Skyscrapers: the logo for America's urban development, bridging the 20th century with their indestructible, prodigious presence.

They wouldn't exist if a man named Otis hadn't invented a safe passenger elevator in 1852. They developed simultaneously in Chicago and New York and have since changed the face of cities across the nation.None is more famous than the Empire State Building, completed in 1931 and immortalized two years later by a giant ape in the movie "King Kong." When Fay Wray, star of the film, visited the Empire State last year for the first time since 1934, she said, "This building belongs to me."

The landmark structures keep soaring ever skyward. Manhattan's Empire State, at 1,250 feet, reigned as the world's tallest building for four decades. Now it ranks third, behind Chicago's 1,454-foot Sears Tower, built in 1974, and New York's dual-pinnacled (1,368 and 1,362 feet) World Trade Center, built in 1973.

"In its making, the skyscraper draws on colossal egos, on financing almost inventive enough to warrant a patent, and on the talents of the world's leading architects and engineers," William S. Ellis writes in the current National Geographic.

All else in matters of design and construction pales in comparison to this _ to erecting a frame a thousand feet high and then draping it with a curtain of stone or glass, all the while compensating for the winds that play on the upper floors like a pick on the strings of a banjo, and giving to it both beauty and character as well as (lo, the `smart' building is with us) intelligence, and filling the inner cavities with the marrow of serviceability."

Chicago was the birthplace of the skyscraper. It was there in 1885 that the 10-story Home Insurance Building was erected, the first structure to use a frame rather than the walls to fully support the vertical load, thus setting down the simplest definition of a skyscraper.

It is in Chicago that postmodernism, the term for today's new architecture, has gained the widest acceptance. It is clear, Ellis writes, "that the city, keeper of the finest classic design in the country, has forsaken terra-cotta ornament for the sleek skins of today's towers."

But Chicago stands far from alone among cities whose skylines have been transformed by tall buildings. Chicago may have its Hancock Center, a mixed-use skyscraper, but Boston has its John Hancock Tower, a 60-story office building that seems to have overcome an earlier spate of structural design problems.

Postmodernism has left a strong mark on Houston, too, largely because of developer Gerald Hines, who told Ellis, "I believe that the architecture of a building should enhance the city, the skyline, and the well-being of all affected by the structure."

Philadelphia wears a look of compelling freshness because of a 61-story tower called One Liberty Place, the city's first structure to rise higher than the statue of William Penn that crowns City Hall.

The tower that looms over Pittsburgh is the new PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass) Place, a great rise of neo-Gothic design. In Atlanta it's the IBM Tower; in Dallas, the Texas Commerce Tower, among others.

Of all U.S. cities, none is more primed for skyscraper development than Los Angeles, which nonetheless has relatively few new buildings considered Class A architecturally, Ellis writes.

To the north, San Francisco has put such tight limits on building that architects and developers are complaining of overkill. The restrictions stem not from fear of towers toppling in earthquakes, but from the desire to protect the city's unique vistas. The revolt may be spreading to other cities.

New York has long struggled with the impact of skyscrapers on life in the city. Street traffic has increased, along with the anger of residents and the crime rate. One architect has decried the "rapid deterioration in the quality of the working and living environment" imposed by tall buildings. Another immediate concern is the growing threat of residential towers overtaking the city's infrastructure, including garbage collection.

Ellis concludes that U.S. skyscraper construction, much of it spurred by favorable tax treatment under a 1981 law, seems due to slow down.

We are, experts say, overbuilt, and one could expect a lull that could last as long as 20 years.