Today's metropolitan style of architecture is called a curtain wall:

An outer covering of a building in which the outer walls are non-structural, but merely keep the weather out and the occupants in. As the curtain wall is non-structural it can be made of a lightweight material, reducing construction costs. When glass is used as the curtain wall, a great advantage is that natural light can penetrate deeper within the building...does not carry any dead load weight from the building other than its own dead load weight. The wall transfers horizontal wind loads that are incident upon it to the main building structure through connections at floors or columns of the building. A curtain wall is designed to resist air and water infiltration, sway induced by wind and seismic forces acting on the building, and its own dead load weight forces.

A great advantage, no doubt, but could this be possible in the Golden Age of skyscraper-building, from the 1880s to the 1930s? If yes, then how would the historical landscape be different?

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Great Question! Wish I had the architectural and engineering knowledge to answer the "could" part. Might try my hand at the "difference" part, once someone else handles the "could". $\endgroup$ Jan 10, 2016 at 18:52

2 Answers 2


Since the earliest examples of large curtain wall buildings existed as far back as the mid 1800's, you would have to understand why the practice was not widely adopted until much later.

The primary reason is the cost of the glass facade. Glass is brittle and relatively expensive (especially in the 1800's), and the size of the glass panes is limited. The curtain wall might actually resemble a tightly planted forest grove with columns placed close together between narrow glass planes. People also know glass is fragile, so will be concerned with the consequences of breakage, the cost of replacement and perhaps issues of comfort (the building will become quite hot in the sunlight, but could become very cold in the winter without modern HVAC systems).

People were also uncomfortable with the idea of anyone looking inside their building, and being able to see what you are doing or your goods laid out. Ideas of privacy only began to break down in the 1960's in our time line, and really seem to have collapsed only with the rise of social media. Even so, people still draw the curtains or close the blinds of their houses.

So the historical changes would be tied to advances in technology to make glass planes larger and stronger, to advance HVAC technology in order to make glass curtain wall buildings comfortable to live in and to change social mores to allow people to feel comfortable living and working "out in the open".


Avoiding the issue of glass as the facade material, the development of architectural endo-skeletons might have great aesthetic allure for turn-of-the-century builders. Given the availability and economic feasibility of master craftsman level artists, especially in the medium of wood; some truly beautiful building skins would have been created.

The significance of this change in technology, from a historical point of view, is that much less of the beautiful architecture of the past would have survived into the present age. There would be pictures of beautiful buildings with elaborately carved wooden curtain walls, but all that would remain today, would be their hardened, inner shells.


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