Just as architects pushed the limits of the arch, they have done so with every available material and method. It’s in pushing limits that man finds new ways of building. The tallest commercial load-bearing masonry building in the world is the Monadnock in Chicago designed by Burnham and Root and completed in 1891. The building has 16 stories plus an attic. Its masonry envelope supports an iron-framed interior and is a massive six feet thick at the base.
Burnham and Root also designed the Reliance Building in Chicago, completed in 1895. It’s the first building of its kind to hang a thin skin (made of terra cotta and glass) from its framework of steel. This mode of construction is called “curtain wall.” Since then, architects have found lots of ways to take advantage of this groundbreaking construction method. Based on how much architecture has changed since then, one could argue that the Reliance Building was one of the most influential pieces of architecture in the nineteenth century.
But architects have always been inventive. Medieval designers employed a structural strategy to get more light into the sanctuary. They created flying buttress. Hundreds of years later Fay Jones designed a skeletal system of his own that accomplished the same and more. Oscar Niemeyer used huge sections of unlikely concrete as skeletal framework for a Cathedral. Buckminster Fuller popularized geodesic domes. SOM used bundled tubes to climb toward the sky. And Frank Gehry invented structural systems only computers could facilitate. Even Frank Lloyd Wright pushed the limits with his Fallingwater. However, it was also Wright, who insisted that a minimal amount of reinforcing be used in the cantilevered structural system which in turn almost collapsed. It just goes to prove architects push limits but not everyone gets it Wright.