Moreover, the island’s remarkable architecture, although small, was an achievement of inventiveness and effort seldom seen in history.


The ruins of Christian monastic buildings, some dating from the seventh century, on the island of Skellig Michael, Ireland.

In the sixth century, just as the monastery was being established, St. Columbanus described the Irish as people “living on the edge of the world.” Hermits who chose to settle on such islands as Skellig Michael subjected themselves to long periods of total isolation, while through lives of prayer and contemplation they searched in silence and solitude for God. In winter Skellig Michael was, and still is, completely inaccessible. Paradoxically, monasticism was the vehicle for the eastward spread of Celtic Christianity. It was established in Scotland and the north of England by Columba, Ninian, Wilfrid, and Aidan.

The platform was reached by any of three zigzagging stairways—one with 670 steps—from different points at the base of the island. The monks built them by carving the rock and by carrying and placing thousands of flat stones. The terracing at the top was achieved, probably over decades, by constructing massive drystone retaining walls and filling behind them. On these level places the reclusive churchmen built their huts, using a flat-stone, corbeled technique already thousands of years old. The successive courses of the circular buildings, laid without mortar and with outward-sloping joints to drain the rainwater, gradually diminished in diameter, closing the building to form a pointed dome—a “beehive” dome. The 6-foot-thick (almost 2-meter) walls and roof were thus integrated into a single entity, providing living quarters and storage. The monks grew vegetables, probably in soil imported from the mainland, supplemented by a diet of seabirds, gulls’ eggs, and fish. They traded eggs, feathers, and seal meat with passing boats for grain, tools, and animal skins, from which they made vellum.

Vikings plundered the Skellig Michael settlement four times between 812 and 839 but the little community survived. Some rebuilding took place in I860, and it is likely that many of the surviving buildings on the island are from that period. Around 1000 the chapel was added to the monastery, using stone from nearby Valentia Island. Sometime in the twelfth century, the monks withdrew to the Augustinian priory at Ballinskelligs on the mainland. Skellig Michael became and remains a pilgrimage site. In the nineteenth century, two lighthouses were built on it, one of which remains functional. From 1986 the Irish Office of Public Works carried out restoration of the Skellig monastic site, and the buildings were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996.

Further reading

Horn, Walter, et al. 1990. The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lavelle, Des. 1993. The Skellig Story: Ancient Monastic Outpost. Dublin: O’Brien Press.

Waal, Esther de. 1999. Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse.



Only seldom for ideological, political or pragmatic reasons has a society called for a new building type. Ecclesiastes asserts “There is nothing new under the sun,” and most human endeavor is characterized by building upon what we already have, going “back a bit to make [ourselves] fit for going further along the way [we] seek to explore.” Even the first Christian basilicas of the fourth century a.d., despite a desperate search for a new form, drew upon precedents. A complex network of constraints lay beneath the invention, of the tall commercial building, the modern skyscraper that originated in Chicago. The conception of this building type was an architectural feat.

By about 1870 the United States was becoming an urban industrial nation and Chicago, more than any other city, was the focus of that change. What had a few years earlier been a frontier town was transformed into an internationally significant industrial metropolis as the cattle, grain, and lumber trades flourished and manufacturing activity grew. Between 1850 and 1870 the population increased tenfold to 330,000 and the city covered 18 square miles (46 square kilometers) on the Lake Michigan shore. Redevelopment and continual rebuilding provoked Mark Twain to comment that the city was “never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”