Lever House, the glass skyscraper.
Lever House, the glass skyscraper. The type’s canonization.
This article assumes modern architecture as a nodal issue in the conformation of the discipline, still in permanent review and debate1 It is proposed to reflect on the materials of the project, understood as the specific resources of a doing, from analyzing and reflecting on the tower building for the Offices for the main headquarters of the soap company, of British origin, Lever Brother Company, Known as «Lever House» designed and built by the American architecture studio SOM, during 1951 and 1952, in New York City, at 390 Park Avenue.
Lever House is not, of course, the first all–glass building; the famous Cristal Palace and the more recent Daily Express Building, on Fleet Street in London, precede it. But it is the first office building in which modern materials, modern construction, and modern functions have been combined with a modern plan. (Mumford, 1956)
Picture 1. Lever House, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York, NY 1952. Photo©Erza Stoller
The building for the main headquarters offices of the British-born soap Lever Brother Company, known as «Lever House», was built during 1951 and 1952 in the city of New York, at 390 Park Avenue and the 53th. and 54th East streets. The work is a project by the American architecture studio SOM, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and the main architects from the studio, in charge of the project, were Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie Griffin de Blois. This building is located in a diagonal, opposite the Seagram building constructed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, ended 6 years later. It features 24-high floors and reaches 94 meter-high. (Pics. 0 and 4).
As Arthur Drexler describes (1957), the Lever House combines a detailed Miesian discipline with a basic concept developed by Le Corbusier 30 years ago; the high-rise urban building was first reduced to a flat glass prism framed by massive head walls. Then it was raised from the ground so that the park and the lanes continue below it. (Hitchcock, Drexler, 1957:24)
Lewis Mumford (1956), in his text House of Glass, proposes that Bunshaft, with the ground floor free, an square open to the persons, breaks with the traditional way of building a commercial office construction when sacrificing the commercial profitable ground floor in order to offer it to the city and its inhabitants. The project is organized starting with the intersection of two volumes, a block with two office levels with a central yard and a plaque-like 21-high-floored tower. The first volume rises a level from the ground and occupies the whole lot area, and the central park allows the access of light to the ground floor, which is completely free and open to the street and the city except for the access hall, a services area and a small garden that organizes and structures the composition from a central position. This first block has a gardened cover, and shapes a new public space from where the glass office plaque arises, located perpendicular to Park Avenue. The Lever House building is one of the first hermetic glass wall construction, without any type of practical window, since all the ventilation is mechanical.
The architectonic idea comes from the proposal made by Owings in 1947 for the Skyscraper Management Magazine and the National Real Estate and Building Journal in 1948 (Adams, 2019). This project is also made up with two parts, the first three floors covered totally the lot and a plaque-like tower was settled on one of the ground sides. In this case, the ground floor was occupied by shops and on the terrace there were some recreational places. The glass envelope was completely closed.
The structure, at the service of the visual construction?
The neutral grid of the space limited by the structure skeleton provides us a particularly convincing and persuasive symbol, being it the reason why the structure establishes relations, defines the discipline and creates a shape. The structure has been the catalyzing element of an architecture; but it is necessary to mention that the own structure has also turned into architecture, since the contemporary architecture is almost unrecognizable in it. (Rowe, 1999)
Clearly, Lever House building is already an advanced elaborated refined case of the articulated construction of the modern architecture, considering it in very broad terms as the step of the mono-material construction. In this type, the thermal, waterproof stable functions of the envelope wall are reduced to only one material which, through its thickness, solves all the problems related to comfort (I. Paricio), to a construction of the envelope differentiation where each layer is going to fulfill a specific function with the less possible thickness and weight. Firstly the iron and then slowly the reinforced concrete allowed supporting a building from the structural grid. The speculative architecture produced between 1880 and 1900 in the Chicago Loop resulted in the development of a structural typology for the office building, that according to C. Rowe (1999), obtains a strange magnificence, structures that do not establish any compromise with the observer; they are neither capricious nor urban and they show so a complete authenticity that we are ready to accept them as natural facts, more as geological statements than as architectonical successes.
In the project by Bunshaft, instead, the willingness of representation (abstract) will put in tension in different aspects the simplicity of the structure in pursuit of the aesthetical visual aspects that the architectonical proposal demands.
If we propose to analyze the work starting from the dialectic relation posed by Karl Bötticher between Kernform and Kunstform as a decline of the principle of truth (Rigotti, 2009, april), what Kenneth Framton (1999) traduces as Form–Core and Form–Artistic, the structure of Lever House operates within the conceptual frame of Kernform, where the resistant properties of the material are worked, determining the shapes of the parts. They fulfill the support role and inter-relating them in a system that puts itself in tension with the enclosure, Kunstform, an artistic form that hides the structure in order to materialize an idea of volumes that levitate and avoid showing how. The project does not express the structure in its exterior, works over it with different devices looking for the effect of levitation of the two main volumes that make up the building. The volume of the base that intends to float over the ground floor four meters from the soil and the volume of offices, that in turn detaches from the gardened terrace of the urban plinth that forms the horizontal volume.
If Bötticher proposed Kunstform skeleton should be capable of revealing and increasing the essence of the constructive core (Frampton, 1999), in this case the task to hide the structure in order to highlight volumes that do not rest on soil, emphasizes the idea that the enclosure is no longer the one that makes up the structure; now this is independent and the wall is a curtain that hangs from it.
The support structure of the building, projected in collaboration with the engineering studio Weiskoff & Pickworth, is solved with a reticular structure made up with type H steel laminated profiles and a rigid vertical core. The arrangement of the core in one of the plaque ends implies a solution different from the typical skyscraper where the vertical core takes fully the wind loads. This symmetry of the core position leads to adopt a mixed solution since in the west side of the tower the horizontal loads are taken by the core while in the east side the loads are taken by the beams and columns. By means of some expensive connections made to stiffen the knots, the latter operate as porticos that play the double role of carrying the vertical loads to the soil and take part in the resistance to the horizontal forces produced by the wind.
If Robin Evans (1997) posed that in the Lake Shore Drive apartments (1941–1951), Mies made all efforts so as to achieve the structure did not be implied with taking the weight, the gravity, the compression, the extension or flexion, in the search of showing an weightlessness. In the case of Lever House the structure is no longer going to be expressed in the volumetric as it is in the Mies case, instead the two volumes are going to levitate in a weightless way. Mies accomplished the paradox to show the structure and to express it but in such a way that did not represent the gravity as a mere mechanical structure but as a conceptual structure. Bunshaft runs the structure inward and it only appears in the ground floor but withdrawn from the perimeter and stainless steel clad in order to disappear in the reflections.
The buildings continue to have a tectonic character rather than scenographic and we say that they are a construction fact rather than a speech proclaimed over the surface, the volume or the plane. We can also say that a building is ontologic rather than representative; in the words of Heidegger, a «thing» other than a «sign». (Frampton, 1990)
From this Kenneth Frampton perspective, Lever House keeps on having, in a thin line that separates, a character more scenographic than tectonic, looking for the sign above the thing, searching the representation appearance above the tectonic expression of the reticular structure functioning. (Pic. 2)
Picture 2. Lever House, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York, NY 1952. Photo ©Erza Stoller
The isotropic space of the international style
Architecture refers to, neither a set of interior spaces, nor a mere shelter before cold and danger, nor an open fixed site nor an invariable arrangement of rooms, but instead an organic element of life, a creation in the domain of the spatial experience. (Moholy Nagy, 1963)
The idea of space is recent in the history of the architecture. Schmarsow (1994) defines that space is «the» main issue of architecture. Architecture is the interior space, is what is done inside with the space; and the material, structures, beams, columns, roofs, floors, are only important to build the space. And the space is defined by our corporeality and the movement. The space is vectorial and has a direction, back and forward, right and left; the space is movement.
The demand of the spatial imagination contains the need to overcome that strictly functional … Its essence consists of trying the volume in the space in such a way that between each one of the solids, their areas and the separations among them some relationships settle from which a new unit appears. (Giedion, 1958)
The first look has to do with the two spaces that arise from the articulation of both main volumes of the project: the emptiness of the ground floor and the retreat of the carpentry in the terrace plane that creates the separation of the tower and highlights the new exterior gardened space of the second floor.
The project of Lever House, in the case it had occupied all the lot with a compact building with a central yard, could have been built in about 8 floors. The proposal is based on a regulation that allows the high-rise construction with the condition about not occupying more than 25 % of the plot. The owners of Lever Company (Unilever) wanted the building to be only yours and the ground floor be a meeting place and recreation area which welcome the clients and users of the building. (Adams, 2019).
Lewis Mumford (1956) considers that the building suggests a new type of competition among the businessmen of the city, no longer searching to construct the highest building, but instead a competition to provide open spaces and return to the human scale of buildings.
The first spatial operation that we can stand out about the project is the free ground floor. One re-interpretation of the free floor proposed by Le Corbusier some years ago but inserted in the environment of the city density. The lower body of the building on the first floor occupies the entire plot in order to be able to take possession of the complete lot. The function of this body is to create and scale properly the freed space on the ground floor. Without this volume floating over the plot, the space type of the ground floor would not be confirmed. The completely glass and transparent hall is raised in such a way that the access can be approached from the three streets surrounding the lot.
The other main element in this Cartesian space carried out in the public square of the ground floor is the design of the flooring, which accompanies the geometry and modulation of the structure and also introduces a strategic garden, which was originally designed by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, with water and his stone sculptures on the flooring. Although this work was not performed it was the start of a long collaboration between Bunshaft and Noguchi.
The space in the ground floor is then defined by the ceiling plane and the escape to the street, and it also introduces a space for the contemplation in the middle of the urban noise and the hustle and bustle of the city.
«The reticular structure had been for the modern architects a constructive paradigm univocally associated to the skyscraper and the isotropic space» (Ábalos, Herreros, 1999).
The inner space has no limits; it is a Cartesian space, infinite, and modular, slightly cut by the glass envelope. It is a non-function space which is going to organize depending on the furniture and the light divisions. Between the floor and the ceiling it is clean, only a row of columns raised asymmetrically interferes in its organization. The beams, the premises are hidden in a technical plane in order that they do not produce any type of pre-determination in the use of the space. The plane is 15-meter wide with three of its glass sides with open views to the city and the sky. No place of the plane is more than 7.5 meter of the envelope. (Pic. 3).
The air conditioning makes it unnecessary that the tower windows be opened and since the glass panels reach the ceiling and continue in three sides of the floor, they give an outstanding view of the entire city. Likewise it produces a curious optical illusion because the observer has the feeling to be on a plane directly watching over Park Avenue.(Hitchcock, Russell, 1957:24)
Picture 3. Lever House, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York, NY 1952. Photo ©Erza Stoller.
The envelope. The curtain wall as a textile. From the figuration to the abstraction; between the representation and the truth
«The all–glass skyscraper was something about which more than one architect, going back to Mies’s Berlin skyscrapers, had dreamed» (Adams, 2019).
Pic.7. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Glass Skyscraper project (View of the maquette). 1922. MOMA. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
In the mid-nineteenth century, with the texts Der Dtil y Entretiens sur l’Architecture, Semper and Viollet–le–Duc define two theoretical founding lines in the history of the architectonic culture, centered, that of Semper, on the idea of the transfiguration of the structure and of the constructive materials through the coating, and that of Viollet–le–Duc on the idea of a direct correspondence between structure and architectonic shape. Where these lines develop autonomously, their interpreters achieve poetics characterized by an extreme coherence, be it concerned with the Josef Hoffmann’s virtuosity of the surface or with the Auguste Perret’s truth of the structure.(Fanelli y Gargani, 1999:12)
Fanelli and Gargani (1999) pose that the Semper’s critical intuition about the textile origin of the wall had acquired an extraordinary richness of meanings and of the implications in the historical phase of the development of new materials and of the new steel reinforced concrete and glass technologies. The ideal aim of lightness that had been at first reached through graphic means finds in such materials new possibilities of expression to the extent of being made in terms of absolute transparency.
The Lever House envelope project is going to be one of the first modern curtain walls that achieves a high degree of refinement since it accomplishes a great level of synthesis with the dematerialization of the upright towards the inner face of the enclosure.
Frámpton (Frámpton, Futagawa, 1983:194) describes that the first implementation of a completely-glassed curtain wall in the United States was carried out 6 years after the Peter Berenhs’ Company of Turbines AGV performed in Berlin. The Hallidie Building, projected by the architect Willis Jefferson Polk and constructed in San Francisco in 1918, is the first example of a curtain wall applied to a high scale building.
(Pic. 8. Hallidie Building, San Francisco. Willis Polk, Architect. 1918)
Just one year before Lever House, the United Nations building curtain wall construction was started, projected by Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Wallace Harrison. A 39-floored high plaque tower made up with two blind end walls and the east-west front walls with a glass curtain wall.
While Mies was improving the composition system from the expression of the mullion or upright in the outside of the enclosure, using it as a formal expression, Ábalos and Herreros (1992) consider that this solution did not have an exclusively technical sense and that Mies used it in order to provide relief and machine tectonics to the glass facades.
The Lever curtain wall is going to move the upright to the interior and will get to merge the upright with the carpentry and thus reduce to a minimum its thickness that overlaps to the glass plane. In this way, it obtains a more continuous and flat surface, which emphasizes the volume concept rather than the vertical grooving surface of the Miesian upright. Other feature that highlights the prism purity is the elimination of the practical windowed surface. Thus there is no possibility that the front wall moves or is modified; it is a fixed and thin curtain that only expresses itself from the reflections. The envelope is entirely closed and all the ventilation is entrusted to the mechanical ventilation systems and to the artificial thermal conditioning. Previously Le Corbusier had projected this on the basis of a Gustave Lyon’s idea of the concept of exact breathing and the neutralizing wall that consisted of a mechanical system of ventilation.
Lever is one of the first office buildings that operated with a completely closed envelope and with a entire system of central air conditioning, provided by Carrier Company, Carrier conduit weather master system, which is in charge of the air renovation starting with the exterior air entry mixed with that of the renovation, by filtering and humidifying it.
The location of the air conditioning equipment in the perimeter is going to affect the envelope with a parapet. Banham (1975) emphasizes the elegance and certain honesty in the expression of the walls with the air conditioning installation. The project shows in the composition of the envelope the two blind strips treated with colored glass. It also divides them with a metallic piece in order to express the size of the upper sector, which is the parapet where the air conditioning equipment is resting, and the lower sector, which takes the height of the ceiling level of the lower floor.
Within the volumetric, the last three levels are technical floors mainly for the installation and operation of the air conditioning equipment.
Another technical innovation that this type of enclosure design produced, and later used in most of these type buildings, is the introduction of a system of scaffold hanging from the roof for the glass cleaning in the outside.
On the one hand, this building produced a turning point in the typology of the independent structure and the light transparent envelope, passing from the figuration to the abstraction –where the relation among the honesty of structure and enclosure and the artistic expression and the camouflage achieved a great sophistication and aesthetic balance point. On the other hand, Banham (1975) quickly claims that the presumed constructive honesty was not more than an aesthetical expression and that this did not include all the installation system which was hidden in all parts of the building and was not part of the expression and the composition.
The measure, the module and the grid. Material Construction. Visual Construction.
Governed by a primary mathematics. There are measures. In order to construct well, so as to distribute well the forces, so as to achieve the solidity and utility of the work, the measures determine everything. (Le Corbusier, 1923:53)
Le Corbusier (1923) starts the text with the regulating layouts in Vers Une Architecture, where he raises that the rhythms are determined by the distances respective the objects and that they are a visual construction. Sometime later he relates the measure with the form how we build our world tied to the nature laws, subjected to them. The laws of gravity, statics and dynamics impose themselves by the reduction to the absurdity, he says, support or collapse.
These two variables, the measure as material construction and the measure as visual construction are articulated with the concept of grid.
Krauss (1985) notes that the grid is a structure that appears in the early twentieth century and quickly turns into a symbol of the modern longings of the visual arts. The grid is posed as the silence will of the modern art before the narrative and the discourse.
Raided, geometrized and ordered, the grid is anti-natural, anti-mimetic and anti-real. It is the image of the art whenever it takes the back to nature. In the monotony of its coordinates, the grid is used for the elimination of the multiplicity of dimensions of the real. (Krauss, 1985)
If the grid is an aesthetical determination, a form of order that gains acceptance before the differences of the material objects through the mathematics and the abstraction, Lever House is a canonical model of the type.
On the plane, in the north-south direction, the grid is made up from a 6.40-meter (21’) module that forms the structure axis and the floor design. It is only altered in the tower sector, which is solved with two inter-columns, one 6.40-meter and the other 9.04-meter (9′ 3”) in order to allow the plant assembly in double bay and absorb the same working width of 6.40-meter plus the circulation. In the east-west direction the organization is made by an 8.55-meter (28′ 1”) grid.
On the ground floor the columns are 60×60-cm, and in the tower sector, 80×80-cm, measures to the final edge, which include the fire protection and the stainless steel covering. This organizing grid of the structure and the space is not only auxiliary for the architect work, to produce the order, but also it becomes a physical element; it is drawn on the stone flooring, on the ground floor and forms about 150-cm-wide stripes that run in both directions, absorb the columns touching the soil and reveal the device. The measures keep an order that is aesthetical, compositional, but also material, it is the structural light arranged for an efficient economical solution of the problem. We can think that each element has been dimensioned in its double material measure condition that produces the static support and its visual dimension to produce the aesthetical support of the work. (Pic. 4)
The curtain wall is a framework made up by the mullions and the crossbars. In this case both pass over the glass with the same deepness of a pair of centimeters, what produces a grid with the same value in the composition in vertical as in horizontal.
The 8.55-meter column axis module is divided in six 1.425-meter (4′ 8”) panels, this allowing the modular coordination between structure and uprights. In elevation, the measure between one finished floor and the other is 3.75-meter; and between floor and ceiling, 2.75-meter. The framework expresses the parapet line, the ceiling line and the slab line, with these measures to axis: 2.03 m + 0.86 m + 0.86 m. (Pic. 5)
Picture 5. Lever House, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York, NY 1952. Grid of curtain wall redrawn by Ignacio Montaldo
 The concept of static support and aesthetical support is developed by Professor Manuel Ignacio Net and published in the book Arquitectura, Naturaleza y Diseño.
«Volume lives by the effect of shadow». (Le Corbusier, 1923)
The first use of color that perhaps we can define in Lever House is the shadow. This is a use of color that is produced by the location of the different edges of the enclosures. Thus, the project seeks to deepen the shadows that are going to emphasize the in-gravity of the main volumes.
Loos (1993:154) defined the principle of the coating from a law that says that the possibility of the coated material to be confused with the coating should be excluded in any case (wood can be painted with any other color except one: wood color).
The polychromy of Lever House is about a precise care, where there is an emphasis in the color virtues and the natural material textures, the stone pavement in the ground floor, the stone natural color in the Noguchi sculptures project, the polished steel in the column coating, that do not try to express or represent the steel of the profiles which are covering but instead make them disappear in the bright reflections of the polished metal.
In Lever Project the color is used in the glass. On the one hand, the green-colored spandrel glass that covers the panels between slab and parapet and slab and ceiling, hiding the installations and creating the reflection in the outside. The spandrel glass is a glass with an opaque coating in the protected side; it is used in curtain walls to hide the structural elements and installations that otherwise would be visible between the floors.
Rosana Rubio (2015), in her study of the glass, states that the first colored glass used in the XX century due to its technical features was produced in the United States in the ‘30s and was pale green. The aim of this glass that first appeared for the automobile industry was to improve the thermal operation. This green glass occurred for the entry of iron oxides in controlled quantities that have the properties to absorb the photons in the near infrared spectrum, as Rubio mentions, who also points out that the first building to use this glass was Lever House.
Finally, the glass envelope was not transparent but it was going to function rather as a solid that, with its greenish color, from the outside was going to be pure reflection. The theme about the reflection construction was worked very well by Josep Quetglas in his book El horror cristalizado, about Mies’ work.
The transparency is going to appear at night, when other color form is about to be defined by the artificial illumination temperature that will dye into a yellowish color the interior and will disappear the volume to prevail the contrast between dark horizontal stripes and lighted stripes. A color that will not be that of the pigment that returns the reflection of the sun but instead the color as a result of the artificial light produced by man and machine. (Pic. 6)
Picture 6. Lever House, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York, NY 1952. Night view. Photo ©Erza Stoller
Picture 4. Lever House, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York, NY 1952. Grid plane redrawn by Ignacio Montaldo
Address: 390 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10022.
Architecture Studio: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
In charge Partners: William S. Brown, coordination; Gordon Bunshaft, design.
General Contractor: George A. Fuller Co.
Mechanical Engineering: Jaros, Baum & Bolles.
Structure Engineers: Weiskopf & Pickworth.
Interior Design: Raymond Loewy Associates.
Plot measures: On Park Avenue: 60.96 m; on 53th. Street: 47.24 m and on 54th. Street: 58.52 m.
Measures of the plaque in tower: 54.86 m x 15.24 m.
Plot area: 3.200 m2 / 34,830 ft2.
Total Surface built: 26.900m2 / 289,584 ft2.
Useful Office Area: 12.170m2 / 131,000 ft2.
No desk is more than 7.50 m of the glass facade.
Height from floor to floor: 3.76 m (12′ 4”).
1982 Landmark Designation. Landmarks Preservation Commission.
1980 National 25–Year Award. American Institute of Architects (AIA).
1958 National Plant America Award. American Association of Nurserymen.
1954 Best Building Award. Fifth Avenue Association.
1952 Gold Medal. Architectural League of New York.
1952 First Honor Award. American Institute of Architects (AIA).
1952 Office of the Year Award. Administrative Management Magazine.
1951 Oscar Dooley Award. University of Miami.
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