United States is a huge country, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through more than 3.000 miles. Along its coasts – East and West – there are the most important cities, business centers, cultural facilities, leisure areas, artistic and technological innovation hubs... In between one, a large and very unknown land extension. An interior America, mostly rural, with great landscapes and contrasts where, eventually, it seems that time has stopped. Part of this territory is the so-called Midwest, and that’s where I went recently: an exception in the panorama; a modern, dynamic and avant-garde city. I’m talking about modern architecture in Chicago and the city of course.
Right, Chicago has a coastline. Twenty-nine miles of shore on Lake Michigan. However, you will agree with me that, in terms of urban development, a port on a lake is not the same as one on the open sea. The latter is a gateway to international trade and cultural exchange impossible to match for the first. What specific weight has the Italian community had in New York? And the Irish in Boston? The Chinese in San Francisco? Chicago is a rara avis, a singularity in the cultural landscape that is difficult to explain.
Avant-garde, dynamic and modern. With these terms we have defined Chicago, embracing much more than its architecture. The “Windy City” has been – and is – referenced in many aspects: as a cultural epicenter thanks to its rich operatic and theatrical life, originated in the 19th century and still going on nowadays (the “Chicago” musical attests); it is an important educational center with universities such as Northwestern, the Illinois Institute of Technology or Chicago University; It was a strategic enclave in the transport network of the country, due to Union Station regarding the railway system and as the starting point of the emblematic Route 66, and so it is today thanks to the two airports in the city – O’Hare and Midway -, key locations on air routes. Even at a culinary level, Chicago is the birthplace of the famous Pizza Pie or “Deep dish pizza,” a thick-crust pizza that competes directly with New York pizza. In sports, I wouldn’t like to forget about the last great dynasty of American sports: the Chicago Bulls of the 90s, led by Michael Jordan on the floor and Phil Jackson and his innovative offensive triangle as head coach. Even taking the idea to the most radical extreme, we could affirm that in one of the darkest moments of the country, during the dry law, there was no mafia more famous than Chicago’s, with Al Capone leading it.
The architecture and urbanism of Chicago have also been spearheads in the American scene. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, it emerged in the city, featuring names such as Sullivan, Adler or a young Frank Lloyd Wright, an architectural style of its own that would be known as “Commercial Architecture” or “Chicago School” and today the modern architecture in Chicago.
An architectural style is not born from anything. It is necessary a context, a social and economic framework that pushes the creators, from artists to engineers, from writers to urban planners, to develop in their fields the reflection of that historical moment. In the case of Chicago, there are two very significant facts: the Great Fire of 1871 and the Columbian Exhibition of 1893.
The fire of 1871 destroyed much of the city, including the downtown – known today as the “Loop” – and the surrounding neighborhoods. After the devastation, a critical scenario was set, conditioned by some aspects: the need for immediate reconstruction of the city, a new building code focused on the prevention of the fire spread and a group of architects that sought to create their own style, distancing themselves from the schools of Paris and Rome, until then recognised as the international reference.
Twenty years earlier, at the Universal Exhibition in London in 1851, Joseph Paxton had amazed the world with the Crystal Palace, the first metal structure building. The development of the metal construction technique pushed the architects of the Chicago School to design buildings in height, using non-flammable materials such as terracotta or stone to cover the structural framework. The buildings as a whole were assimilated to a classical column, recreating the three parts: the base, formed by the lower floors, the shaft, represented by the intermediate levels and generally with little ornamentation, and the capital, identifiable in the last one or two stories capped with a cornice. The facade was composed using a uniform grid, allowing substantial space for the “Chicago Window”, a three-part window consisting of a large fixed center panel flanked by two smaller double-hung sash Windows. The first truly American architectural style was born.
The second event that marked Chicago was the 1893 Columbian Exhibition, perhaps not so much because of the physical footprint left in the city but because of the urban design ideas that were outlined. The architect Daniel Burnham and the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted directed the planning and construction of the exhibition site, based on Beaux-Arts school principles: balance, symmetry, axiality… neoclassical style architecture imported from Europe. Gardens, lakes, and sculptures of sponged and decorated the space between pavilions, leading to what was known as “White City”.
Burnham was convinced that the application of these principles to urban design would result in more civilized, better-connected cities with a lower poverty rate. The example set by the White City led, in the following years, to the monumental urbanism carried out in several American cities. The National Mall in Washington D.C. is the paradigmatic example.
Paradoxically, no similar operation was carried out in Chicago. However, in 1906 a group of entrepreneurs asked Burnham to draw up a plan for Chicago’s future urban growth. In 1909 Burnham published his famous Chicago Plan, in which he identified six key points for the urban development of the city. These included the creation of a park along the lakefront, a system of highways outside the city, the improvement of transport infrastructures, the adaptation, and improvement of streets and the creation of parks and cultural centers and of public administration. Among all of them, only the first one has completely executed: a continuous park following the shore of Lake Michigan. Although the rest of the points were sparse, Burnham’s document served as a reference for urban planning throughout the 20th century.
After a time, being Chicago already established as one of the great cities of the United States, the modern architecture in Chicago would lead once again the creative genius of the nation. In the 1940s Mies Van der Rohe became part of the faculty at the Illinois Institute of Technology. From his chair, he would transmit to the students the concepts of modern architecture developed in his previous stage in Europe, while from his studio he would design icons of the city such as the apartments on Lake Shore Drive, the Federal Plaza complex, the Crowne Hall or the famous Farnsworth House. The architectural principles of Mies, together with the development of optimized metal structures capable of absorbing lateral forces – especially wind – laid the foundations for the design of skyscrapers. As a result of the evolution of the work of this Second School of Chicago, architects and engineers developed buildings such as the Willis Tower (Sears), the former World Trade Center in New York or the Petronas Towers of Malaysia.
Perhaps in today’s totally globalized and interconnected world, it is more difficult for a cultural revolution in any field to identify specifically with a city. However, the Windy City continues to be a focus of creation and continues betting on avant-garde architecture; Frank Gehry’s Millenium Park or the brand new Apple Store on Michigan Avenue attest to that. Maybe the rhythm imposed by the contemporary world does not allow a new architectural style to be consolidated as its own before it is imitated in other places so that the referents of the present are more fleeting, explosive, almost instantaneous. Even so, winds of modernity continue to blow in Chicago, whether through the first African-American president, Barack Obama, or graphic artist Elise Swopes.