The towering pyramid of glass and steel stretched up toward the sky to reach a towering 2,717 feet, or twice the height of the Empire State Building.
While this incredible feat of engineering and human mastery over gravity is breathtaking even through the filter of photographs, it’s only a shadow of a building that was planned over 60 years ago, one that many say the Burj Khalifa owes a huge debt of gratitude.
In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright unveiled designs for a building that came to be known as The Mile High Illinois. While the project only got as far as a series of plans and studies, it was a revolutionary idea proposing a 5,280-foot tall skyscraper that would be four times the height of the Empire State Building, the tallest building at the time.
In addition to being one of the most innovative architects of his day, Wright also dabbled as an urban planner. He saw modern cities as posing a serious problem; they were dense communities teeming with people who didn’t have the space to live their lives. “The whole city is in agony,” he once said of New York City.
So, Wright set about designing several projects that attempted to address these urban problems. In one, the answer he posed was clear—to escape the hell and turmoil of the city, Chicago must go up.
The Illinois, as Wright originally named it, was unveiled in October 1956 at a press conference in downtown Chicago. During the ceremony, the 87-year-old architect introduced his latest design to the crowd, explaining, “The Illinois will be one mile high, contain 528 stories and have an occupancy of 100,000 people and space for parking 15,000 cars and 100 helicopters. In it will be consolidated all government offices now scattered around Chicago.”
Wright was ahead of his time, and not just in his ability to break through our limited notions of the heights humans can achieve without actually taking flight. His concept was an early predecessor to the conversation surrounding live-work spaces that is currently taking over design threads around the web. But rather than trying to make our lives more efficient, Wright was interested in making our cities less dense and, in his mind, unbearable.
“If we’re going to have centralization, why not quit fooling around and have it,” he reportedly said later.
To give a sense of the enormity of the Illinois, Wright presented his plan with a massive, 22-foot tall drawing. In this sketch, the glass-and-steel building sits on a wedge-shaped triangular base and becomes progressively narrower as it grows higher and higher, something like a three-pronged pyramid.
It was to have a core that ran up its middle and housed the building’s infrastructure, with the 528 floors radiating out from the center in a design that Wright explained was “like branches on a tree trunk.”
The building rises in a step-like structure that almost gives it the appearance of a sleek, jagged piece of glass sticking straight up out of the ground.
Skipping over the obvious question of how this structure could survive The Windy City—we’ll get to that later—there is one other issue that became immediately apparent, one that any office drone in any city can relate to: what to do about the elevators.
As our buildings have gotten increasingly taller, the powerful and mighty denizens of the world have been forced to waste more time waiting to be ferried to their assigned floors. The taller the building gets, the more the problem is exacerbated.
In order to solve this issue, Wright came up with a cutting-edge idea—although one that is frightening from the vantage point of the future. He would power the elevators with nuclear energy. In addition to running on nukes, Wright planned to install 76 elevators, all of which would be five-decker affairs, that would move at 60 miles per hour.
Even then, that may not have been enough. James Fortune, an engineer and elevator consultant, told The New Yorker in 2008 that Wright had seriously underestimated the amount of elevator power the packed building would need.
“I ran the studies once. He wasn’t even close,” Fortune told The New Yorker. “He should’ve had two hundred and fifteen to two hundred and twenty-five elevators.”
While the idea of a mile-high building may still seem far-fetched to many—how can we possibly build a building twice the height of the Burj Khalifa?!—Wright took it seriously from the start.
He knew, in addition to the logistics of transporting that many people around the interior, there would be major engineering problems if a project like this were to be realized. He needed to make some serious design decisions to ensure a particularly forceful gust of wind didn’t bring the whole thing toppling down.
He addressed this in the very shape of the building. The wedge-shaped base would be buried 150 feet below the ground for stability, and the structure would taper as it rose through the skies to give it something of a tripod shape.
The result would be upper floors that were more secure against the battering ram of the strong, high-altitude winds. The central core housing the pipes and other infrastructure would also act as a stabilizing agent.
Some say that the design was feasible at the time, others are a bit more skeptical. Either way, while Wright had some support for his grand plan to raise Chicago to the sky, he didn’t have enough in the way of cold hard cash. He died two years later and, with his death, talk surrounding the Illinois fizzled out.
Fast forward over 60 years, and our greatest architectural achievement (when it comes to height, at least) is a building half as tall as Wright’s proposed mile-high skyscraper. His towering masterpiece, for its part, has been confined to museum exhibitions of his work.
But it’s an enduring truth of humanity that we’re always pushing the limits, trying to go faster, longer, and ever higher.
Soon enough, we may be able to visit a brand new, sparkling glass building and stand swaying on an observation deck 5,280 feet in the air, reaching for the clouds and dreaming of something even higher.