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Trend Setters: 10 Cities That Built It First

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We live in a world where bigger is often better and where the popularity of a construction project often depends on its height or how elaborate the design is. Although it’s easy to get caught up in which project is generating the most buzz this week, it’s important to look back and remember how we got to where we are in the first place. If it weren’t for a number of forward thinking architects and designers who pushed the limits 10, 50, even 150 years ago, we wouldn’t be as architecturally advanced as we are now. To celebrate these victories in design history, we’ve compiled a roundup of architectural firsts. From the first skyscraper to the first mass-produced suburb, these projects were considered monumental during their time and helped pave the way for the design victories we accomplish today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oriel Chambers

1. Liverpool, U.K.: First Building with a Glass Curtain Wall

Upon completion of the Oriel Chambers building in Liverpool, England, architect Peter Ellis was greeted with criticism. At the time, critics overlooked the fact that it was the first building in history to feature a metal-framed glass curtain wall and instead nitpicked over the "agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles" or rows of oriels (a type of bay window) peppering the exterior. Today, Ellis is considered a pioneer of modern design and English Heritage includes the five-floor structure on the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest.

Home Insurance Building

2. Chicago, IL: First Skyscraper

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, architects had to devise ways to build structures without relying on wood. Architect William LeBaron Jenney drafted a "fireproof" building for the Home Insurance Company's headquarters by designing a structure supported by a steel frame. His construction would become known as the world's first skyscraper, towering 10 stories. Jenney's achievement set the tone for future construction projects, making the sky the limit. Unfortunately, the building was torn down in 1931 to make way for the Field Building (now known as the LaSalle Bank Building).

Ingalls Building

3. Cincinatti, OH: First Reinforced Concrete Skyscraper

When architectural firm Elzner & Anderson proposed a 15-story reinforced concrete skyscraper for the Ingalls Building in Cincinnati, Ohio, the public balked. Up until then, the tallest reinforced concrete building stood just six stories tall and many feared their design would collapse under its own weight. The architects used a method introduced to them by engineer Ernest L. Ransome that involved reinforcing the concrete by running twisted steel bars through it as support. The men proved everyone wrong and the office building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

 Larkin Admin Building  

4. Buffalo, NY: First Office Building with Air Conditioning

The Larkin Company, a soap manufacturer, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a building for its headquarters in an industrial part of Buffalo, New York. To minimize noise and filter out pollution from neighboring warehouses, Wright designed the red-brick Larkin Administration Building to accommodate air conditioning. He would become the first architect of an office building to do so, helping solidify his place as a forward thinker in the architectural community. Unfortunately, the building met its demise in 1950 when it was demolished and replaced with a parking lot.

 Empire State Building

5. New York, NY: First Building with 100 Floors

It took just one year and 45 days to build the Empire State Building. Upon its completion, the skyscraper became the first building in the world to surpass 100 floors, topping out at 103 stories (1,453 feet). The Architectural League awarded William Lamb, the building's architect, with a medal of honor "for his masterful treatment of an office building." Over time, other buildings in New York City and the world surpassed the ESB in height, but this constructional feat will forever be cemented as an important chapter in architectural history.

Donnell Garden Pool

6. Sonoma, CA: First Kidney-Shaped Swimming Pool

Until the 1940s, rectangular-shaped swimming pools were the norm in the United States. Landscape architect Thomas Church decided to break the mold, so he designed a "biomorphic kidney-shaped pool" for Dewey and Jean Donnell's Sonoma, CA, home. His design was considered revolutionary and inspired an influx of Americans to put swimming pools in their own backyards after World War II. Today the site is privately owned. The Cultural Landscape Foundation recognizes it for its Modernist style.

 Levittown  

7. Levittown, NY: First Mass-Produced Suburb

Levittown began as an experiment. The mass-produced suburb-the first of its kind-was in response to the influx of soldiers returning home from World War II. Land developer Levitt & Sons subdivided acres of potato farms on Long Island, New York, into a sprawling suburbia that offered affordable rental homes. To keep up with demand, the developers built atop concrete slabs rather than basements and used precut lumber. In 1949, the company started selling homes for purchase for $7,990 each. Owners could choose from one of five models. In total, Levitt & Sons built 17,447 homes, most of which still stand today.

 Bridgers & Paxton  

8. Albuquerque, NM: First Commercial Solar-Heated Building

In 1956, Life featured the Bridgers & Paxton Solar Building and praised it for being "entirely heated by the sun." The ample number of sunny days in Albuquerque, New Mexico, gave the building's tilted 750-square-foot glass wall plenty of opportunities to gather energy from the sun's rays and convert it to heat. Engineers Frank H. Bridgers and Donald Paxton designed the architectural feat to house their engineering firm, claiming their design kept their offices a comfortable 72 degrees year round. Upon a building expansion in 1962, the owners converted to a boiler system. The structure is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

 Commerzbank  

9. Frankfurt, Germany: First Ecological Office Tower

Towering 56 stories above Frankfurt, Germany, the Commerzbank Tower is the city's tallest building and the world's first ecological office tower. The architectural firm Foster + Partners designed the steel structure to include eco-friendly features such as triangular open-air atriums that serve as the building's "lungs" and provide air circulation, ample natural light and ventilation, the usage of green energy, and the employment of recycled materials during construction. The building serves as the headquarters of Commerzbank.

 Merrill Center Chesepeake

10. Annapolis, MD: First LEED Platinum-Certified Building

Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the environment, was named the first-ever LEED Platinum-Certified building in 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The 32,000-square-foot structure in Annapolis, Maryland, has a relatively small footprint thanks to the usage of recycled materials during construction and the implementation of natural ventilation, solar-powered heating, composting toilets, and a rainwater catchment system.

The Stack

11. New York, NY: First Prefab Building in New York City

What sets The Stack apart from other residential buildings in New York City is the fact that the modular structure was assembled in a warehouse in Pennsylvania and was pieced together later onsite, much like a giant Lego set. The seven-story building, designed by architectural firm GLUCK+, consists of 56 modules and sits in contrast to the neighborhood's mainly brick buildings. The relatively low cost of construction paired with a short building period (it took roughly four weeks to "stack" and bolt down all of the modules) could very well make this form of construction the norm going forward.

 B2 Rendering

12. Brooklyn, NY: World’s Tallest Prefab Building

With construction beginning in December 2012, B2, a residential high-rise in Brooklyn, New York, is on its way to becoming the tallest prefab building in the world. Designed by Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC) to top out at 32 stories (322 feet), the 363 apartment units will be affordable to low- and middle-class families in part due to lower construction costs. The structure is currently being assembled in warehouses offsite, keeping sustainability in mind in hopes of achieving LEED Silver certification.