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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.