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The architecture of Chicago has influenced and reflected the history of American architecture. The city of Chicago, Illinois features prominent buildings in a variety of styles by many important architects. Since most buildings within the downtown area were destroyed (the most famous exception being the Water Tower) by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, Chicago buildings are noted for their originality rather than their antiquity.


Beginning in the early 1880s, architectural pioneers of the Chicago School explored steel-frame construction and, in the 1890s, the use of large areas of plate glass. These were among the first modern skyscrapers. William LeBaron Jenneys Home Insurance Building of 1885 is often considered to be the first to use steel in its structural frame instead of cast iron, but this building was still clad in heavy brick and stone. However, the Montauk Building, designed by John Wellborn Root Sr. and Daniel Burnham, was built in 1882–1883 using structural steel. In his account of the Worlds Columbian Exposition and the serial murderer H. H. Holmes, The Devil in the White City (2004), Erik Larson states that the Montauk became the first building to be called a “skyscraper”. Daniel Burnham and his partners, John Welborn Root and Charles Atwood, designed technically advanced steel frames with glass and terra cotta skins in the mid-1890s, in particular the Reliance Building; these were made possible by professional engineers, in particular E. C. Shankland, and modern contractors, in particular George A. Fuller.

Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan was perhaps the citys most philosophical architect. Realizing that the skyscraper represented a new form of architecture, he discarded historical precedent and designed buildings that emphasized their vertical nature. This new form of architecture, by Jenney, Burnham, Sullivan, and others, became known as the “Commercial Style,” but it was called the “Chicago School” by later historians.

In 1892, the Masonic Temple surpassed the New York World Building, breaking its two year reign as the tallest skyscraper, only to be surpassed itself two years later by another New York building.


Daniel Burnham led the design of the “White City” of the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition which some historians claim led to a revival of Neo-Classical architecture throughout Chicago and the entire United States. It is true that the “White City” represented anything other than its host citys architecture. While Burnham did develop the 1909 “Plan for Chicag”, perhaps the first comprehensive city plan in the U.S, in a Neo-Classical style, many of Chicagos most progressive skyscrapers occurred after the Exposition closed, between 1894 and 1899. Louis Sullivan said that the fair set the course of American architecture back by two decades, but even his finest Chicago work, the Schlesinger and Meyer (later Carson, Pirie, Scott) store, was built in 1899–five years after the “White City” and ten years before Burnhams Plan.

Sullivans comments should be viewed in the context of his complicated relationship with Burnham. Erik Larsons history of the Columbian Exposition, “Devil in the White City” correctly points out that the building techniques developed during the construction of the many buildings of the fair were entirely modern, even if they were adorned in a way Sullivan found aesthetically distasteful.

Frank Lloyd Wrights Prairie School influenced both building design and the design of furnishings.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohes Illinois Institute of Technology campus in Chicago influenced the later Modern or International style. Van der Rohes work is sometimes called the Second Chicago School.

Since 1963, a “Second Chicago School” emerged, largely due to the ideas of structural engineer Fazlur Khan. He introduced a new structural system of framed tubes in skyscraper design and construction. The Bangladeshi engineer Fazlur Khan defined the framed tube structure as “a three dimensional space structure composed of three, four, or possibly more frames, braced frames, or shear walls, joined at or near their edges to form a vertical tube-like structural system capable of resisting lateral forces in any direction by cantilevering from the foundation.” Closely spaced interconnected exterior columns form the tube. Horizontal loads, for example wind, are supported by the structure as a whole. About half the exterior surface is available for windows. Framed tubes allow fewer interior columns, and so create more usable floor space. Where larger openings like garage doors are required, the tube frame must be interrupted, with transfer girders used to maintain structural integrity.

The first building to apply the tube-frame construction was the DeWitt-Chestnut apartment building which Khan designed and was completed in Chicago by 1963. This laid the foundations for the tube structures of many other later skyscrapers, including his own constructions of the John Hancock Center and Willis Tower (then named the Sears Tower) in Chicago and can been seen in the construction of the World Trade Center, Petronas Towers, Jin Mao Building, and most other supertall skyscrapers since the 1960s. Willis Tower would be the worlds tallest building from its construction in 1974 until 1998 (when the Petronas Towers was built) and would remain the tallest for some categories of buildings until the Burj Dubai is completed.

Numerous architects have constructed landmark buildings of varying styles in Chicago. Some of these are the so-called “Chicago seven”: James Ingo Freed, Tom Beeby, Larry Booth, Stuart Cohen, James Nagle, Stanley Tigerman, and Ben Weese.

Modern Architecture

Chicago is often recognized as the international capital of modern architecture. The city is rich with historical landmarks that track the ascent of contemporary building practices. To wander around Chicago, taking in the sights, is to tour the evolution of modern architecture as we know it today. From high rise towers in the Loop to inspired suburban homes, contemporary Chicago real estate is appealing and distinguished.

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