to find satisfactory solutions. It linked steel structures and cladding facades, creating the American Gothic style. In 1913 the New York Woolworth Building – Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) – and in 1922 the Chicago Tribune Tower – Raymond Hood (1881-1934) and John Mead Howells (1868-1959) – brought this synthesis to perfection between Gothic quotes and American efficiency. However, these last architects were also among those who directed shortly after the skyscraper transformations thanks to the more modern Art Deco forms. Among other things, the influence of the highly regarded project sent by Finnish Eliel Saarinen to the contest for the Chicago Tribune convinced them of the need for this formal evolution.
At the same time, growing land pressure led to the adaptation of this typology to hotel use. In 1907 the New York Plaza, and in 1927 the Chicago Stevens Hotel, both show the permanence of the luxurious Beaux-Arts style and the hypertrophied American scale. The first was designed by Henry Hardenbergh (1847-1918), a precursor adapting the way of life to large apartment buildings. The second was produced by the firm Holabird & Root – specifically by John Holabird (1886-1945) and John Root (1887–1963), sons of the founders of this agency, which contributed greatly to the development of the skyscraper. In the hands of expert builders, New York and Chicago have always fought for the preeminence of tall buildings.
While most of the major US cities also bristle soon with skyscrapers, one program resisted the call of heights for a long time: educational sites. Because American universities were built firstly by seeking to establish a visual and intellectual link with their European counterparts. Aesthetic sources were therefore chosen with care, to create an imaginary genealogy between the prestigious English universities of Oxford or Cambridge and their heirs on the other side of the Atlantic. So the very Gothic Oxfordian fragrance of Princeton University is due in part to Walter Cope (1860-1902) and John Stewardson (1858-1896). Their Blair Hall, built at the end of the 19th century, imposed a certain dependence on medieval English manors and castles. However, their untimely death gave way to other architects, including Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) and Charles Klauder (1872-1938). They deepened their predecessors' approach, imposing the Quadrangle model in Collegiate Gothic style. These architectural responses retained a relative general horizontality, boosted by the verticality of some neo-Gothic towers reminiscent of European churches or castles.
Yale University took a similar approach. Here, James Gamble Rogers (1867-1947) intense activity allowed him to exert a lasting influence on the image of this esteemed campus. Despite the often nostalgic appearance of his buildings, Rogers used constructive methods similar to those of his colleagues erecting skyscrapers. Steel, for example, supports the Gothic decor of its Sterling Library... The formal simplification also betrays a relative integration of Art Deco. In fact, during the 1920-1930s the American universities took more account of the pedagogical modifications. The buildings, therefore, had to change scale.
Although founded like Yale and Princeton in the 18th century, Pittsburgh University did not enjoy the same prestige as its counterparts in Connecticut and New Jersey. Pittsburgh perhaps suffered from its industrial and working-class role: the steel capital seemed less conducive to knowledge than the elitist green sites of the Ivy League campuses... To remedy this unfavorable prejudice, the University Chancellor envisioned in 1921 the erection of a grand edifice that would set Pittsburgh apart from its more snobbish rivals. His intuition for a university skyscraper was hardly unanimous among teachers in Pittsburgh, attached to tested spatial concepts. Nevertheless, the chancellor's persuasion and the project quality overcame their reluctance.
To do this was called Charles Klauder – a renowned specialist in university architecture, with previous achievements at Princeton, Yale and Cornell, among others. Despite trained only with colleagues in Philadelphia, this architect developed a fine knowledge of European past architecture. For instance, his Yale Natural History Museum cites the Saint-Germain church in Argentan, and his Pittsburgh Heinz Memorial Chapel has some elements borrowed from the Notre-Dame church in Alençon. Two flamboyant Gothic sources in Normandy, until now little appreciated by architects or historians at the beginning of the 20th century. So Pittsburgh hired an expert at Collegiate Gothic. However, unlike the very traditional Cram, in some of his works Klauder sought more to escape the typological limits of copying medieval buildings, energetically integrating a search for geometric purity linking him to Art Deco modernity. Thus Klauder without regret abandoned the first hypotheses of a campus spread out on the site, to bring together all the functions planned in a real skyscraper. As the available terrain is spacious, this verticality was not mandatory. But it provided a strong, unprecedented signal that spoke with panache to the collective imagination.
The skyscraper silhouette was therefore carefully studied with several successive versions. Klauder understood the architectural results of the New York 1916 City Planning Code. Designed to remedy the darkening of streets due to extreme density, this resulted in the transformation of tall buildings into towers with successive setbacks. Again, this was not necessary in Pittsburgh. But the architect realized that the allure of his work would benefit from taking the form of quartz or amethyst crystals, grouped in a spindle to assault the sky. This also made it possible to spatially differentiate the internal functions.
The aesthetic chosen to clad the steel structure employs an approach similar to that of Howells & Hood's Chicago Tribune Tower. In short: extreme simplification of the vertical spans framing the windows, and special care given to the crowning – inspired in Chicago by the flamboyant Tour de Beurre of the Rouen cathedral. However, Klauder's sources were mostly English. The masses' solidity in Pittsburgh pays homage to Ely and Durham Cathedrals. At the foot of the skyscraper, the Stephen Foster Memorial auditorium also appears to be a direct assimilation of the York and Wells cathedrals chapter rooms. As with his Gothic precedents, the architect carefully chose the stone for his facades: Indiana limestone. With a pleasant light tint, this stone combines decent strength, easy carving and relative lightness. It was among the most popular American materials at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, serving for example for Grand Central Station and the Empire State Building in New York, for the Pentagon in Washington, or the Nebraska State Capitol.
Simplification of Gothic forms, concentration of ornaments on key points, sense of abstract geometry: Klauder made sure to place his skyscraper in the Art Deco innovations, subtly reworking the Collegiate Gothic clichés. However, it did not break with the genre that made its reputation: with its ribbed vaults, the large interior hall of the skyscraper takes on more than ever the appearance of a medieval sanctuary. Here the tower certainly deserves its Cathedral of Learning nickname.
In addition, several classrooms received a singular treatment: their decor is inspired by various world cultures, putting the students in an evocative atmosphere, visually continuing the professors' teachings. Even the walls took on a pedagogical virtue, inherited from the old European theological campuses.
If construction works began in 1926, the facades were not completed until 1934, while the formal inauguration took place only in 1937. The economic difficulties which followed the 1929 crash were largely responsible for the slowness of the works. However, the fundraising was ultimately an achievement in an economically devastated country. The Pittsburgh University success was perhaps meditated by the new President Roosevelt team, whose New Deal policies in the 1930s launched many projects to revive the economy – supporting both firms and people. Klauder's skyscraper thus achieved its purpose, giving Pittsburgh an exceptional architectural object – much admired, rarely imitated.
Meanwhile, the educational program continued to prefer buildings with a less complex spatial functioning than the verticality of the skyscraper, with some notable exceptions. Firstly, the main building of the Texas University at Austin was built by Paul Cret (1876-1945) in 1931. Between neoclassicism and Art Deco, the twenty-seven floors of its tower culminate at 94 meters. Height certainly more modest than the forty levels and the 163 meters of Pittsburgh. Then, in England, Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) also built in 1934 a 48-meter tower with a steel structure of modernized neoclassicism for the new library on the Cambridge campus. Then, Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) had the same reflex in Belgium in 1935 with the modern concrete tower of the Ghent University Library – reaching 64 meters. The need for more administrative space or for the conservation of books made such facilities inevitable.
Finally, only the USSR surpassed these American and European precedents. Lomonosov University in Moscow, built in 1949 by Lev Roudnev (1885-1956) has a number of floors slightly higher than its Pittsburgh rival: forty-two. But the Moscow skyscraper reaches 240 meters – thanks to the tapered spire of its central tower. There the Communists measured themselves against American achievements, using the pyramid-shaped entrenchment of volumes to emphatically assert the numerical prevalence of their campus. But the Russian architect drew inspiration from the neoclassicism of other American works, arguing that Klauder's Collegiate Gothic seemed too feudal.
Aberrant anachronism? Here is the key paradox of this skyscraper. In his desire for cultural legitimacy, reflecting the medieval European universities' prestige on American education, this builder provided Pittsburgh with an architectural strangeness. One foot in the distant past through its nostalgic form, the other in the present day through its structural efficiency. All darting into the dark sky of Pittsburgh with such an eloquent symbol: the academic rhetoric competitions of the Middle Ages found their modern counterpart in steel and stone.