Why The Elevator Shaft Was Invented Before The Elevator

The world’s first elevator shaft was installed four years before
the elevator was invented, which sounds ridiculous. But inside this building, the Cooper Union Foundation Building
in New York City, is the world’s first elevator shaft, the first time a building was constructed to have a space for an
elevator top to bottom. Because when this was being
designed in the 1850s, the architect and owner
looked at New York City just starting to sprawl
wider and rise higher and they predicted,
“Someone is going to invent “a safe passenger elevator soon.” Four years later, Elisha Otis
did just that. But that prediction wasn’t quite perfect. – I think the remarkable thing
about the Foundation Building is that Peter Cooper first recognised
that he needed to build a building, and then that he would figure out
what he wanted to do with it. There were principles
that he was committed to. One was free education to the
working-class people of New York. He established a free reading room
before there were public libraries; also, the largest interior space
in New York City in which to hold lectures and debates, also open for free
to the general public. Peter Cooper’s vision was both for a very
radical, progressive institution, but he wanted embedded in the building
radical new technologies and ideas. So, by this time, by 1850, New York City was still really, really
crowded and dense. But the grid of Manhattan
had already been laid out. The Manhattan grid was
established in 1811, so everyone in New York City understood
that New York City was going to grow, and it was growing, in the middle
of the century, exponentially. In fact, the population of
Manhattan would peak in 1910, and we still have not reached the density and the high population that
the city had at that time. So, Peter Cooper knew that the city
had to be able to grow outward, but it also had to be able to grow upward. And so, he knew the elevator was coming. At the same time, Elisha Otis, who we all know from the
Otis Elevator Company, was busy working on not
inventing an elevator, because the elevator had
been in use for centuries to move equipment, to move goods. What Otis understood was that elevators would never be used for
people until they were safe. So, what he was working on doing
is to invent the safety elevator. That’s happening in 1855. The Foundation Building
meanwhile is under construction. So, Peter Cooper knew this was coming. The only thing nobody knew was what would be the
shape of the elevator cab, and Peter Cooper bet on circular. Since it’s the most efficient way,
spatially, to put the most number of
people in the smaller shaft and to carry them vertically. Little did he know that
that was not going to be the conventional elevator cab shape. And so, this was the first elevator shaft
that was constructed, we think, worldwide, certainly in the city, but it was not the first
functioning elevator. And the elevator cab that was
ultimately put in this shaft was square, so it was literally a
square peg in a round hole. The building was renovated, really,
from top to bottom on the inside in 1975. The architect, John Hejduk,
makes sure that the round shaft is really floating in the space. And the other thing he does is
he makes a companion elevator diagonally across the floor,
which is a square elevator. Always thought that
that was a beautiful way to allow architecture
to speak across time. Peter Cooper’s intuition
that the shape would be round was not what the market
would carry forward. When you’re thinking ahead of your time, sometimes you will guess correctly
and sometimes you won’t. But taking the risk to
actually invent something new and to build it into a building, I think, is really an innovative idea. – Is it worth the risk of
making that sort of prediction when it is basically just a gamble? Given what hassle a round
elevator shaft turned out to be, was it worth it?
Or would it have been better to wait and then retrofit a
regular elevator in later, like every other building from that era? And here’s a bigger question: What should we be designing for now? Not just in buildings, but anywhere. What’s the thing that
is going to seem obvious in 20 or 30 years but no
one can see coming now? I don’t know.
Maybe you do.

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