I took my trusty little digital camera and did some sight-seeing in the city that invented modern architecture, in downtown Chicago; around the Loop, Grant Park, Michigan Avenue, and down Wacker Drive.
Except for the occasional historic photo, these are all my pictures. As always, educators are welcome to anything they might find useful.
Chicago invented modern architecture because the city invented modern building technology, the biggest transformation in construction since the Roman Empire. Steel frame construction in skyscrapers and the wooden balloon frame that still shapes most new houses in the USA were both invented in Chicago.
So far as I know, Chicago saw the fastest urban expansion of any city in history. In 1830, Chicago was about a hundred log cabins around Fort Dearborn where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan. By 1890, Chicago was the largest port city in the world and home to more than a million people, a span of only 60 years. The Chicago Fire of 1871 that destroyed most of the city center only accelerated construction and made landowners more ambitious as new construction codes required sound building practices with durable materials. Greed demanded that the maximum income be squeezed from landholdings. The best way to do that was to pile in as many paying tenants as possible on a single plot of land. This drove buildings upward. Architects now had to design buildings of unprecedented height and bulk with multiple floors. These buildings had to be put up as quickly and as cheaply as possible to be profitable, driving radical transformations in building technology.
Architects had to articulate new enormous buildings with multiple floors, an unprecedented challenge. Their first attempts looked like French chateau or Italian palazzi with bad pituitary problems. How to articulate 10 to 15 story buildings without them looking like stacked dishes or giant boxes?
The Monadnock Building
This building standing on the corner of Dearborn and Jackson was the largest commercial building in the world when it was completed in 1891. Developers at the time considered this part of town to be the outer fringes, a neighborhood of shacks and tenements. A New England investor, Shepherd Brooks bought 4 lots, half a city block, and decided to cram as many paying tenants as he could onto the property by building an enormous structure. He hired the Philadelphia architect Daniel Burnham to design the building. Burnham designed major buildings from New York to Washington DC to San Francisco, but he did some of his most experimental work in Chicago.
Shepherd Brooks was notoriously stingy, and wanted as little ornamentation and projections on the building as possible dismissing such things as but nesting opportunities for pigeons. He rejected an earlier design by Burnham's partner, John Wellborn Root, covered with Egyptian motifs. Burnham took over the project and decided to turn necessity into virtue. While dropping all the lotus blossom and papyrus ornament, Burnham kept the Egyptian inspiration.
Burnham designed a huge slightly tapering brick structure inspired by the pylons of Egyptian temples. The inside structure is a cast iron frame supported by the enormous exterior load-bearing brick walls. The walls at the base are 6 feet thick, eventually tapering near the top to 18 inches. The walls at the top flare out beautifully suggesting an Egyptian cavetto molding. The Monadnock Building remains one of the largest brick buildings ever built.
The drawback of the Monadnock's design is the ground floor with the 6 foot thick walls making ground level rental space relatively small.
While attacked by critics of the time, the Monadnock was a tremendous commercial success, so much so that Brooks decided to extend the building and double its size. He hired the firm of Holabird and Roche to design the south wing of the building in 1891. While critics hated Burnham's north wing, other architects loved it, especially in Europe.
I've always had a certain fondness for this huge quasi-Egyptian pile of bricks, a giant pylon with oriel windows. I love the upper molding, and I get a charge out of the massive walls of the ground floor.
The Reliance Building
This building on the corner of Washington and State streets was designed by John Root of the firm of Burnham and Root together with Charles Atwood and completed in 1895. It is one of the earliest steel frame buildings and the first to successfully exploit the possibilities of plate glass on an interior frame. It was also one of the first buildings in the world to make extensive use of electric lighting and built in telephone service.
The Carson Pirie Scott Store
The Carson Pirie Scott store is Louis Sullivan's most famous surviving building in Chicago, and probably his most prophetic and influential design. It stands on the corner of State Street and Madison.
Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott Building would have a huge influence on European modern architecture, especially in Vienna. The Viennese architect Otto Wagner would make a career bringing Sullivan's ideas of a fully integrated building design expressing modern values to Austria. Wagner's student, the architect Adolf Loos worked in Sullivan's Chicago office.
The Trading Floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange
The same commercial forces that drove up Sullivan's buildings in Chicago also tore a lot of them down. One of the most notable casualties of this destruction was Sullivan's building for the Chicago Stock Exchange. Large pieces of the building were salvaged and are now housed in the Chicago Art Institute.
The largest part recovered was the trading floor, a tour de force of Sullivan's ornamental detailing on a straight-forward foursquare structure.
The Old Public Library Building
The city's newest architectural showpiece in its "front yard" Grant Park
I've never been much of a fan of Frank Gehry's work, but I must admit that I was impressed by his design for the Great Lawn, a huge outdoor theater for concerts and stage productions.
Chicago has some splendid examples of historicist beaux-arts wedding cake skyscrapers, though they are not quite as big and spectacular as those in New York (I'm thinking of Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building and Charles McKim's Municipal Building).
Very unmodern of me, but I think Howells and Hood had the best design and deserved to win. Yes, it's historicist Gothic revival, but it's a very original and imaginative design that engages our imaginations and fits perfectly on the site.
I've always been very fond of this building by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. It remains my favorite tapered skyscraper in the USA.
This is just a small sampling of Chicago's architectural treasures. I never got out to Oak Park to see all the houses by Frank Lloyd Wright. There's also Daniel Burnham's magnificent widely praised (and widely ignored) plans for the redesign of the city of Chicago. There's Mies Van Der Rohe's extensive work in Chicago and his complex relationship with the city. There's Chicago's rich domestic architecture and its splendid immigrant churches.
All of that will have to wait for future trips.