Frank Lloyd Wright’s Towering Vision

Frank Lloyd Wright, the definitive American architect, was born 151 years ago yesterday. Over the course of his life he accumulated a prodigious body of work both built and unbuilt, such as his acclaimed masterpieces of Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum and the hypothetical plans for the verdant, suburban Broadacre City. Wright, however, figures far less in the annals of engineering than in those of architecture, as his designs, though undeniably beautiful, have a small, personal scale, striking due to their subtle interactions with their environment rather that awe-inspiring structural spectacles. An exception to this rule was his concept, drawn up in 1956, for The Illinois: a gargantuan skyscraper no less than a mile high which was designed to spread urbanization upwards rather than outwards. The 528-story building has at times been denounced as an impractical folly, but the ideas it poses in the fields of urban planning, engineering, and, of course, architecture, are fully deserving of analysis and merit.

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Wright’s most famous drawing of the Illinois

Mankind has always had the propensity to reach skywards with their construction; for centuries before Wright architects had designed pyramids and steeples with impractical height for purposes of grandeur alone. The Illinois could easily be dismissed as a modern Babel and monument of hubris, but in fact Wright was revolutionary in applying practical principles and rational engineering ideas to what, for any previous architect, would have been simply an artistic or philosophical statement.

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A more technical illustration of the tower

The tower has two methods of support. One, a nod to organic motifs in Wright’s other buildings, is the treelike core, from which floors are both cantilevered and suspended- a novel method of directing loads into a central strong point. The other was an external tripod structure, suited more for wind than dead loads, as Wright himself explained: “It is really a steeple and has no wind pressure at the top… it is the surest form of resistance of outside pressure from the side because every pressure on every side is felt by the other two sides and resisted by them altogether”. Wright also acknowledged the issue of people movement throughout the building and offered an off-the-wall solution: once workers arrived at the Illinois by car (there were parking spaces for 15000 beneath the structure) or even drone, they would move up and down in elevator cars five stories tall, on rails, and atomically powered.

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A floor plan of the Illinois, with the main structural components in black

Of course, Wright’s expertise was in architecture, and The Illinois is fittingly graceful, delicately rising to a pinpoint, with clean glass sides occasionally broken by elevator shafts. The design was allegedly an inspiration for the Burj Dubai. The latter tower is, however, only half as tall as Wright’s, and with good reason; though Wright’s structural hypotheses were novel, they were unable to make The Illinois feasible, even with today’s structural advances. To be built to Wright’s exact design, the structure would need to be constructed of materials far stronger than steel and concrete.

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This proposal for a mile-high tower in Tokyo is more modern- but no more practical- than The Illinois

We are, however, edging closer to Wright’s dream of a mile-high tower. New materials are becoming available- graphene technology, for instance, is being researched across the globe. So too is damping technology- especially helpful, for the higher up you go, the more pronounced and dangerous vibrations become. The growth of the field of aeronautical engineering is also useful; its technology can not only be used to keep people comfortable at high altitudes but also can be incorporated into a building’s structure- some engineers have suggested using airfoils to turn wind into a beneficial agent of stability. Would a mile high tower be practical, compared to, say, four 400-meter towers? Probably not, but primal quest for height is unlikely to be stemmed in the near future- and in my opinion, isn’t entirely without merit.

 

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