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11 / The Urban Experience

Chrysler Building
Chrysler Building
Artist / Origin William van Alen (American, 1882/3–1954)
Region: North America
Date 1928–1930
Material Steel frame, brick, concrete, masonry, and metal cladding
Dimensions H: 1,046 ft. (318.8 m.)
Location 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, New York, NY
Credit © Alan Schein Photography/CORBIS

expert perspective

David B. BrownleeProfessor of Art History, University of Pennsylvania

Additional Resources

Douglas, George H. Skyscrapers: A Social History of the Very Tall Building in America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.

Meikle, Jeffrey, L. Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925–1939. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Moudry, Roberta. The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

The Skyscraper Museum Web site. http://www.skyscraper.org/home.htm.

Stravitz, David, and Christopher Gray. The Chrysler Building: A Creating a New York Icon, Day by Day. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Chrysler Building

» William van Alen (American, 1882/3–1954)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, some American cities began looking to skyscrapers as a way to accommodate their expanding populations.

Advancements in building materials and techniques made taller and taller buildings possible. Furthermore, safe and reliable elevators and other facilities made occupying these tall buildings feasible. As in all New York City skyscrapers built after 1916, the Chrysler Building includes a series of “setbacks,” or places where the tower narrows as the building rises. As more and more skyscrapers rose alongside each other, the setbacks gave them aesthetic variety and also prevented the tall structures from completely blocking the sun. This allowed the city to expand upward without destroying the quality of life on the ground.

A dazzling showpiece in midtown Manhattan, the Chrysler Building was the tallest structure in the world when it opened in 1930. The skyscraper, designed by architect William van Alen, was self-consciously modern, and even somewhat futuristic by the standards of the day. It was as much a commercial for the Chrysler brand as a place to house the company’s offices. The ornamentation at each setback along the exterior makes reference to either particular emblems of the company or automobiles more generally. For example, a decorative brick frieze at the thirtieth floor sports a wheel and fender motif, while a series of chromed steel, eagle-head gargoyles at the sixtieth floor are associated with a specific make of car. One of the most distinctive and recognizable buildings in the New York skyline, the Chrysler Building is a monument of Art Deco, machine aesthetic architecture.

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