SkyriseCities is pleased to introduce Cityscape, a multi-part series which will examine the special relationship that certain cities around the world share with a particular architectural style or theme. For our first edition, we will travel to the Windy City to take a look at the Chicago School of Architecture, the eponymous philosophy of design that began there and had a profound impact on the trajectory of modern architecture for the last 120 years.
Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which left most of the downtown core decimated, the need to rebuild the city in way that would allow for further density while maintaining a much stricter degree of fire safety was felt sharply, especially at a time when the population of Chicago was quickly approaching one million. Bolstering the city's ability to grow upward were the continued efforts of city engineers to raise Chicago above the low water table of adjacent Lake Michigan, a marvellous engineering feat that would allow for the construction of the nation's first wave of steel-frame structures, the early skyscrapers that would define the Chicago skyline for generations to come.
Beginning in the 1880s, a group of notable architects contributed their own architectural sensibilities and influences to what has become internationally recognized as the Chicago School of Architecture, including Daniel Burnham, Henry Hobson Richardson — after whom "Richardsonian Romanesque" was named — and the partnership between Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Defined by the use of steel-frame construction, which allowed commercial office towers to soar above their timber-frame and masonry-enforced neighbours for the first time, the first wave of modern skyscrapers built within the precepts of the Chicago School were truly revolutionary.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the architectural cues common to the Chicago School include a host of design features that while not universal, are collectively distinct enough to identify the parameters of what became an architectural style in its own right. Built using steel-frame construction and masonry cladding, a technique which came with the added benefit of allowing for the installation of large plate-glass windows, the exterior of these early skyscrapers were also defined by a relative lack of decoration throughout the middle floors, and a more ornate ground-level and top-floor capital and cornice.
Another standout feature of the Chicago School of Architecture was the abundance of natural light thanks to the larger space available for window panes created by the engineering strength of steel-frame construction. The 'Chicago Window' was thus a direct result of the Chicago School, a distinct grid-like arrangement which consists of a large fixed central pane of plate glass flanked on either side by identical, double-hung sash windows which let in a significant amount of natural light, and allow for a high degree of ventilation. They were often set within, or used in tandem with, large, regular and continuous bay windows that were built into the exterior frame of buildings, enhancing their impact and creating an overall grid pattern that quickly became unique to the Windy City.
From the turn of the century up to the 1930s, the Chicago School enjoyed prominence in both its namesake city and across North America, Europe, and even as far as Australia and New Zealand. The popularity of the modern steel-frame skyscraper became a staple of city centres around the world. Following the Second World War, after the rise and fall of Art Deco and Bauhaus, and into the mid-century modern eras of Moderne, Brutalism, and Post-Modern, the rise of what many recognize today as the Second Chicago School of Architecture came into existence starting in the 1950s and 1960s. This second wave of Chicago architects centred around the influence of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, along with the firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), whose unique brand of modernist style and flair once more changed the face of Chicago and the world at large.
As seen in the image above, the John Hancock Centre — designed in a 1969 partnership between Fazlur Rahman Khan and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) — is a prime example of the stark contrast at work between the First and Second Chicago Schools of Architecture. Similar to the effect of another product of the same architectural partnership, the Willis Tower (commonly known as the Sears Tower) also features a stark contrast to its immediate architectural surroundings and context. Together with many other examples, and perhaps best left for a future instalment of this series, the legacy of the Second Chicago School of Architecture has been comparatively profound, and this unique brand of modernism has graced the skylines of cities around the globe.
For more discussion about buildings in Chicago check out the local Forum, and as always, feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below. Cityscape will return soon with a new instalment, and in the meantime, SkyriseCities welcomes new suggestions for additional cities and styles to cover in the weeks to come.