Chicago: A city of world-class architecture

In Historical Homes, Significant Spaces on June 5, 2011 at 12:26 pm

I grew up in Chicago.  It’s an outstanding city… the perfect hybrid of international design and mid-western congeniality. The people, the places are as warm and welcoming as they are strong and important.  Cut to the other day when a friend calls my beloved Chicago (get ready for it), a “me too” city.  That stung.  We were speaking specifically about architecture, so I guess we can leave Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, The Chicago Bulls, Orsen Welles, Steppenwolf Theatre (John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney), Chess Records, Buddy Guy, Wilco, The Smashing Pumpkins, Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, the permanent collection at The Art Institute of Chicago, Lew Manilow (a personal hero), Marshall Field’s and pizza out of the conversation.  Very well.

So let’s talk architecture.  As a child, I was surrounded by design… my mother is an interior designer and my father, an advocate of trophy homes.  I split my time between a well-appointed, mid-century ranch in the suburbs and a number of lavish houses in the city.  The commuting was an annoyance, but the aesthetics made it worth the trip.

614 W. Fullerton.  My favorite childhood home.  Stylish and sturdy (very “Chicago”).

And I can’t believe I don’t have a handy photo of the exterior of my mother’s house, but here’s a nice and nearby example of the mid century residences that lie just outside the city itself.

The Keck brothers were prominent architects in my neck of the woods.  This home, I believe, is in neighboring Olympia Fields.  Again, stylish & sturdy.

And though beautiful and architecturally interesting, none of my family’s homes were “significant”… so let’s talk significance.  Where to begin.

My kind of town.

I guess the Chicago fire of 1871 is a good jumping off point.  The city was left in ruins.  Tragic, but a remarkable way to start again.  Architects from around the globe swarm to Chicago to present ideas & renderings for a new, “modern” city at the World’s Fair of 1893.  Brilliant.

The Columbian Exhibit, Chicago World’s Fair (most of the structures were actually made of papier-mâché… can you imagine?)

With the fair comes the Beaux Arts movement to Chicago – and we’re on our way.  Some of my favorite (and not-at-all-“me too”-esque) examples that still grace the city…

The Museum of Science & Industry, 1892.

The Lobby of the Blackstone Hotel, 1908-1910.

The Art Institute of Chicago, 1893.

Pardon my abridged version of the city’s growth, but if I savor every little detail, we’ll be here forever (and even though Federer/Nadal are keeping me inside at the moment, the sun is coming out and the pool outside my hotel room is calling to me)… so broad strokes it is.  Let’s go full on 20th Century.

Pre-Great Depression, Chicago flirted with a handful of early 20th Century movements… Of course, there’s the Chicago School of Architecture.  Fathered mostly by the great Louis Sullivan (who wisely employed a then unknown Frank Lloyd Wright).  Talk about style-meeting-substance.

“Chicago School”… Carson Pirie Scott Building by Louis Sullivan, 1904

Mediterranean Revival… the South Shore Country Club, 1905. (a gorgeous, old sporting club where gentlemen members – including my Grandfather – could reside between marriages. *The Obamas were also married here in 1992).

Art Deco… the Palmolive Building, 1929.

Neo-Gothic… The Tribune Building, 1923.

And then, of course, working pre-Depression, post-Depression and seemingly forever (career spanned from 1887-1959, included over 1000 projects), there is the incomparable Frank Lloyd Wright.  We all know about him… the caustic perfectionist who worked within the Chicago School of architecture, created the Prairie School, mastered the textile block system, then worked long enough to form the Organic Style and fully nurture and inspire the Modern Movement of architecture.  He’s not at all my favorite architect (though I do have an affinity for Fallingwater), but his accomplishments and influence can’t go without being recognized… and he’s from CHICAGO.

The Robie House, 1909.  I get it.

Interior detail of the Robie House.  I think it’s the ornamental details of his work (picked up from Louis Sullivan) that I enjoy the most.

Annnnnnd now it get’s fun.  Enter artists, Bohemians, and Modernism…  West Burton Place is a tiny, dead end street between LaSalle St. and Wells St.  It was around the corner from another of my dad’s homes and as an early teen, I would cut through Burton Place headed to the bar where I would buy cigarettes.  My father’s house was old and structured… but just around the corner, I found my bliss.  An enclave of Bohemian-built studios unlike anything else in the fairly stuffy, Old Town neighborhood.  Unexpected details in the tilework, atypical scaling of windows and doorways… these apartments had a courtyard with a fish pond  and actual walkways  – not shared hallways and doormen.  I was in love.

155 Burton Place, Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller, 1927 (rehab.)

155 Burton Place, interior

Let’s fast forward to Mies and Modernism.  Mix together the endings of Bauhaus with some De Stijl and send the Nazis through Europe… and Chicago ends up with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at Illinois Institute of Technology – heading the esteemed department of Architecture and leading the burgeoning and game-changing Modern Movement.  The “Second School of Chicago” style is born, c.1937.

Mies van der Rohe in front of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, 1949-1951.  Badass.

Farnsworth House, LMvdR, 1951

Federal Plaza, LMvdR, 1956

And then came Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago-formed Architectural powerhouse responsible for such significant projects as…

The Inland Steel Building, SOM, 1959

The John Hancock Building, SOM, 1969 (on top of which is one of my favorite bars of all time).

And of course, the Sears Tower, SOM, 1973

Since the Seventies, there has been continued building in Chicago… though I think the more significant structures have been residential, there are some commercial/public spaces of note.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Josef Paul Kleihues, 1991

Millennium Park, Frank Gehry, Kathryn Gustafson, Anish Kapoor, Jaume Plensa, and others, 1998

And just a final note about my hometown’s dedication and drive to preserve, sustain and build great architecture, The Pritzker Architecture Prize – known as “the Nobel of Architecture” was founded and is annually awarded by the Chicago-based Pritzker family:

“As native Chicagoans, it’s not surprising that our family was keenly aware of architecture, living in the birthplace of the skyscraper, a city filled with buildings designed by architectural legends such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and many others.”

~Thomas J. Pritzker

“Me too?”… I think not, Mister.

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