An Urban Renaissance: Chicago Architecture

Chicago has earned a reputation as one of the most dynamic cities in the world in terms of architecture and design. For more than a century, the city’s buildings have had a major influence on the direction of architecture, both nationally and internationally.

Chicago is considered the birthplace of the skyscraper, a legacy that began in the years immediately following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Already viewed as an important center of commerce and transportation by the time of the fire, the smoldering city attracted thousands of people around the country to help rebuild and redefine the city. The downtown area needed to be reconstructed quickly so that businesses could continue. In order to make the most of the area’s small commercial lots, tall, compact buildings were designed by preeminent architects such as Louis Sullivan, William Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, and Daniel H. Burnham. From 1906 to 1909, Burnham’s “Plan of Chicago,” a broad vision for urban planning and beautification, drove the creation of parks, lake and river front recreation areas, and fountains alongside the new buildings. Wood, the main building material prior to the fire, was replaced by fire-resistant brick, stone, and metal. The earliest ancestor of the skyscraper had been born, and a style eventually known as the Chicago School had come into being.

Architects of the Chicago School removed the typically thick, heavy walls used to support tall structures and replaced them with steel frames. This helped achieve a lighter, more graceful appearance. Many examples of this style have been demolished over the years, but some remain, including the Reliance Building at State and Washington, designed in 1895 by Burnham and Root; and the Carson Pirie Scott & Company Building at State and Madison, designed by Louis Sullivan in 1899, which is known today as the Sullivan Center.

Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s distinctive work became the basis of its own movement. Arriving here in the 1880s, the young Wright worked for a time as Sullivan’s draftsman but eventually embarked on his own attempts at stylistic expression, developing what is referred to as the Prairie School of architecture. His buildings typically reflect the expansive, low-lying characteristics of the Midwest prairie. Wright’s work is often described as “organic” because of his focus on the relationship between buildings and their natural surroundings. The Robie House in Hyde Park, completed in 1910, is a classic example of Wright’s architectural approach, as is Wright’s own home and studio just west of Chicago in Oak Park.

German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe pioneered a second wave of the Chicago School, beginning around the 1940s. In his apartment and office skyscrapers, glass and steel are not only the materials of his trade but also the essence of his style. Mies Van der Rohe’s work represented the advent of modern architecture, and his influence in many respects continues to this day.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, a modern style defined the appearance of most new buildings in Chicago. Newly designed works were to a large degree the product of architectural firms rather than individual architects with an artistic bent. The John Hancock Center, completed in 1970, and the Sears Tower, completed in 1973 (now called the Willis Tower) are famous more for their engineering than their aesthetics.

By the 1980s, a movement called postmodernism was developed as a reaction to the minimalist approach to architecture witnessed in the previous decades. This style often combined historical architectural elements, such as arches, columns, and domes, with otherwise modern structures and materials.

Today, Chicago remains a vibrant center of architectural innovation.Exciting recent projects include the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, designed by architect Frank Gehry, the new campus buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology, designed by Rem Koolhaas, and the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, including the Nichols Bridgeway from Millennium Park, designed by Renzo Piano. These attest to the city’s continuing status as an architectural treasure of international proportion.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation promotes public interest in Chicago architecture and related design. Through its many tours offered each year to Chicagoans and visitors, the foundation educates the public about our city’s exceptional architectural legacy. Of particular note is its Chicago River boat tour of the downtown area, arguably the best way to view the dynamic skyscrapers clustered at the city’s center.