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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
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Travel to Chicago


Chicago, Architectural Capital of the United States

1 August 2014

Writer Jay Merrick celebrates Chicago’s astounding architecture

Which city is the architectural capital of the United States? The obvious answer is New York. But the correct answer is Chicago. For it was here, on the edge of Lake Michigan, that the early spirit of American modern architecture took root in the most varied and original ways – not just in terms of tall buildings, but also in engineering advances, and in a dazzling array of housing designs. 

Manhattan may have the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in a uniquely dense thicket of skyscrapers, but Chicago is where more than a century’s worth of can-do architectural innovation really jumps out at you. Here’s a quick (and no doubt unfair) example: the Empire State is deservedly legendary, but its architecture is essentially unremarkable compared to, say, the exquisitely structured John Hancock Centre tower in Chicago. 

There isn’t, in my opinion, a skyscraper in New York or anywhere else in the world that has the sheer bravura presence of the Hancock, or the much taller Willis tower – both designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Even if you think laterally, rather than hyper-vertically, it was Chicago that set the standard. 

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the design of massive “groundscrapers” as an alternative to skyscrapers, and Jean Nouvel’s so-called Stealth Building near St Paul’s Cathedral in London is an obvious example. Its low-slung form contains 560,000 square feet of floor space. No, but seriously, you want groundscrapers? How about the 1930 Merchandise Mart building in Chicago: with four million square feet of floor space over 18 floors – still the biggest building in the world apart from the Pentagon and the New Century Global Centre in Chengdu, China.

If you take a stroll northwards from the Chicago River inlet, along the so-called Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue, you will begin to get an idea of the city’s architectural riches. 

At the southern end, you’ll encounter the buttressed, neo-gothic Chicago Tribune tower, dating from 1925. By the time you gaze up at the 1968 Hancock building, 20 minutes later, you will have seen two perfectly contrasting examples of superb vertical architecture – one marking the end-point of tall buildings with extravagant “historical” features, the other, a 100-storey building completed in 1968 that’s taller than London’s Shard; and, incidentally, the beautiful criss-crosses of the Hancock’s diagrid exoskeleton predated the diagrid of London’s Swiss Re tower by 36 years. 

Chicago’s ability to lead the way architecturally was hard-wired into the city’s collective mindset in the late 19th century. It was a remarkably rich and bustling place because by then it had become America’s shipment and warehousing hub: endless cargoes of grain, livestock and other products funnelled into the rail yards, before being freighted onwards to other parts of the country; and between 1870 and 1900 Chicago’s population exploded, rising from 299,000 to nearly 1.7 million, a rate of growth matched only by some Chinese cities in the 21st century. 

You can feel something of the city’s unique character in the staccato toughness of these opening lines from Chicago, the famous 1914 poem by Carl Sandburg: HOG Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.

And Chicago remains a city that, in the words of the once-resident actor John Malkovich, is not interested in what you say you can do, but only in what you actually can do. This outlook has always applied to the city’s architecture as the city grew exponentially after the Great Fire of 1871. 

It was in Chicago, built mostly on deep beds of clay, that steel “grillage” foundations – the precursor to reinforced concrete foundations – were pioneered; the Rookery building, still standing in LaSalle Street, was built on a bolted mesh of railway tracks. Decades earlier, in 1856, Chicago’s can-do ethic had already – and quite literally – reached a new level. 

To combat regular floods, whole chunks of the city’s built fabric were jacked up by more than a metre. The British historian Paul Johnson relishes one particular example: the five-storey Briggs Hotel, weighing 22,000 tonnes, was lifted and safely propped… while it continued to operate. This quest for originality began in the 1880s with the architecture of designers such as John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham and William Le Baron Jenney, who designed and delivered the first steel framed buildings. 

Le Baron Jenney’s design of the Home Insurance Building, rising to a then outrageous ten storeys, was one of the first that set out to make a grandiose virtue of height. But that was nothing compared to the 1892 Masonic Temple, the first 21-storey building in the world. 

And Burnham and Root’s 16-storey Monadnock North building, completed in the same year, remains the world’s tallest brick-structured building, with walls six feet thick at its base. Even its aluminium-filigreed staircases were unique – the first time that this metal had been used in a building. To reach out and touch the obdurate purple-brown bricks of the Monadnock today is make direct contact with the fearless, non-nonsense 19th century soul of the city’s architecture.

The most articulate of Chicago’s original architectural seers was Louis Sullivan. And it was he who effectively brand-marked what became known as the Chicago school of architecture, ensuring that while New York became known for the remarkable quantity of its tall buildings, Chicago remained the benchmark for design originality. 

Chicago’s late-19th century commercial buildings marked a turning point in architectural history, and their design breakthroughs depended as much on engineering skill as pure architectural design – a mixture that has continued to characterise the best Chicago buildings. The most internationally influential 20th century example features the pairing of the architect Bruce Graham and the engineer Fazlur Khan, who produced the Hancock tower. 

Khan’s tube-frame innovation has, since then, become a standard structural system for the tallest contemporary skyscrapers – the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, for example. Chicago not only set the bar for tall buildings, but also led the way in design of steel and glass buildings and house design. The latter featured the work of America’s greatest 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked for Louis Sullivan at the beginning of his subsequently fabulous career. 

Wright, who had no architectural qualifications, designed his own studio and home in 1898 – the first of many houses that he produced in the still salubrious suburban enclave of Oak Park; the novelist Ernest Hemingway grew up in the same neighbourhood during the time Wright was designing houses there. 

Wright’s Oak Park buildings marked the beginning of a series of highly original designs that became known, collectively as the Prairie Houses. Any visitor to Chicago with even the faintest interest in architecture simply has to visit the 1910 Robie House, probably the most iconic of this extraordinary collection, which typically feature very shallow roof pitches reminiscent of classical Japanese architecture, squat chimneys, multiple terraces, open plan interiors and exquisitely made furniture designed by Wright.

Wright’s innovations in domestic architecture were matched, in a precisely opposite way, half a century later by one of the greatest examples of ultra-pared down modernist architecture. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, in the suburb of Plano, a few miles west of the centre of Chicago, is composed of steel-framed roof and floor slabs, steel pillars and glass – a see-through house raised on steel stilts. 

Van der Rohe, a German émigré and one of modern architecture’s seminal geniuses, also ensured that Chicago led the way in the design of other kinds of building. His 52-storey 330 North Wabash building, completed in 1973, is a key example of glass-and-steel office buildings – though it must be admitted that his smaller 1958 Seagram building in Manhattan was the original for this architectural style. 

But the structure that absolutely epitomises van der Rohe’s famous “less-is-more” dictum is in Chicago: the Crown Hall building, which houses the College of Architecture, is a perfectly refined essay in steel, glass and column-free internal space. Such is Crown Hall’s importance in the architectural canon that even the most provocative of 21st century architects, Rem Koolhass, did not dare to upstage van der Rohe’s building when he designed the nearby McCormick Tribune Campus Center in 2003. 

The superstar architect Frank Gehry had no such precedents to restrain him when he designed the highly extravert 2004 Jay Pritzker pavilion in Grant Park. Nor did Bertram Goldberg have to hold back when he designed the 65-storey Marina City twin towers in 1964, which look like vast concrete corncobs. 

And in 2010, the Chicago architect Jeanne Gang delivered the Aqua Tower, whose extraordinary rippling facades are yet another world architectural first for the city. So much to see, so little time? Not at all. Chicago, the can-do city, is ready to show you its architectural greatness. The guided tours run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust are excellent, as are the various architectural boat tours that pass through the centre of the city on the Chicago River. Prepare to be amazed.