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Chicago Architecture, 1872–1922

May 2024
1min read

Edited by John Zukowsky; Prestel-Verlag, Munich; 480 pages.

Chicago, capital of American architecture and symbol of American industrial power and dynamism, was, as the authors of this beautifully illustrated and lavishly produced collection of essays make clear, born in fire and destruction.

In 1871 Chicago had just supplanted St. Louis as the trade hub of the continent, transformed by the newly built railroads into the livestock and meatpacking capital of the world. Then, in October, the great Chicago Fire gutted nearly two thousand acres of the young city’s commercial heart. In the years following the fire, some of America’s greatest architects rebuilt the city from the ashes. With an abiding faith in progress, and an optimism seemingly redoubled by the immensity of the disaster, the Chicago architects constructed skyscrapers, department stores, exhibition halls, mansions, apartment houses, hotels, clubs, auditoriums and theaters.

As the authors demonstrate, these architects employed innovations in construction techniques and materials to make public buildings of unprecedented scale and strength. Such innovations were the product not only of the architects’ ingenuity but of the disastrous fire itself. The Nixon building, designed by the German émigré Otto H. Matz, for example, had survived the Great Fire because its structural members were covered with concrete and plaster of Paris. With Elisha Otis’s development of the passenger elevator, and the evolution of the steel frame that could replace bulky, self-supporting masonry walls, construction of tall office buildings began in earnest.

John Wellborn Root, Solon Spencer Beman, Henry Ives Cobb, Otto H. Matz and other architects developed a distinctive Chicago School style. Louis Sullivan made a major contribution to the urban landscape with his elaborately and individualistically ornamented tripartite structures that consisted of base, shaft, and capital, like a Greek column. Later, Sullivan’s great student Frank Lloyd Wright focused on the design of smaller private residences. He and his followers popularized the prairie-school philosophy of residential design, a style characterized by rambling, open, horizontal spaces.

But it was Daniel H. Burnham, perhaps more than any other Chicago architect, who reshaped the city. He hoped to create a fusion of all the best elements of European design, and many of his office buildings and his department stores, with their large atriums, were based on Parisian models. Burnham was chief of construction for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which served as a catalyst for the creation of substantial cultural and public structures that became permanent additions to the Chicago skyline: the University of Chicago, the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the elevated railroad system.

All this activity, from the end of the Civil War to the years just after the First World War, produced a distinctively American form of public building that drew on European traditions of design and in turn influenced modern European architecture profoundly. The two uniquely American architectural products, the high-rise office building and the prairie-style low-rise house, came out of this period of Chicago building.

Fortunately, the authors of this collection do not focus solely on the physical appearance of Chicago’s great buildings; they go on to examine their effect on the city’s image of itself as a proud, strong, uncomplicated town, an expression of American greatness.

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