Book Review: Higher

Higher neal bascombTo keep with our intellectual theme (I know, the last post is hard to top), I’m going to let you know about what I’m reading these days.

Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City (Neal Bascomb, ISBN 0-385-50660-0) lays out the rivalry between architects Craig Severance and William Van Alen, former partners, now locked in a race to design and construct the tallest building in the world at any cost. Severance is employed to build the Manhattan Company Building (now The Trump Building). Van Alen is designing the Chrysler building for Walter Chrysler.

At the time of construction, the Eiffel Tower holds the height crown for tallest man-made anything, ever. The American architects and money-men will have none of it. America must have the tallest. After all, this is the 1920’s where everybody and their dog is making fortunes on the stock market. Monuments must therefore be built to praise the most powerful men. Except it’s really not about praise at all, but ego.

Still, Higher offers us incredible insight into the details of modern day skyscraper construction. In order to put up these huge buildings, the limits of engineering were pushed and new techniques were created. At the end of 1929, the men who commissioned these buildings were so wealthy, money had no meaning anymore. Chrysler himself put up much of the money himself, giving Van Alen a blank cheque to just “go nuts”.

Bascomb goes into great detail about how these buildings were put up. Considering their size, they were both built in about 1 year, including the digging of the foundations. In todays terms, that’s a completely insane time frame. Keep in mind that wages were low and the builders gave everything they had to meet demands. Remember too, that in those days you could be fired for the most trivial of reasons. These guys had serious work ethic, and families to feed.

So who wins the race to the top? Well that depends on your perspective. Something bigger will always come along, and by the time these two giants were nearing completion, the Empire State building was already growing like the huge phallus that it is.

This is a fascinating read. For non-fiction, it’s full of drama: power, intense rivalry, and the debauchery of the 1920’s.


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