The phrase skyscrapers is quite an enigmatic term, almost poetical, giving the illusion of something is so tall that it scrapes the edge of the sky.
Yet do they scrape? To scrape something means to brush against an object, possibly to remove a layer of something, thus implying a movement, sort of like when we scrape ice of a car window, or someone scrapes the paint of a wall. So do these tall towers actually ‘scrape’ the sky?
Well, ironically yes, although I would wonder if that is how they got their name, but yes, Skyscrapers do scrape the sky, and, in modern architectural design, are meant to.
This all relates to the challenge of tall buildings, as the taller they get, the bigger the difference in ratio of their height to the scale of their base. As we can appreciate, the taller we build something the more difficult it is to keep it up right, simply due to this ratio. The primary elements that causes structures to fall is either a slight imbalance in the structure itself (including its foundation – e.g. the Leaning Tower of Pisa) or an inability for the structure to maintain its balance against the elements – especially wind.
The bigger the tower, the more of its sides exist, the larger the side, the greater it acts as a sail against the wind. Two trains of thought exist to address this architectural problem, either to build the tower so strong, it fights against the wind, such as the Empire State Building which only sways around an inch in high wind, or a more natural method which, like a tree, allows the base to remain firm by actually allows the top branches to sway to take in the force of the weather. As such, many modern towers easily sway 4 to 5 foot, gently rocking back and forth.
There is a third method, but hardly used for skyscrapers, but is more common for storage towers on farms and factories, who face the challenge that the strength of the structure is different from when it is full or empty. On these it is common to see thin metal blades that are attached to the outside of the circumference of the tower and spiral upwards around them.
The principle is that when the wind hits these fins direct the gush of air around and up the tower, rather than just suffering a direct hit. This idea not only deflects the initial hit, but also makes the wind actually help support the tower, for as the wind creates a vortex around the column, one side supports the over. Even so, these towers also are designed to ‘sway’, which makes standing on top of them rather a stomach churning experience.
Although, returning to Skyscrapers, surely the most delightful fun fact is the first known recorded use of the word which was actually the name of a race horse who was raised in England, and who won the Epsom Derby in 1789. The reason for its name was that it was remarkably tall, and, as it was fast, was thought to have scraped the sky.
Below is a video of a record breaking card tower being built to scrape the sky: