Empire State Building Architecture Style

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Empire State Building is one of the most recognizable structures in the world, but where does it fit in terms of architectural styles? In this lesson, we'll explore the design of this iconic building and see how its design has defined it for the world.

The Empire State Building

There are a few things that everybody knows about New York City, even if you've never been there. 1) It's where that old-time photo of construction workers on a steel beam was taken. 2) It's where the New Year's Eve ball drops. 3) It's got the Empire State Building. The Empire State Building is one of the most iconic structures in the world. Completed in 1931 and containing 102 floors, it defined the modern concept of the skyscraper. Plus, its name is pretty appropriate. Not just because that's the nickname of New York, but because the Empire State Building has influenced architecture in nearly every corner of the globe. That's an empire.

The Empire State Building

Art Deco

The Empire State Building is famous for its iconic design, but where exactly does this design fall within the history of architecture? At its most basic, the Empire State Building was completed in the style called Art Deco, which was influential between roughly 1920 and 1939. Art Deco was a modernist style, meaning it focused on traits unique to the 20th century over stylistic traditions of the past. It plays with modern materials, such as steel and plate glass, and incorporates elements of architectural traditions from around the world into an original style. Perhaps the most striking aspect of art deco, however, is its flair. The Art Deco style is defined by a high level of ornamentation, generally in bright, metallic colors, that features sunbursts, zigzags, and other dramatic shapes which often have a graphic, flattened appearance.

Art Moderne

So, the Empire State Building is Art Deco, but this category is actually fairly broad. If we want to be more specific, then we can say that the Empire State Building belongs to a style of late Art Deco called Art Moderne, or Streamline Moderne. Art Moderne was a take on Art Deco that was less about the ornamentation and more about the building as a symbol of progress. Structures in Art Modern tend to have simpler exteriors so that the eye can focus purely on the streamlined shape of the building, suggesting the speed of industrial progress. Architectural designs also rely heavily on vertical elements that emphasize height, creating the impression that this modern building is racing towards the sky.

Elements of the Empire State Building

So, where do we actually see these stylistic elements in the Empire State Building? Let's start with the materials. The Empire State Building was constructed using a frame of steel, a very modern material. However, that frame is not explicitly visible, as in the Eiffel Tower. Instead, its presence is implied partly by the height of the building, and also by the materials of the façade. The exterior is covered in limestone and granite, accented with aluminum for extra luster. This combination of materials was very common in Art Deco, and promoted an aesthetic that was industrial and modern, yet refined.

The exterior materials of the Empire State Building are pretty easy to notice because, as you can probably tell, there isn't a whole lot of extra ornamentation. The focus is on the structure itself. That's very Art Moderne, but the Empire State Building did contribute to the greater Art Deco movement, most notably inside its lobby which features some of the most characteristic Art Deco designs in the city, including a flattened depiction of the building with geometric sunbursts radiating from the spire. The building, in this depiction, is literally a beacon of modernity.

Art deco design in the building lobby

Of course, we can't ignore what may be the most important element of this design, and that is its height. At its tip, the Empire State Building is 1,454 feet tall, holds over 2 million square feet of office space, and covers two acres of land. It was the most ambitious use of steel-frame architecture at the time, a modern demonstration of the power of industrial technology. It was also, of course, the tallest building in the world in 1931, a title it would hold until 1970.

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