Glaeser’s Triumph of the City giveaway

Courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia, I have two copies of the newly released book by Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City, to give away to readers.

This is not really a competition, it’s more of a giveaway. To enter, all you do is nominate your favourite Melbourne building, but the winners will be selected randomly.

Go to this page to enter or see PAGES menu in the side pane (don’t use this page to enter, although comments about the book are welcome here)

Edward Glaeser is a professor at Harvard and is the world’s “go to” man for research on cities. I’ve mentioned his work many times before on these pages (e.g. see here). This brief video shows him discussing Triumph of the City with The Daily Show’s John Stewart.

I read the US edition of Triumph of the City a few months ago and it’s a book worth reading and worth having. As the New York Times Reviewer wrote, you’ll “walk away dazzled by the greatness of cities and fascinated by this writer’s nimble mind”.

Here’s a “sample chapter” (it’s an adaptation but pretty close to what’s in the book) that Professor Glaeser published in the Atlantic:

IN THE BOOK of Genesis, the builders of Babel declared, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens. And let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered upon the face of the whole earth.” These early developers correctly understood that cities could connect humanity. But God punished them for monumentalizing terrestrial, rather than celestial, glory. For more than 2,000 years, Western city builders took this story’s warning to heart, and the tallest structures they erected were typically church spires. In the late Middle Ages, the wool-making center of Bruges became one of the first places where a secular structure, a 354-foot belfry built to celebrate cloth-making, towered over nearby churches. But elsewhere another four or five centuries passed before secular structures surpassed religious ones. With its 281-foot spire, Trinity Church was the tallest building in New York City until 1890. Perhaps that year, when Trinity’s spire was eclipsed by a skyscraper built to house Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, should be seen as the true start of the irreligious 20th century. At almost the same time, Paris celebrated its growing wealth by erecting the 1,000-foot Eiffel Tower, which was 700 feet taller than the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.

Since that tower in Babel, height has been seen both as a symbol of power and as a way to provide more space on a fixed amount of land. The belfry of Trinity Church and Gustave Eiffel’s tower did not provide usable space. They were massive monuments to God and to French engineering, respectively. Pulitzer’s World Building was certainly a monument to Pulitzer, but it was also a relatively practical means of getting his growing news operation into a single building.

For centuries, ever taller buildings have made it possible to cram more and more people onto an acre of land. Yet until the 19th century, the move upward was a moderate evolution, in which two-story buildings were gradually replaced by four- and six-story buildings. Until the 19th century, heights were restricted by the cost of building and the limits on our desire to climb stairs. Church spires and belfry towers could pierce the heavens, but only because they were narrow and few people other than the occasional bell-ringer had to climb them. Tall buildings became possible in the 19th century, when American innovators solved the twin problems of safely moving people up and down and creating tall buildings without enormously thick lower walls.

Elisha Otis didn’t invent the elevator; Archimedes is believed to have built one 2,200 years ago. And Louis XV is said to have had a personal lift installed in Versailles so that he could visit his mistress. But before the elevator could become mass transit, it needed a good source of power, and it needed to be safe. Matthew Boulton and James Watt provided the early steam engines used to power industrial elevators, which were either pulled up by ropes or pushed up hydraulically. As engines improved, so did the speed and power of elevators that could haul coal out of mines or grain from boats.

But humans were still wary of traveling long distances upward in a machine that could easily break and send them hurtling downward. Otis, tinkering in a sawmill in Yonkers, took the danger out of vertical transit. He invented a safety brake and presented it in 1854 at New York’s Crystal Palace Exposition. He had himself hoisted on a platform, and then, dramatically, an axman severed the suspending rope. The platform dropped slightly, then came to a halt as the safety brake engaged.

The Otis elevator became a sensation. In the 1870s, it enabled pathbreaking structures, like Richard Morris Hunt’s Tribune Building in New York, to reach 10 stories. Across the Atlantic, London’s 269-foot St. Pancras Station was taller even than the Tribune Building. But the fortress-like appearance of St. Pancras hints at the building’s core problem. It lacks the critical cost-reducing ingredient of the modern skyscraper: a load-bearing steel skeleton. Traditional buildings, like St. Pancras or the Tribune Building, needed extremely strong lower walls to support their weight. The higher a building went, the thicker its lower walls had to be, and that made costs almost prohibitive, unless you were building a really narrow spire.

The load-bearing steel skeleton, which pretty much defines a skyscraper, applies the same engineering principles used in balloon-frame houses, which reduced the costs of building throughout rural 19th-century America. A balloon-frame house uses a light skeleton made of standardized boards to support its weight. The walls are essentially hung on the frame like a curtain. Skyscrapers also rest their weight on a skeleton frame, but in this case the frame is made of steel, which became increasingly affordable in the late 19th century

You can read the rest of the chapter at the Atlantic. Please don’t use the comments section below to enter — go to this page to enter or see PAGES menu in the side pane. Of course you can still make comments about Edward Glaeser and the chapter from his book here.

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One Comment on “Glaeser’s Triumph of the City giveaway”

  1. Matthew says:

    The MCG – sacred ground where the 1997 and 1998 AFL Premiers the Adelaide Crows reminded all Victorians that Go West was not just a 1980s pop band, but something to aspire to.

    Glaeser’s book would be interesting since he’s an economist and a conservative and whether such a wee beastie has anything insightful to say about cities. From the example chapter he looks a bit like he’s sick with a bad case of the Corbusiers, but clean air and visible horizons can cure such an ill.


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