Chicago’s Cloud Scrapers Rise

I’m very happy to be in Chicago (it’s my kind of town).

Architecturally I should start with the Art Institute building by Daniel Burnham with its typical Beaux Arts style so popular at this time. But as I am looking at the development of buildings technically, I would say this building is the key, the Monadnock Building by Burnham & Root, 1889-91:

To reach an impressive 16 storeys high with solid wall construction, the walls are 72 inches thick at the base! I’ve been excited to see this building, as it is important historically, but was surprised  how elegant is with a sculpted curves disguising its bulk.

The plan of Chicago is limited as it borders on Lake Michigan and is hemmed in on the north and west by the river. When the Great Fire destroyed a huge proportion of the city  in 1871, architects of the time flocked for the opportunity to rebuild in the City. Due to its restricted plan buildings were forced to go upwards to achieve necessary light and space; the higher you went the more light and space was achieved.
Before the fire these buildings were typical of Chicago. Without elevators, the taller the building the less rent you could charge, the opposite of today where the penthouses with the most space and light are the most expensive.
The fire proof properties of terracotta also made it the material of choice after the Great Fire. Terracotta insulated the iron frames, protecting them from the heat and as a result were some of the only buildings left standing. The fire was so fierce it  would bubble and melt the iron in buildings, people have described molten lava-like streams flowing down the Chicago streets.

The Monadnock building, with its thick thick walls reducing usable floor plan, made it clear that this way of building was unsustainable and uneconomical. The Monikdam bldg was extended using a steel frame so it is interesting to see both techniques of building in the same building. You can see how the window span has opened up:

The skeleton frame allowed us to build much taller. All of the structure of the building is within the frame and the cladding or ‘curtain wall’ could be hung from the frame, starting in the middle going up if preferable.

The Rookery, 1888, by Burnham & Root has a weighty design and a solidness to it, the base plinth is made of nice heavy rusticated stone to anchor the building. This is put the public at ease as people were very uncertain of going up such a tall building. It goes not have those vertical elements that soon became popular. Interestingly you can see the steel from round the side of the building, but this is hidden from view.

One of the first steel framed skyscrapers is the Marquette Building, 1985, designed by Holabird and Roche and is typical of the Chicago School of architecture. (The northern part of the building 1891 is load bearing) It is a gorgeous brown thick terracotta, apparently it used to be more reddish in colour, but years of pollution from the Loop have darkened its tone.

3 characteristics of the Chicago School that help identify the style are:

  1. The external frame expresses the frame structure, windows can be much larger as they span the frame, giving the building a ‘cell like’ structure.
  2. 3 sections – the base is the first floor and is usually the commercial space of the building. The middle is relatively plain. The top floor is more ornate topped with a decorated cornice
  3. Chicago School windows are in 3 parts; a large fixed centre part, flanked by 2 vertical sash providing good ventilation.
This change in structure caused a dramatic change in design styles, as the formal technical and structural constraints of load bearing construction were removed. Louis Sullivan was one architect who embraced and used the new structure to create a new way to design using the 3 segments of the building and working with the iron frame. He used vertical decorated bands to draw the eye up the building. Sullivan is referred to as the father of the Skyscraper.
Terracotta was Sullivan’s material of choice as its malleability enabled him explored deeply ornamented, organic, vine like forms. A great example is the Guaranty building in Buffalo and the Carson Pirie Scott Store here in Chicago. I simply can’t leave it at that and will go look more closely at Sullivan another time, but to keep you going til then, these are the buildings that have made me quiver slightly…
5 Responses to “Chicago’s Cloud Scrapers Rise”
  1. Scott Thomas says:

    Dear Amyfrankiesmith,

    Enjoyed your article. One thing though. The original part of the Art Institute was not designed by Burnham and Root but rather by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge of Boston. They also designed what is now the Chicago Cultural Center (old main public library).

  2. Andy Fuller says:

    Fantastic……I came to your lecture (you gave the HEC first years) at Jackfield in the summer (I was the one that got involved in making the moulded element of the example you moulding that you brought with yuo).

    You got me hooked on ceramics and as a result I got my best grade of the year on ceramics….Chicago looks amazing….I now have to go….you can totally see the inspiration for some of our late 19th century and early 20th century terracotta and faience in Birmingham and Manchester!….

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for your message and congratulations on your successes in the ceramics module! I’m happy I was able to help and it’s great that you’re enjoying the providence of superb English craftsmanship. Do share any pictures of any gems you come across in your travels, I always love finding terracotta in my mailbox 😉 I’m doing more courses, so your feedback is appreciated. Good luck with the rest of the course and keep in touch.

  3. anne murray says:

    Fantastic, Chicago, I LoVE The. Chicago. School. Style! Keep the images coming. Your camera must be brilliant to get that close. Thanks for the latest update. Annex

  4. Absolutely LOVE the top cornicing on the red skyscraper, the detail and decoration is incredible. It looks like the building is growing! Is the black faience in the middle pictures framing a window iron work or glazed terracotta?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: