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Chicago Innovation Reigned Supreme at Skyscraper Symposium

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In case you missed it: The "Second City" (referred to as such historically not only for its rebirth following the 1871 fire and decades as the second largest American city, but also as a dig from a certain city out east with a certain superiority complex) took on other stateside metropolises on Saturday in a steel-and-concrete-clad architectural battle for which city can rightfully claim the title "Birthplace of the Skyscraper." The results? Chicago by a landslide – though, to be fair, the room full of Chicago architects gathered for the Association of Preservation Technology Western Great Lakes Chapter and Construction History Society of America's historic skyscraper symposium were likely a little biased (not to mention the one panelist defending New York was seriously outnumbered).

The daylong event we previewed last week, held at the School of the Art Institute's sleek new Leroy Neiman Center, brought together structural engineers, architects, historians, and academics to present and discuss all things skyscraper. From the evolution of this type of building to the often-blurry definitions associated with its loftiest examples –Antennae, to count or not to count? – to the staggering possibilities that lay ahead for the form, seminars explored a pretty fascinating, albeit technical, array of sky-scraping topics.

Dr. Shankar Nair, senior vice president of exp US Services Inc., for example, broached the topic of how much higher skyscrapers can physically get. His findings? The sky's just about literally the limit (a 32,000 foot tall building, Nair found, could arguably be done using a triangular construction with enough square footage to fit 15,000 Sears/Willis Towers inside) but whether those behemoths would be practically feasible is another story. Mark Sexton of Krueck + Sexton Architects detailed the meticulous restoration work he and his team did on master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 860-880 Lake Shore Drive. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Associate Director Aaron Mazeika walked the audience through the complex engineering work he and his colleagues have done on recent eye-popping structures like the Al Hamra Tower in Kuwait City or the Greenland Group Suzhou Center currently under construction in Wujiang, China.

But the main event, as advertised, was the afternoon's debate on which city, New York, Chicago, or Minneapolis, gave us the first skyscraper. The question itself is unanswerable, Team New York's Donald Friedman, president of the city's Old Structures Engineering, argued, because the definition of what makes a building a skyscraper is totally subjective. He offered his own loose criteria, including notable height, useable interior space, fireproof structure, slenderness, and skeleton framing, but even still, those benchmarks are open to interpretation.

If the question WAS answerable, however, Friedman says New York deserves the title for buildings like the 1875 Western Union Building in Manhattan and the city's penchant for "shameless skyscraper culture," in addition to picking up points Chicago lost with its 1893 height restriction. Meghan Elliott of Preservation Design Works threw unlikely contender Minneapolis into the running, though her case rested a little too heavily on the fact that infamous exaggerator Leroy Buffington secured a patent for his 1888 skyscraper designs, despite the fact that those designs never came to fruition.

Valiant efforts all around, but Chicago was, undoubtedly the victor here, at least according to a very scientific showing of hands of those in attendance. Even without the group's glaring favoritism, Iowa State University architecture professor and Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934 author Thomas Leslie delivered a convincing presentation naming the 1896 Fisher Building on S. Dearborn between Jackson and Van Buren (which now houses upscale apartments) what he thinks of as the first "modern skyscraper," and just one among Chicago's long history of towering feats. And there's nothing "second" about that.
·Three Questions for the Team Behind Upcoming Skyscraper Symposium [Curbed Chicago]
·Skyscraper History: Looking Back While Looking Up [APTWGLC]
·Restoring Mies, A Case Study (PDF) [Krueck & Sexton Architects]

—Gwendolyn Purdom