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Chicago Basics:


From modest, at times even squalid, beginnings, the small settlement erected in the proximity of Fort Dearborn in the 1820s has surged to splash across the consciousness of the world. Chicago's primary currency in the achievement of this recognition has very often been through the field of architecture, both as trendsetter and as living museum. Frontier design naturally favored practicality over aesthetic appeal, but thanks to the efforts of visionaries and entrepreneurs, Chicago went over a fifty year period from being a consortium of structures that "uniformly unimpressed" their beholders to a paragon of American innovation and capacity (1). Architects of the mid-1800s crafted handsome wooden buildings, often through the use of the effective balloon frame, a material and technique for which the city paid a heavy price during the fire of 1871 (2).

Contrary to the frequent rendition, however, Chicago was not an architectural wasteland at the time preceding that legendary disaster (3). Once its prosperity financed its embellishment, Chicago joined the mid-century argument between Greek Revival and Gothic Revival: "[o]n the basis of taste, or of conviction, or of cost, or on some other grounds, an individual chose one or the other much as he selected one candidate for office over another"(4). Preferring stone but deferring to the more readily available wood, advocates of the romantic Gothic mode, along with the emerging Italianate, gave woodcut designs an aesthetic well-suited to their versatility (5). The fire indeed swept the first manifestations of these pretensions away, however, setting the stage for an indigenous architecture that newly-mandated city ordinances required rely on more durable materials (6).

Chicago's heroes of that drafting table include Louis Sullivan, who coined the credo "form should follow function" but had a penchant for graceful ornamentation, William le Baron Jenney, an engineer whose construction precepts made the contemporary skyscraper a reality, Daniel Burnham, who put that model into practice along with John Wellborn Root, Frank Lloyd Wright, who rejected the Victorian ethos of vertical row-houses in favor of a signature horizontal approach, and Mies van der Rohe, who resettled as an émigré in Chicago at a time when it was ripe for his fervent minimalism.

In the contemporary city of Chicago and its environs, one finds an incredible cross-section of the last 150 years of architecture in the West. Nestled into the pockets of Chicagoland's extended grid, one discovers, among other motifs: remnants of the Western frontier, echoes of the graceful avenues of the Second Empire Style, unabashed declarations of Greco-Roman revivalism, simple but elegant Victorian brownstones, tenacious and eccentric invocations of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, proud monuments to the groundbreaking Chicago School of the 1880s, robust horizontal Prairie-styles, sleekly boxed Internationals, and a wide and exciting assortment of the postmodern.

Latter-day legacies upon Chicago include those of Harry Weese and Helmut Jahn, whose visions for organic form and plasticity of material herald the ethos of postmodernity. Chicago will soon welcome an architectural contribution to Millennium Park by Frank Gehry, a structure that promises to be another crowning jewel in this vigorous era of pluralist visions.

Text Copyright ©2004


(1) Duis, 5.
(2) Green Guide, 41.
(3) Yood. Lectures.
(4) Westfall, 24.
(5) Westfall, 26.
(6) Green Guide, 41.


Boudreaux, Gerry. "Louis Sullivan: The Growth of an Idea". http://www.tape.net/~gerry/sullivan/sullivan.html, 1993.

Duis, Perry R. "The Shaping of Chicago" AIA Guide to Chicago. Alice Sinkevitch, ed. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.

Loescher, Robert J. "Survey of Ancient to Modern Art and Architecture". Lectures delivered at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2002.

The Green Guide: Chicago. Greenville, SC: Michelin Travel Publications, 2001.

Yood, James. "Survey of Modern Art and Architecture: 1800 to present". Lectures delivered at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2003.

Westfall, Carroll William. "Introduction: The Region's Communities and Buildings". A Guide to Chicago's Historic Suburbs. Bach, Ira J. Chicago: Ohio University Press, 1981.



Chicago Basics

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