Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Monumental Chicago

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.

I think this is Monroe Street downtown.

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.

An 1889 rendering of the Burnham's final design for the Monadnock Building

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.

A photo from the 1890s showing the Reliance building's steel frame under construction

The glass and terra cotta skin that Charles Atwood designed for the Reliance.  This is very different from the heavy brick of the Monadnock Building.

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.

A pair of Bavarian dry goods merchants, Schlesinger and Mayer, hired Sullivan to design a massive new department store.  The building, completed in 1899, was a major innovation in design around steel frame construction, and in the extensive use of large glass windows to light the interior.  It was built for retail business and is still used as such to this day.

This is the old standard issue textbook photo of the Carson Pirie Scott building.  In 2007, Sullivan's top floor with an open loggia was restored to its original appearance.  The loggia was removed in 1948.  This photo is from sometime in the 1960s.

A rendering from the 1890s of Sullivan's proposed design for the Carson Pirie Scott store.

A photo of the Carson Pirie Scott store from the 1930s

Sullivan coined the phrase "form follows function" which was once thought to preclude ornamentation.  From across the street, Sullivan's building looks severely utilitarian, but up close on the street level, it is lavishly ornamented with Sullivan's very original plant designs. 

All of Sullivan's buildings make a clear distinction between the street level and the higher bulk of the building.  Sullivan used the steel frame to introduce enormous display windows that are now the hallmark of retail architecture.  He used an elaborate cladding of bronze plated cast iron to set off and call attention to the display windows.

Sullivan's most famous innovation is the elaborate glass and bronze plated cast iron corner entrance, as lavish as the rest of the building is severe.

Here is a detail of the amazing ornamental work on the corner entrance.  All of this is Sullivan's original design.

For all of his prophetic modernism, I think of Sullivan as a kind of classicist who perhaps understood that aesthetic better than most of the historicists constantly fussing over Ionic versus Doric detailing.  Sullivan understood that the best classical architecture expressed the forces holding up the building.  Here he expresses with simple elegance and perfectly placed detailing the interior steel frame that holds up the building.  At a time when electric lighting was still a novelty and not all that bright, the large plate glass "Chicago windows" served a practical purpose to light the merchandise on display inside; very different from today's giant blank-walled box stores entirely reliant on interior lighting.

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.

A photo from the 1920s of the now long gone Stock Exchange Building

The Old Public Library Building

This handsome building now houses the Chicago Culture Center.  It was originally the main branch of the Chicago Public Library system.  It was designed by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge and completed in 1897.  The old historicist architects had something the moderns didn't have, a sense of human scale and a capacity to articulate public meanings as opposed to private vision.

Millenium Park

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.

Frank Gehry's stage housing from the entrance to Millenium Park on Michigan Avenue

The stage and seating for the Great Lawn

A distant view of the stage from the back of the outdoor theater.  In the summer, what is now covered in snow would be a long grassy slope.

Amazing steel webbing covers the whole area.  I understand that the acoustics here are outstanding.

The most popular thing in Millenium Park is Anish Kapoor's sculpture, Cloud Gate.

Tourists love this, even on a cloudy March day in Chicago.

And here is Yours Truly reflected in Anish Kapoor's sculpture.

Wacker Drive

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).

The Wrigley Building still makes a splendid terminus to the Grant Park stretch of Michigan Avenue and to the east end of Wacker Drive.  The Tribune Tower to the right is its perfect complement.

Here is the famous Chicago Tribune Tower, the winning design by the firm of Howells and Hood in a still famous architectural competition that drew architects from around the world including some pioneering modernists.

Here are the three most famous entrants in the Tribune Tower competition in the early 1920s.  From left to right; Eliel Saarinen, Walter Gropius, and Adolf Loos.
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.

This magnificent steel and terra cotta wedding cake is now known by the very colorless name of 35 North Wacker Drive, but was originally called The Jewelers' Building.  It featured a 23 floor elevator for automobiles.  As a security precaution, the jewelry dealers who occupied the building could drive straight up to their offices without ever having to get out on the street.  The domed top floor was once a lavish speakeasy owned by Al Capone called The Stratosphere Club.  It was accessible only by elevator which made it impervious to police raids.  It is said that Al Capone used to take his limo up to the Stratosphere on the building's car elevator.

Here is Bertrand Goldberg's crazy wack-a-doodle Marina City office and apartment complex from 1959, so-called because residents had direct access by elevator to a marina on the Chicago river.  For years, these buildings were alternately loved and derided by the public as giant concrete corn cobs.  And yet, these buildings proved to be prophetic of so much Post Modern architecture today.

The Giants

Here is my one and only shot of the Hancock Building from my hotel.  After walking all over the Loop, through the Art Institute, and around Wacker Drive, my dogs were killing me and I just didn't have the energy to walk up Michigan Avenue to the old Water Tower to see this more closely.
I've always been very fond of this building by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.  It remains my favorite tapered skyscraper in the USA.

And here is the biggest of them all, The former Sears Tower, now officially called the Willits Tower.  I've heard it described as a big Baby Huey of a building.  While it's never been my favorite in the world, as colossal buildings go, it's a very good design, an elegant bundle of square shafts culminating in a double spired broadcast mast.

And here is the former Sears Tower from down on the street below.

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.


susan s. said...

Thanks for this! I love some of these buildings. I need to go again before I get too old to walk around there. The Cloud Gate is lovingly known as 'the bean!' I got to see it while they were still polishing it. And I know that the fountain close by is no great thing, but kids love it in the summer.

I wish I could see your art hanging in a gallery.

Leonard said...

I loved it...thank you.