Steel is what built America. Without it, there would be no towering skylines unique to each large city. Steel is the only construction material, strong yet lightweight, that makes multi-story buildings feasible. (Well, that and the invention of the elevator.)
However, famous American steel buildings are not all skyscrapers. Because steel is a versatile metal as well as strong, it can be used to create flights of fancy as well.
Let's take a closer look at five of America's most famous steel buildings.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney was truly an imagineer and his way of seeing the world of the future is encapsulated in the design of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California. Built in 1987, this soaring masterpiece of architecture is nearly 100% steel.
Designed by Frank Gehry, the first view of the exterior of the concert hall is a curving stainless steel skin. Shaped like billowing sails, the exterior is matched to the interior auditorium. The shape links it to the cornice of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next door.
The lobby is filled with light and opens onto the sidewalk, creating a welcoming environment for all who enter. Inside, the auditorium is lined with Douglas fir. It seats 2,265 in a steeply raked semicircle surrounding the stage, bringing the orchestra into the midst of the audience for a unique musical experience. There are no balconies or boxes; all seating is egalitarian.
A public garden is just past the billowing sails. At the center is “A Rose for Lilly,” a rose fountain dedicated to Lillian Disney, the initial donor for the concert hall.
The Manhattan skyline contains a number of famous buildings, one of which is the Seagram Building. Built in 1958, it contains numerous businesses and a restaurant.
The design is minimalist, created by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It was his goal to create a building that embodied functionality and simplicity. Van der Rohe had served as a director of the Bauhaus, a school teaching early modernist architectural design and reflected in the avant-garde design for the Seagram Building that has been copied endlessly.
The frame is a combination of a steel skeleton of symmetrical steel girders and a concrete core to maintain vertical and horizontal strength. Lacking the heavy ornamental facades of architecture from earlier in the century, the Seagram Building was the first in a long line of skyscrapers that mirrored its simple lines.
In front of the building is an empty space, and the building is set back from Park Avenue, unlike its neighbors. Now plazas are popular to the point of being overdone, but van der Rohe did it first.
This type of building seems common now, but for its time it was a radical masterpiece.
Willis (Sears) Tower
The Sears Tower opened in 1973 in a city known for its wind. To stabilize the structure, the frame is designed as several smaller structures held together with steel beams and supports.
In its simplest form, the building is created using nine steel tubes and based on steel columns supporting the tower. At the top, viewing boxes and huge windows allow spectators to look in all directions as though Chicago was spread out at their feet. In the center of it all is a pendulum so visitors can actually see the amount of sway the building experiences as the winds blow off the Great Lakes nearby.
The Robert Bruno Steel House
As far as flights of fancy go, the Steel House in Ransom Canyon east of Lubbock, Texas, the brainchild of steel sculptor Robert Bruno, is in a class by itself. It is a dome-shaped building built with 110 tons of steel. Of all the famous steel buildings in the nation, this one is unique.
The design is highly organic with many curves and slants. From a distance, it looks like a yacht sailing across the west Texas landscape. Standing on four “legs” and appearing to reach out to touch a nearby rock outcropping, the Steel House it looks like “…the kind of house a James Bond villain might occupy,” according to architecture writer Mark Lamster of the Dallas Morning News.
The house has been empty since 2008 when Bruno died of cancer. The building remains incomplete to this day, but while he lived, Bruno continued to build and modify the house almost by himself. He would remove portions he no longer liked and modify the house until the day he left this Earth.
It stands now with unfinished floors, huge voids between its many levels and hollow legs where a library and an aquarium were to be installed.
Empire State Building
No list of notable American steel buildings is complete without the addition of the Empire State Building. Famous not only for its size at the time it was built, but there are also few people who have not seen it as the building where King Kong staged his final stand.
It's hard to believe now, but after its completion in 1931, it was the world's tallest building for over 40 years. It was completed in an astonishingly quick 13 months, and the design was allegedly based on a pencil standing up on its eraser.
Only steel was up to the task of forming the Art Deco exterior without adding excessive weight. It stands at 1,454 feet and contains 103 stories, a true "skyscraper" of its day. The steel frame weighs 57,000 tons, and the building has a total weight of 365,000 tons. It was equipped with power units to provide ready electricity to the businesses housed within its iconic exterior.
New steel buildings are erected every year, and some of the old classics are torn down to make more. But every so often, a new design or fresh take on an architectural style creates a building for the times that will live far into the future.
Maybe there is one being built today that will make a future list of famous buildings. Technology continues to provide the ability to fabricate and assemble steel buildings, but the dreams and ideas come from people who understand the beauty and freedom of design steel provides.