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
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