Category Archives: Architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1956 Mile-High Skyscraper – The Illinois

Peter Lobner, Updated 9 May 2020

On 16 October 1956, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, then 89 years old, unveiled his design for the tallest skyscraper in the world, a remarkable mile-high tripod spire named “The Illinois,” proposed for a site in Chicago.

Frank Lloyd Wright.
Source: Al Ravenna via Wikipedia

Also known as the Illinois Mile-High Tower, Wright’s skyscraper would stand 528 floors and 5,280 feet (1,609 meters) tall plus antenna; more than four times the height of the Empire State Building in New York City, then the tallest skyscraper in the world at 102 floors and 1,250 feet (380 meters) tall plus antenna. At the unveiling of The Illinois at the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago, Wright presented an illustration measuring more than 25 feet (7.6 meters) tall, with the skyscraper drawn at the scale of 1/16 inch to the foot.

Frank Lloyd Wright presents The Illinois at the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago on 26 October 1956.  Source:

Basic parameters for The Illinois are listed below:

  • Floors, above grade level:    528
  • Height:
    • Architectural:                5,280 ft (1,609.4 m)
    • To tip of antenna:        5,706 ft (1739.2 m)
  • Number of elevators:             76
  • Gross floor area (GFA):         18,460,106 ft² (1,715,000 m²)
  • Number of occupants:           100,000
  • Number of parking spaces:  15,000
  • Structural material:
    • Core:                                  Reinforced concrete
    • Cantilevered floors:    Steel
    • Tensioned tripod:        Steel 

The Illinois was intended as a mixed-use structure designed to spread urbanization upwards rather than outwards. The Illinois offered nearly three times the gross floor area (GFA) of the Pentagon, and more than seven times the GFA of the Empire State Building for use as office, hotel, residential and parking space. Wright said the building could consolidate all government offices then scattered around Chicago.

The single super-tall skyscraper was intended to free up the ground plane by eliminating the need for other large skyscrapers in its vicinity.  This was consistent with Wright’s distributed urban planning concept known as Broadacre City, which he introduced in the mid-1930s and continued to advocate until his death in 1959.

Sketch for Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposed mile high skyscraper, 
The Illinois.  Source:  Wright Mile Gallery, MCM Daily
Frank Lloyd Wright illustration and data sheet for The Illinois.  
Frank Lloyd Wright illustrations of The Illinois.  
L to R:  Cross-section; Back exterior view; Front exterior view;  Side exterior view.  
Source:  Wright Mile Gallery, MCM Daily
Close-up view of the five-story base of The Illinois. 
Source:  Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Illustration of the footprint of The Illinois base and tower.
Source: Source:  Wright Mile Gallery, MCM Daily
Frank Lloyd Wright illustration of The Illinois, showing the five-story base structure and the transition of the central reinforced concrete core into the “taproot” foundation structure.  In the background are scale silhouettes of famous tall structures: Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramid, and Washington Monument.  Source:  Wright Mile Gallery, MCM Daily

2.  Tenuity, continuity and evolution of Wright’s concept for an organic high-rise building

Two aspects of Wright’s concept of organic architecture are the structural principles he termed “tenuity” and “continuity,” both of which he applied in the context of cantilevered and cable-supported structures, such as slender buildings and bridges.  Author Richard Cleary reported that Wright first used the term tenuity in his 1932 book Autobiography, and offered his most succinct explanation in his 1957 book Testament.

  • “The cantilever is essentially steel at its most economical level of use. The principle of the cantilever in architecture develops tenuity as a wholly new human expression, a means, too, of placing all loads over central supports, thereby balancing extended load against opposite extended load.”
  • “This brought into architecture for the first time another principle in construction – I call it continuity – a property which may be seen as a new, elastic, cohesive, stability. The creative architect finds here a marvelous new inspiration in design. A new freedom involving far wider spacing of more slender supports.”
  • “Thus architecture arrived at construction from within outward rather than from outside inward; much heightening and lightening of proportions throughout all building is now economical and natural, space extended and utilized in a more liberal planning than the ancients could ever have dreamed of. This is now the prime characteristic of the new architecture called organic.”
  • “Construction lightened by means of cantilevered steel in tension makes continuity a most valuable characteristic of architectural enlightenment.”

The structural principles of tenuity and continuity are manifest in Wright’s high-rise building designs that are characterized by a deep “taproot” foundation that supports a central load bearing core structure from which the individual floors are cantilevered.  A cross-section of the resulting building structure has the appearance of a tree deeply rooted in the Earth with many horizontal branches. 

Before looking further at the Mile-High Skyscraper, we’ll take a look at three of its high-rise predecessors and one later design, all of which shared Wright’s characteristic organic architectural features derived from the application of tenuity and continuity:  taproot foundation, load-bearing core structure and cantilevered floors:

  • St. Mark’s Tower project
  • SC Johnson Research Tower
  • Price Tower
  • The Golden Beacon

St. Mark’s Tower project (St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie, 1927 – 1931, not built)

Wright first proposed application of the taproot foundation, load-bearing concrete and steel core structure and cantilevered floors was in 1927 for the 15-floor St. Mark’s Tower project in New York City.  

The planned St. Mark’s Tower project in the Bowery, New York City.  Source: Architectural Record, 1930, via The New Yorker
St. Mark’s Tower exterior view (L) and cross-section (R) showing the central core and cantilevered floors. The deep taproot part of the foundation is not shown.  
Sources: (L) Architectural Record, 1930, via The New Yorker; 
(R) adapted from Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation drawing

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) provides this description of the St. Mark’s Tower project.

  • “The design of these apartment towers for St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie in New York City stemmed from Wright’s vision for Usonia, a new American culture based on the synthesis of architecture and landscape. The organic “tap-root” structural system resembles a tree, with a central concrete and steel load-bearing core rooted in the earth, from which floor plates are cantilevered like branches.”
  • “This system frees the building of load-bearing interior partitions and supports a modulated glass curtain wall for increased natural illumination. Floor plates are rotated axially to generate variation from one level to the next and to distinguish between living and sleeping spaces in the duplex apartments.”

While the St. Mark’s Tower project was not built, this basic high-rise building design reappeared from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s as a “city dweller’s unit” in Wright’s Broadacre City plan and was the basis for the Price Tower built in the 1950s.  

SC Johnson Research Tower, Racine, WI (1943 – 1950)

The 15-floor, 153 foot (46.6 m) tall SC Johnson Research Laboratory Tower, built between 1943 and 1950 in Racine, WI, was the first high-rise building to actually apply Wright’s organic design with a taproot foundation, load-bearing concrete and steel core structure and cantilevered floors.  On their website, SC Johnson describes the structural design of this building as follows:

  • “One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous buildings, the tower rises more than 150 feet into the air and is 40 feet square. Yet at ground level, it’s supported by a base only 13 feet across at its narrowest point. As a result, the tower almost seems to hang in the air – a testament to creativity and an inspiration for the innovative products that would be developed inside.”
  • “Alternating square floors and round mezzanine levels make up the interior, and are supported by the “taproot” core, which also contains the building’s elevator, stairway and restrooms. The core extends 54 feet into the ground, providing stability like the roots of a tall tree.”
The SC Johnson Research Tower exterior & cross-section views. The taproot foundation extends 54 feet into the ground and the central core supports 15 cantilevered floors.  Sources: (L)

Because of the change in fire safety codes, and the impracticality of retrofitting the building to meet current code requirements, SC Johnson has not used the Research Tower since 1982.  However, they restored the building in 2013 and now the public can visit as part of the SC Johnson Campus Tour.  

You can make reservations at the following link for the Campus Tour and a separate tour of the nearby Herbert F. Johnson Prairie-style home, Wingspread, also designed by Frank Lloyd Wright:

Price Tower, Bartlesville, OK (1952 – 1956)

The 19-floor, 221 foot (67.4 m) tall Price Tower, completed in 1956 in Bartlesville, OK, is an evolution of Wright’s 1927 design for the St. Mark’s Tower project.  Wright nicknamed the Price Tower, “the tree that escaped the crowded forest,” referring to the building’s cantilever construction and the origin of its design in a project for New York City.  Price Tower also has been called the “Prairie Skyscraper.”  

Price Tower exterior view (L) and cross-section (R).  
Sources:  (L)  

H.C. Price commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design Price Tower, which served as his corporate headquarters until 1981 when it was sold to Phillips Petroleum.  Philips deemed the exterior exit staircase a safety risk and only used the building for storage until 2000, when the building was donated to the Price Tower Arts Center.  Since then, Price Tower has been returned to its multi-use origins and public tours are offered, including a visit to the restored 19th floor executive office of H.C. Price and the H.C. Price Company corporate apartment with the original Wright interiors.  You can arrange your tour here:

You also can stay at the Inn at Price Tower, which has seven guest rooms.  You’ll find details here:

The Golden Beacon, Chicago, IL (1959, not built)

The Golden Beacon was a concept for a 50-floor mixed-use office and residential apartment building in Chicago, IL.  

The Golden Beacon exterior view (L), cross-section showing taproot foundation,
central core and cantilever floors. (R).  
Sources:  (L),  (R) Richard Cleary, “Lessons in Tenuity….”

As shown in the cross-section diagram, the building design followed Wright’s practice with a deep taproot foundation, a central load-bearing core and cantilevered floors. This design is very similar to the foundation structure proposed for the earlier Mile-High Skyscraper.

The Golden Beacon exterior view. Source:  Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation via

3.  Extrapolating to the Mile-High Skyscraper

By 1956, Wright’s characteristic organic architectural features for high-rise buildings, derived from the application of tenuity and continuity, had only appeared in two completed high-rise buildings, the 15-floor SC Johnson Laboratory Tower and the 19-floor Price Tower.  These two important buildings demonstrated the practicality of the taproot foundation, load-bearing concrete and steel core structure and cantilevered floors for tall, slender buildings.  With the unveiling of The Illinois, Wright made a remarkable extrapolation of these architectural principles in his conceptual design of this breathtaking 528 floor, 5,280 feet (1,609 meters) tall skyscraper.

Blaire Kamin, writing for the Chicago Tribune in 2017, reported:  “The Mile-High didn’t simply aim to be tall. It was the ultimate expression of Wright’s “taproot” structural system, which sank a central concrete mast deep into the ground and cantilevered floors from the mast. In contrast to a typical skyscraper, in which same-size floors are piled atop one another like so many pancakes, the taproot system lets floors vary in size, opening a high-rise’s interior and letting space flow between floors.”

In addition to the central core to support the building’s dead loads, The Illinois also incorporated an external tensioned steel tripod structure to resist external wind loads and other flexing loads (i.e., earthquakes), distributing those loads through the integral steel structure of the tripod, and resisting oscillations.  In his book, “Testament,” Wright stated: 

“Finally – throughout this lightweight tensilized structure, because of the integral character of all members, loads are at equilibrium at all points, doing away with oscillations.  There would be no sway at the peak of The Illinois.”

Tuned mass dampers (TMD) for reducing the amplitude of mechanical vibrations in tall buildings had not been invented when Wright unveiled his design for The Illinois in 1956. The first use of a TMD in a skyscraper did not occur until the mid-1970s, first as a retrofit to the troubled, 790 foot (241 m) tall, John Hancock building completed in 1976 in Boston, and then as original equipment in the 915 foot (279 m) tall Citicorp Tower completed in 1977 in New York City.  While tenuity and continuity may have given The Illinois unparalleled structural stability, I wouldn’t be surprised if TMD technology would have been needed for the comfort of the occupants on the upper floors, three-quarters of a mile above their counterparts in the next tallest building in the world.

To handle its 100,000 occupants, The Illinois had 76 elevators that were divided into five groups, each serving a 100-floor segment of the building, with a single elevator serving only the top floors.  Each elevator was a five-story unit that moved on rails and served five floors simultaneously.  With the tapering, pyramidal shape of the skyscraper, the vertical elevator shaft structures eventually extended beyond the sloping exterior walls, forming protruding parapets on the sides of the building.  In his 1957 book, “A Testament,” Wright said the elevators were designed to enable building evacuation within one hour, in combination with the escalators that serve the lowest five floors.

Wright alluded to the building (and the elevators) being “atomic powered,” but there were no provisions for a self-contained power plant as part of the building.  The much smaller Empire State Building currently has a peak electrical demand of almost 10 megawatts (MW) in July and August after implementing energy conservation measures.  Scaling on the basis of gross floor area, The Illinois could have had a peak electrical demand of about 70 MW.  You’ll find more information on current Empire State Building energy usage here:

The 2012 short video by Charles Muench, “A Peaceful Day in BroadAcre City – One Mile High – Frank Lloyd Wright” (1:31 minutes), depicts The Illinois skyscraper in the spacious setting of Broadacre City and shows an animated construction sequence of the tower.  Two screenshots from the video are reproduced below.  You’ll find this video at the following link:

Two views of the start of The Illinois construction sequence.
Screenshots from Charles Muench video, 2012.

You can see more architectural details in the 2009 video, “Mile High Final Movie – Frank Lloyd Wright” (3:42 minutes), produced for the Guggenheim Museum, New York.  Two screenshots are reproduced below.  You’ll find the video here:

The Illinois, showing architectural exterior details.
Screenshot from Guggenheim video, 2009.
The top of The Illinois, showing details at the 528th floor, including the protruding parapets for the elevators, and the 420+ foot (128 m) antenna on top.  Screenshot from Guggenheim video, 2009.

In his 1957 book, Testament, Wright provided the following two architectural drawings showing typical details of the cantilever construction of The Illinois.

The Illinois was intended for construction in a spacious setting like Broadacre City, rather than in a congested big-city downtown immediately adjacent to other skyscrapers.  Two views of The Illinois in these starkly different settings are shown below.

Model of The Illinois.  Source:  Milwaukee Sentinel Journal
The Illinois skyscraper as part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mid-1950s landscape for his urban planning concept known as Broadacre City.   Source: utopicus2013.blogspot
Artist’s concept of The Illinois skyscraper punctuating a rather congested contemporary Chicago skyline, not quite as Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned.  Source: Neoman Studios

4.  Wright’s Mile-High Skyscraper on Exhibit at MoMA

Since Wright’s death in 1959, his archives have been in the care of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation ( and stored at Wright’s homes / architectural schools at Taliesin in Spring Green, WI and Taliesin West, near Scottsdale, AZ.

In September 2012, Mary Louise Schumacher, writing for the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal, reported that Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan had jointly acquired the Frank Lloyd Wright archives, which consist of architectural drawings, large-scale models, historical photographs, manuscripts, letters and other documents.  You’ll find her report here:

Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library ( will be the keeper of all of Wright’s paper archives, as well as interview tapes, transcripts and films. MoMA ( will add Wright’s three-dimensional models to its permanent collection.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation will retain all copyright and intellectual property responsibilities for the archives, and all three organizations hope to see the archives placed online at some point in the future.

On 12 June 2017, MoMA opened its exhibit, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” which ran thru 1 October 2017.  You can take an online tour of this exhibit, which included Wright’s plans for The Illinois, here:

MoMA’s curator of the Wright collection, Barry Bergdoll, provided an introduction to the trove of recently acquired documentation on The Illinois in a short 2017 video (4:32 minutes) at the following link:

Plans and sketches for The Illinois mile-high skyscraper at the 
2017 MoMA exhibit.  Source:  MoMA

You can download a pdf copy of this article here:

5.  For more information

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile-High Skyscraper, The Illinois:

Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept for Broadacre City:

Frank Lloyd Wright’s related organic high-rise building designs:

Also check out the following short videos:

60th Anniversary of the Atomium

Peter Lobner

The official Atomium’s website reports that 2018 marks the 60thanniversary of this iconic mid-century “atomic age” structure in Brussels.

“The Atomium was the main pavilion and icon of the World Fair of Brussels (1958), commonly called Expo 58.  It symbolized the democratic will to maintain peace among all the nations, faith in progress, both technical and scientific and, finally, an optimistic vision of the future of a modern, new, super-technological world for a better life for mankind.

The peaceful use of atomic energy for scientific purposes embodied these themes particularly well and, so, that is what determined the shape of the edifice.  At 102 meters high, with its nine interconnected spheres, it represents an elementary iron crystal enlarged 165 billion (thousand million) times. It was dreamed up by the engineer André Waterkeyn (1917-2005).  The spheres, though, were fitted out by the architects André and Jean Polak.

The Atomium was not intended to survive beyond the 1958 World Fair but its popularity and success soon made it a key landmark, first of Brussels then internationally.

Half a century later, the Atomium continues, for that matter, to embody those ideas of the future and universality.  And, among other things through its cultural programming, it carries on the debate begun in 1958:  What kind of future do we want for tomorrow?  What does happiness depend on?

Over and above the symbolic value linked to its history, the Atomium has become one of the icons of the city of Brussels: capital of Europe, with which it has a special relationship. Since its inspired restoration (2006), the landmark that many people call the most Belgian monument is also a museum with its permanent collections and temporary exhibitions.

The completely steel-clad Atomium is a kind of UFO in the cultural history of humanity, a mirror turned simultaneously towards the past and the future, comparing our utopias of yesterday with our dreams for tomorrow”

As originally built, the Atomium had a load-bearing steel structure enclosed in an aluminum skin.  After 40 years, the aluminum skin had lost its sheen and gaps had opened up in the joints between panels.  The two-year restoration, which was completed in February 2006, involved removing the aluminum skin and replacing it with a new polished stainless steel skin that maintained the original design while adding LED exterior lighting and other modern features for thermal, sound and fire insulation. You’ll find details on the renovation project in a 2007 Euro Inox report at the following link:

Atomium during renovation.  Source:

The restored Atomium at night. Source:

Cross-section of the Atomium.  Source: adapted from

The above cross-section diagram shows the areas of the Atomium used for exhibits, event space, observation platforms and a restaurant. The three unsupported spheres are not open to the public.

See more details on the official Atomium website here:

View from the inside. Source:  Georgio Galeotti via

Architect David Fisher’s Dynamic Skyscraper

Peter Lobner

David Fisher is the leading proponent of dynamic architecture and the inventor of the shape-changing dynamic skyscraper. The shape-changing feature is a clear differentiator between the dynamic skyscraper and earlier symmetrical rotating high-rise buildings like Suite Vollard, which was the first rotating high-rise building. This unique residential building opened in 2001 in Brazil.

David FisherSource:

GE.DI Group

The GE.DI Group is an Italian construction firm that has become a leading proponent of new construction systems, including David Fisher’s dynamic architecture.

“GE.DI. Group (GEstione DInamica stand for Dynamic Management) in 2008, decided to embark on a new era of architecture: the Dynamic Architecture, a project of the architect David Fisher for rotating towers, continually evolving: dynamic, ecological, made with industrial systems.”

“The revolution of Fisher put an end to the era of the static and immutable architecture and it inaugurates a new one, at the sign of the dynamism and the lifestyle. These buildings will become the symbol of a new philosophy that will change the image of our cities and the concept of living.”

More information on GE.DI Group is available at the following link:

Concept of a Dynamic Skyscraper

Dynamic skyscraper conceptShape-changing rotating skyscraper. Source:

Three unique features of the dynamic skyscraper are:

1. Building exterior shape changes continuously: Each floor can rotate slowly thru 360 degrees independently of the other floors, with control over speed and direction of rotation. Coordination of the rotating floors to produce the artistic building shapes shown above may not be implemented in some applications. Nonetheless, the building’s exterior shape now has a fourth dimension: Time. The artistic possibilities of the dynamic skyscraper are shown (in time lapse) in the following 2011 video.

2. Prefabricated construction, except for the reinforced concrete core: After the reinforced concrete core has been completed and building services have been installed inside the core, factory manufactured prefabricated units will be transported to the construction site completely finished and will be hung from the central core. Connecting each rotating floor to electrical and water services in the stationary core will be an interesting engineering challenge. The extensive use of prefabricated construction (about 85% of total construction) greatly reduces site labor requirements, construction environmental impacts, and overall construction time. Read more on plans for prefabrication at the following link:

Building plan - dynamic skyscraper

Assembly plan for a dynamic skyscraper. Source: Source:

Modular unit installationPrefabricated modules being lifted into place. Source: Source:

3. Generates its own electric power: Horizontal wind turbine generators installed in the approximately two-foot gap between the rotating floors will be the building’s primary source of power. Roof-mounted solar panels on each floor also will be employed. Surplus power will be delivered to the grid, delivering enough power to supply about five similarly sized buildings in the vicinity. Read more on the energy generating and energy saving features of the dynamic skyscraper at the following link:

Wind turbine installationWind turbine installation.  Source: Source:

The first dynamic skyscraper may be built in Dubai

In a 14 February 2017 article entitled, “Dubai Will Have the World’s First Rotating Skyscraper by 2020,” Madison Margolin reported on the prospects for an 80-story mixed-use (office, hotel, residential) rotating skyscraper in Dubai. You can read the complete article on the Motherboard website at the following link:

Da Vinci rotating-tower DubaiSource:

Each floor of the 420 meter (1,378 ft.) Da Vinci Tower will consist of 40 factory-built modules hung from the load-bearing 22-meter (72.2 ft.) diameter reinforced concrete core. Each module will be cantilevered up to 15 meters (49.2 ft.) from the core.

Cantilevered floorsCantilevered rotating floors. Source:

The lower retail / office floors of the Da Vinci Tower will not rotate. The upper hotel and residential floors will rotate and each will require about 4 kW of power to rotate. Each residential floor can be configured into several individual apartments or a single “villa.” You’ll find a concept for a “luxury penthouse villa” at the following link:

You’ll find more details on the Da Vinci Tower in a slideshow at the following link:

If it is built, the Da Vinci Tower will be the world’s first dynamic skyscraper. It also will be David Fisher’s first skyscraper.

Post-World War II Prefabricated Aluminum and Steel Houses and Their Relevance Today

Peter Lobner

With the decline of military aircraft production after World War II (WWII), the U.S. aircraft industry sought other opportunities for employing their aluminum, steel and plastics fabrication experience in the post-war economy. In the 2 September 1946 issue of Aviation News magazine, there was an article entitled “Aircraft Industry Will Make Aluminum Houses for Veterans,” that reported the following:

“Two and a half dozen aircraft manufacturers are expected soon to participate in the government’s prefabricated housing program.”

“Aircraft companies will concentrate on FHA approved designs in aluminum and its combination with plywood and insulation, while other companies will build prefabs in steel and other materials. Designs will be furnished to the manufacturers.”

“Nearly all war-surplus aluminum sheet has been used up for roofing and siding in urgent building projects; practically none remains for the prefab program. Civilian Production Administration has received from FHA specification for aluminum sheet and other materials to be manufactured. ….Most aluminum sheet for prefabs will be 12 to 20 gauge – .019 – .051 inch.”

Under the government program, the prefab home manufacturers were protected financially with FHA guarantees to cover 90% of costs, including a promise by Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to purchase any homes not sold. In addition, these manufacturers were to be given preferred access to surplus wartime factories that could be converted for mass-production of homes.

The business case for the post-war aluminum and steel pre-fabricated homes was that they could be sold profitably at a price that was substantially less than conventional wood-constructed homes.

Not surprisingly, building contractors were against this program to mass-produce pre-fabricated homes in factories. Moreover, local building codes and zoning ordnances were not necessarily compatible with the planned large scale deployment of mass-produced, prefabricated homes.

Now consider the most common housing problem of today, which seems to me to be a shortage of available low-cost housing. In recent years, this has sparked the “tiny home movement,” which is a social and architectural movement promoting living simply in small homes. Seventy years after the end of WW II, it may be time to reconsider the use of mass-produced, prefabricated aluminum and steel homes to address the current shortage of low-cost housing.

Let’s take a look at several of these efficient, and sometimes stylish post-war prefabricated homes:

  • Beech Aircraft’s aluminum Dymaxion house
  • Consolidated Vultee’s aluminum Fleet house
  • Lustron’s steel houses
  • Lincoln Houses Corporation’s aluminum houses
  • Alcoa’s mid-century modern aluminum Care-free houses
  • UK’s AIROH aluminum houses
  • UK’s Arcon steel-framed houses
  • French architect Jean Prouvé’s “Demountable house”

Beech Aircraft Corporation planned to mass-produce R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house

In 1927, R. Buckminster Fuller developed plans for the Dymaxion (acronym for “dynamic, maximum, tension”) house, which was intended to be a mass-produced metal house of novel circular design.

Early interest in applying aircraft aluminum manufacturing techniques to post WWII housing construction was expressed by Beech Aircraft Corp. In 1944, Beech established a joint project with Dymaxion Dwelling Machines, Inc. (later renamed Fuller Houses, Inc.) to manufacture a prototype, updated Dymaxion house in Wichita, Kansas. The strong aluminum riveted structure and skin was built from WWII surplus material, with the aluminum-domed roof hung from a stainless steel strut; providing 1,017 ft2 of floor space. The aluminum, stainless steel and plastic house weighted about 8,000 pounds and was designed to withstand severe weather, including tornados.

Dymaxion HouseSource: Aviation News magazineDymaxion Wichita houseSource: TournaTalk, tournatalk.wordpress.comDymaxion floorplanDymaxion house floor plan. Source: Pinterest

The 1 April 1946 issue of Aviation News magazine reported:

“Beech Aircraft Corp. expected to build 200 of these houses a day soon after the start of 1947, according to Herman Wolf, president of Fuller Homes, Inc., which will market the dwelling designed by R. Buckminster Fuller……..The houses will be subcontracted to construction firms which will combine aircraft technology and auto mass production methods. Wolf and Fuller see the new dwellings, which will sell for $6,500 erected, as the answer to the veterans housing problem. City building codes are the big imponderable in forecasting the success of this dwelling.”

Only two Dymaxion houses were built. One is now in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

You can read more about the Dymaxion house at the following links:


Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation built the Fleet House

The California aircraft manufacturer Consolidated Vultee (later Convair) considered mass-producing a pre-fabricated homes for the post-WWII housing market. Collaboration with industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss and architect Edward Larrabee in 1947 led to the design of a small two-bedroom home. With kitchen appliances, kitchen and bathroom fixtures, and heating, the house was expected to sell for $7,000 – $8,000, including the cost of the lot.

Fleet house in factoryThe Fleet House in the factory. Source: www.thefleethouse.comFleet house exterior viewThe Fleet House exterior view. Source:

Only two prototypes were manufactured in 1947.

An article by Jeffrey Head entitled “Snatched from Oblivion,” on the Metropolis website reported:

“Comprising 28 parts, the two-bedroom, one-bath structure appears larger than its 810 square feet because 75 percent of the exterior walls are windows. The remaining interior, roof, and garage walls are constructed of “lumicomb,” a lightweight material made of a cardboard-like honeycomb core bonded between sheets of high-strength aluminum, used at the time for airplane bulkheads. The lumicomb adds to the open feeling of the house by requiring less floor space than traditional wall and roof construction.”

“Because the resulting design was so unorthodox, Reginald Fleet, president of Southern California Homes Incorporated, opted for a novel way of marketing it. Fleet resided in the prototype with his wife and daughter, leaving it open for prospective buyers to see what life was like in a modern prefabricated home.”

“New owner Sergio Santino was about to close escrow and planned to raze the house until the South Pasadena Cultural Heritage Commission informed him of its significance.”

You can read Jeffrey Head’s complete article at the following link:

Much more information is available at the Fleet House website at the following link:

Here it is noted:

“Historically known as the “Consolidated Vultee House”, and commonly referred to as “the Fleet House”, today it may be the only structure still remaining that was designed, built and pre-assembled entirely in an aircraft factory.”

“The Fleet House is featured in Taschen’s PREFAB HOUSES 2010.  It is referenced in numerous publications documenting the history of pre-fab housing and has been photographed by noted post WWII architectural photographer Julius Shulman.”

Fleet House today The Fleet House today. Source:

Lustron Corporation offered low-maintenance steel homes

The Lustron Corporation, formed in 1947 by Carl Strandlund, received financing from RFC to mass-produce steel pre-fabricated houses in a former Curtiss-Wright aircraft factory in Columbus, OH.

Lustron homes came in 2- and 3-bedroom models ranging in size from 713 ft2 to 1,140 ft2. All homes came standard with enamel-coated steel exterior panels, enamel-coated steel shingle roof, metal ceiling tiles and metal-paneled interior walls, metal cabinets, closets with pocket doors, and service and storage areas.

Below is a 1949 photo of the prefabricated components of a Lustron house.

Lustron components laid outSource: Pinterest

Lustron Esquire floor plan

Floor plan of a 2-bedroom Lustron “Esquire” model. Source:

Lustron finished house         A finished Lustron house. Source: Pinterest

Original plans were to manufacture more than 10,000 homes per year. Actual production was much less, with a total of 2,498 Lustron homes manufactured between 1948 and 1950. House prices were in the $8,500 – $9,500 range, increasing to an average of about $10,500 by the end of 1949. This was approaching the price of a comparable, conventional, wood-constructed house.

The Lustron Corporation declared bankruptcy in 1950. The business failed because of several factors, including production delays, poor distribution strategy, and escalating prices that reduced the price advantage of a pre-fabricated house.

About 2,000 Lustron homes still exist today. You can read more on Lustron houses at the following link:

Lincoln Houses Corp. offered 2- and 3-bedroom aluminum homes

During WWII, Lincoln Industries developed processes for making structural material at low cost for radar housings. This process led to the design of 4’ x 8’ structural panels for buildings that were manufactured using the following process:

“Lincoln plastic panels are made by alternating sheets of heavy paper, cloth, or glass cloth with glue strips. When the desired thickness is obtained, the sheets are expanded on an automatic machine to form a honeycomb pattern. This honeycomb core is thoroughly impregnated with high-strength phenolic resin and then bonded between facing sheets of aluminum alloy, and the entire panel sealed with a vapor barrier.”

This material provides both great strength and high insulating properties. The bearing capacity of a two-inch thick wall panel compared favorably with the load carrying capacity of a brick wall one foot thick. The three-inch thick roof panels were designed to withstand an eight-foot snow load.

The basic house contained two bedrooms, a bath, living room, kitchen, dining room and general utility room. Under the Veteran’s Emergency Housing Program, the Lincoln pilot plant in Marion, Virginia manufactured and sold 2-bedroom homes for about $3,500 – $4,000 and a 3-bedroom home for about $4,500, including, “wiring, water piping and heating,” constructed on a concrete or similar slab. These prices did not include the price of the land or the price of kitchen appliances and a hot water heater. Construction took about two days.

Lincoln pre-fab aluminum homeSource: Aviation News magazine

The house was designed for severe weather and the materials of construction provided protection against dry rot, internal condensation and termites.

By 1946, numerous Lincoln aluminum homes had been built and were in use. However, it appears that Lincoln never made the transition to large scale production in former airplane factories.

Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) offered mid-century modern aluminum Care-Free Homes

After WWII, aluminum manufacturers were faced with large stocks of aluminum ore and decreasing orders. Like the aircraft manufacturers, Alcoa sough alternate markets for their finished aluminum products.

A decade after the end of WWII, Alcoa offered the Care-Free Home, which was a mid-century modern aluminum ranch house designed by Charles M. Goodman. Originally, Alcoa planned to build one Care-Free home in each of the 48 states to showcase the versatility of aluminum in home construction. A total of 24 Care-Free homes were built. The house has a 1,900 ft2 living area, a full basement, and a 2-car carport.

The framing is aluminum and wooden columns are clad in aluminum. The exterior is aluminum siding with big, aluminum-framed windows and sliding doors, and an aluminum front door. The roof and fascia strip also are aluminum. The originally expected price was about $25,000, but actual cost was almost double. In the mid-1950s, the Care-Free house couldn’t compete with the lower cost of conventional wood construction.

Alcoa Care FreeSource: Alcoa 1957 brochure

Alcoa Care Free floor planSource: Alcoa 1957 brochure

You can download a 1957 Alcoa sales brochure on the aluminum Care-Free Home at the following link:

Post-war prefabricated aluminum and steel homes in the UK

In 1944, the UK Ministry of Works held a public display at the Tate Gallery in London of five types of prefabricated homes.

  • One aluminum prefab, made from surplus aircraft materials, the AIROH (Aircraft Industries Research Organization on Housing)
  • One steel-framed prefab with asbestos panels, the Arcon, which was adapted from the all-steel Portal prototype
  • Two timber-framed prefab designs, the Tarran and the Uni-Seco

This popular display was held again in 1945.

In comparison to the very small number of post-war aluminum and steel prefabricated homes built in the U.S., the production in the UK was very successful.

The AIROH aluminum house

An pre-fab package for an AIROH house consisted of 2,000 components that were assembled in four sections and delivered to the intended site by truck. The fully equipped bungalow weighed about 10 tons and provided 675 ft2 of living space, including a fully equipped kitchen and bath. In 1947 an AIROH home cost £1,610 ($6,488 @ $4.03 USD/£ in 1947) each to produce, plus cost of the land and installation. A total of 54,500 AIROH homes were constructed.

AIROH home module on truck           Source: Architects’ Journal, vol. 101, 1945 Apr. 19, p. 452

airoh_poster           Source:


More information on the AIROH aluminum prefabricated house can be found at the following link:

The Arcon steel-framed house

The steel-framed Arcon prefabricated home had two bedrooms, fully equipped kitchen and bath and included steel built-in cabinets in the kitchen, bath and bedrooms. Exterior walls and roofing were made of corrugated asbestos panels. The house was manufactured in four 7ft-6in wide sections to enable road transportation to a pre-prepared site where the house was assembled. An Arcon house cost £1,209 ($4,872 U.S. @ $4.03 USD/£ in 1947) each to produce, plus cost of the land and installation. A total of 38,859 Arcon homes were constructed.

Arcon Mk VArcon Mk V at Avondale Museum of Historic Buildings, UK. Source:

Arcon Mk V floorplanArcon Mk V bungalow floor plan. Source:

More information on the Arcon steel-framed prefab house is available at the following link:

More information on the broader UK efforts to address their post-war housing shortage with mass-produced prefabricated homes of all types is available at the following link:

Post-war prefabricated metal frame homes in France

A notable French design was Jean Prouvé’s “Demountable House,” which was developed in 1946 under a commission from the Ministry of Reconstruction and Town Planning for use as temporary bungalows for post-war housing for Lorraine, France. The metal frame load-bearing structure of the Demountable House is shown in the first photo below. Panels of various types are then attached to the frame to complete the exterior of the house and any internal room partitions.

Jean Prouve frame

Jean Prouve partial skinFrame for an 8 x 8 Demountable house. Source:é

To demonstrate the ease with which Prouvé’s pre-fabricated house can be assembled on site, one model was built and then taken apart every day during Art Basel Miami 2013.

You’ll find more information on Prouvé’s pre-fabricated houses and other buildings at the following links:


In conclusion

In the U.S., the post-war mass production of prefabricated aluminum and steel houses never materialized. Lustron was the largest manufacturer with 2,498 houses. In the UK, over 93,000 prefabricated aluminum and steel houses were built as part of the post-war building boom that delivered a total of 156,623 prefabricated houses of all types between 1945 and 1951, when the program ended.

The lack of success in the U.S. arose from several factors, including:

  • High up-front cost to establish a mass-production line for prefabricated housing, even in a big, surplus wartime factory that was available to the manufacturer on good financial terms.
  • Immature supply chain to support factory operations.
  • Ineffective distribution and delivery infrastructure.
  • Unprepared local building codes and zoning ordnances.
  • Opposition from construction workers and unions that did not want to lose work to factory-produced homes.
  • Manufacturing cost increases, which reduced or eliminated the price advantage of the prefabricated homes.

From these post-war lessons learned, and with the renewed interest in “tiny homes”, it seems that there should be a business case for a modern, scalable, smart factory for the low-cost mass-production of durable prefabricated houses manufactured from aluminum, steel, and/or other materials. These prefabricated houses should be modestly-sized, modern, attractive, and customizable to a degree while respecting a basic standard design. These houses should be designed for siting on small lots in urban or suburban areas and for rapid construction.

The UK post-WWII prefab housing boom lasted seven years and delivered low-cost housing for about a half million people. I believe that there is a large market in the U.S. for this type of low-price housing, but great obstacles must be overcome, especially in California, where nobody will want a modest prefabricated home sited next to their McMansion.

Tall and Skinny in New York City and Miami

Peter Lobner

An architectural trend in New York City (NYC) is the construction of very tall, very slender residential / multi-use towers on small building sites in the heart of the city. This trend is driven by the very high cost and limited availability of large building sites. This trend is enabled by zoning laws and the following technical factors:

  • Materials: Use of higher-strength steel, concrete and composite structures permits lighter / stronger structures than commonly found in earlier generation skyscrapers.
  • Advanced design analysis and simulation: Advances in structural modeling, computing power, and simulation permit a more detailed engineering analysis of the building’s response to static and dynamic loads and optimization of the design for the specified conditions.
  • Aerodynamic shaping: Incorporation of shapes and design details that break up the wind flow around a building help reduce wind loads that can cause swaying and vortex shedding that can shake / vibrate a building.
  • Damping devices: Devices such as mass dampers (moving weights) and slosh dampers (large tanks of water) are employed to counteract the building’s natural response to external forces. For example, mass dampers installed on an upper floor can be tuned to move out of phase with wind-induced forces and thereby reduce sway. Slosh dampers can help absorb vibrations. Both can help make the building more comfortable for its occupants, particularly on the upper floors.

New York City’s Skyscraper Museum defines “slenderness” as the ratio of the width of a building’s base to its height.

  • The 1,250 ft. (381 meters) tall Empire State Building (not including antenna) occupies a full city block site measuring 424 x 187 ft. (129.2 x 57 meters), for a slenderness ratio of 1:2.95.
  • The original World Trade Center (WTC) north tower (not including antenna) was 1,368 ft. (417 meters) tall and measured 209 ft. (63.7 meters) on a side, yielding a slenderness ratio of 1:6.5.
  • New “super-slender” towers in NYC have slenderness ratios up to 1:23. At this slenderness ratio, a 12-inch ruler standing on end would be slightly more than 1/2 inch wide.

Visit the Skyscraper Museum’s website at the following link for look at the top 18 “super-slenders” in NYC and a description of the local zoning laws that allow their development.

The top three NYC “super-slenders” are discussed below. Also discussed below is a notable “super-slender” building being developed in Miami.

Rafael Vainly & SLCE Architects: Residential tower, 432 Park Avenue, New York City

This 96-floor residential tower in mid-town Manhattan was built between 2012 and 2015, and, at a height of 1,396 ft. (426 meters), is one of the tallest buildings in New York City and currently is the tallest residential tower in the Western hemisphere. The highest occupied floor is almost a quarter mile up, at 1,287 ft. (392 meters).

432 Park Ave NYCImage source:

This square building measures 93 ft. (28 meters) on a side (one foot less than the length of a basketball court), giving it a slenderness ratio of 1:15.

You can explore this skyscraper at the following website:

This site includes the following diagram, which compares (L to R) the new One WTC, the 432 Park Ave tower, one of the original WTC towers, and the Empire State Building.  Note how slender the 432 Park Ave tower is relative to the conventional skyscrapers.

Tall builsing comparisonIn case you’re interested, you can find apartment listings for sale or rent at the following website:

On the date I wrote this article, the least expensive apartment (6 rooms, 3 bedrooms, 4-1/2 baths) was selling for $17.5M on the lowly 36th floor. A penthouse on the 88th floor was under contract for $76.5M.

SHoP Architects: Residential tower, 111 West 57th Street, New York City

This building is under construction and will be an 80-floor, 1,438 ft. (438 meter) tall, residential tower when it is completed in 2018. With a slenderness ratio of 1:23, this will be the most slender skyscraper in the world. The square cross-section of the building steps back at about 2/3 height to give the top of the building a chisel-like profile.

SHoP Architects describes this project as:

“The design aims to bring back the quality, materiality and proportions of historic NYC towers, while taking advantage of the latest technology to push the limits of engineering and fabrication.”

To improve stability in high winds and seismic events, the building includes an 800-ton tuned mass damper.

You can explore this cutting-edge skyscraper at the following link:

111 W 57 St NYCImage source: SHoP Architects

Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture: Central Park Tower, 225 West 57th Street, New York City

This is a mixed-use, irregularly shaped 99-floor skyscraper that will be 1,550 ft. (472 m) tall when it is completed in 2019. The highest occupied floor will be more than a quarter mile high, at 1,450 ft. (442 meters).

The developers purchased “air rights” from a neighboring property owner to permit part of the Central Park Tower to be cantilevered over the neighboring property, as shown in the following figures.

Central Park Tower 1          Central Park Tower 2Image source: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

The deck at the top of the building will be 182 ft. (55.5 meters) taller than the new One World Trade Center, which is still considered to be taller because of its antenna structure on the roof. This height comparison can be seen in the following diagram, which also highlights how slender the Central Park Tower is in comparison to One WTC.

Central Park Tower 3

Image source: adapted from New York YIMBY

SHoP Architects: Miami Innovation Tower, 1031 NW First Ave, Miami

The trend toward tall, slender towers is not limited to NYC. Another stunning tall, slender mixed-use skyscraper is SHoP’s twisting 633 ft. (193 meters) Miami Innovation Tower planned for Miami’s Park West neighborhood. This skyscraper will be built as part of a four block “Miami Innovation District,” which is intended to attract high-tech businesses to the mixed-use neighborhood.

Miami Innovation Tower

Image source: SHoP Architects

The tower incorporates a fully integrated “active skin” that provides lighting and a messaging capability on the surface of the building. The Miami Herald reported:

“Unlike traditional billboard signage, the mesh-like messaging technologies are in fact integrated completely into the complex, pleated form of the tower’s exterior. The result is an ethereal, highly-transparent surface, open to the slender concrete tower core and views of the city and the sky beyond.”

You will find more information on the Miami Innovation Tower, and its integration in the Innovation District at the following link:

Other skyscrapers around the world

If you want to know more about other skyscrapers around the world, I refer you to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Their home page is at the following link:

From here, you can navigate to their Tall Buildings Information & Resources, including The Skyscraper Center, which contains the Global Tall Building Database. The direct link to the Skyscraper Center is:

Have fun exploring!

World Federation of Great Towers

Peter Lobner

The tower is one of mankind’s oldest architectural accomplishments. The World Federation of Great Towers is an international association with 48 members in over 20 countries that exists to showcase the world’s great modern towers and celebrate the feats of architecture and engineering that led to their creation. You can examine many of the tallest buildings in the world at the following link:

The following members of the World Federation of Great Towers were completed in the last decade include:

  • Oct 2005 – Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth, NH, 170 m (558 ft) tall
  • Apr 2006 – Goryokaku Tower, Hokkaido, Japan, 107 m (351 ft) tall
  • Oct 2006 – Eureka Skydeck 88, Melbourne, Australia, 300 m (984 ft) tall (see photo below)
  • Oct 2007 – The Hague Tower, The Hague, Netherlands, 132 m (433 ft) tall
  • Jan 2010 – Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE, 828 m (2,716.5 ft) tall
  • Sep 2010 – Canton Tower, Guangzhou, China, 600 m (1,968 ft) tall
  • April 2011 – Henan Tower (Tower of Fortune), Zhengzhou, China, 388 m (1,273 ft) tall
  • May 2012 – The Shard, London, UK, 310 m (1,016 ft) tall

image Eureka Skydeck 88   Source: Melbourne Library

The World Federation of Great Towers membership does not include all of the very tall buildings in the world, such as the new One World Trade Center in New York City. You can find a listing of all of the world’s buildings that have a height exceeding 300 meters (984 feet) at the following link:

Sorting this list by date highlights the great number (72) of very tall buildings that have been completed in the past decade:

  • 2005:  2
  • 2006:  0
  • 2007:  5
  • 2008:  2
  • 2009:  5
  • 2010: 13
  • 2011: 8
  • 2012: 14
  • 2013:  7
  • 2014:  9
  • 2015:  7

There definitely is a building boom for giant skyscrapers.

22 May 2016 Update: Global Tall Building Database

Another source of information on skyscrapers is the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Their home page is at the following link:

From here, you can navigate to their Tall Buildings Information & Resources, including The Skyscraper Center, which contains the Global Tall Building Database. The direct link to the Skyscraper Center is:

5 January 2019 Update:  Top 30 tallest buildings dynamic info-graphic

Ian Fisher (WawamuStats) created the following dynamic Info-graphic that compares the world’s top 30 tallest buildings ever built. Most of these buildings are located in China, UAE, or the United States.  The oldest of these buildings was completed in 1974 and the newest in 2018.  The Empire State Building is not among the top 30. Here’s the link to the dynamic Info-graphic: