Book Review: Higher

Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City by Neal Bascomb, published by Doubleday, 2003. Hardcover, 352 pages. (Amazon)

Higher tells the story of the architects, clients, financiers and contractors involved in the construction of the Manhattan Company Building, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, as each building tried to be the world's tallest. The majority of the book focuses on the architects of the former two, respectively Craig Severance and William Van Alen. Once partners in a successful architecture firm, the two UN-amicably split shortly before taking on these illustrious commissions, adding fire to the flame in the competition for the tallest. Each architect tried to outdo the other (Chrysler's 185' spire by Van Alen is a perfect example) over two years, only to be outdone by ex-Governor Al Smith and his Empire State Building. Part narrative and part history, the best sections of the book are the well-researched biographies of the major players and the details of different aspects of the construction. In the end, Bascomb asserts that the buildings are products of the spirit of the time - the Roaring 20's - as well as evidence of what brought that decade to a crashing finale. But beyond that each building has become a beloved part of the city (especially the Chrysler and Empire State) and symbols of the desire to build higher than before.