In 1871, great fires swept through Chicago. They began innocuously enough: a small rash of fires earlier in the year had dotted the landscape, caused by extremely dry weather. But in October, fires broke out on two separate evenings, and the... [more]
In 1871, great fires swept through Chicago. They began innocuously enough: a small rash of fires earlier in the year had dotted the landscape, caused by extremely dry weather. But in October, fires broke out on two separate evenings, and the first left firefighters so exhausted that their response to the second was too little, too late. In the end, the blazes had destroyed most of Chicago proper, razing 18,000 buildings and leaving 100,000 people homeless.
Faced with the daunting task of recreating a city not only as it was, but also to accommodate what it was becoming, architects from all over the United States began an intense period of creative responses to the large-scale commercial building that would come to be known as the Chicago School of Architecture. Their mark still exists today in the form of solid, towering buildings that rely on skeletal construction, structural steel, caissons, and reinforced concrete; in an emphasis on permanence and resistance to natural disasters; in a return to ornament, redefined in accordance with the solid, multi-story structures that it clings to, emphasizing the lacy pattern of windows that belie the density underneath.
The Chicago School flourished between 1875 and 1905, with construction waning and finally coming to a halt at the outbreak of World War II. To look at these buildings is to see a dialogue between style and function. Consider William Le Baron Jenney's First Leiter Building (1879) and marvel at the sheer number of windows for light and air, and their rhythmic spacing divided by delicate columns. Daniel Burnham and John Root's subsequent interpretations would range from The Rookery (1884-86), with its gothic ornamentation and dark stone melding into a structure at once hospitable and foreboding, to The Reliance Building (1894-95), whose variegated surface of angled windows can be seen in hundreds of buildings today. Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler's Garrick Theater (1891-92) was a new conception of a multi-story on a small lot, with arches serving as arrows that heighten its needle-like presence. The Guaranty Building (1894-95) is a model of the large office structure, utilizing curving ornamentation that The Reliance Building eschews in favor of a greater emphasis on the structure itself. Both Burnham and Sullivan would move on to found their own companies, revising and stripping down their designs to create the grid pattern of windows and skeletal elements that have become the norm for multi-story construction throughout the twentieth century.
Though the transmission of these new ideas was stymied by World War I, it could not be halted entirely. Noted first by isolated companies such as McKim, Mead, and White in New York, these design concepts reached a widespread acceptance in the 1920s and '30s, finally becoming a standard of building in the post-World War II era. Even today, they serve as a blueprint for commercial centers in the U.S. and throughout the world.