The Importance of Looking Up

A narrative of Chicago’s architectural style

As you walk through a city you’ve lived in your whole life, it’s easy to lose yourself in the bustling traffic and familiar faces. Cars whizz by, lights illuminate storefronts and skillful musicians line the sidewalks. 

Getting lost may be part of the charm, but you may also find true beauty through the history and uniqueness of Chicago’s buildings. During your next trip into the city, take a moment to admire the remarkable architecture surrounding you.

In October of 1871, a massive fire spread across the city of Chicago and permanently destroyed over three square miles of the city and left one third of the population homeless. The fire effectively rebuilt the city: maps were redrawn, city transit was completely altered and fireproof laws were made that required buildings be made of fireproof material, rather than the densely-packed wood that buildings had been made of prior. Chicago quickly became an innovative city, filled with skyscrapers made of brick, limestone, marble and even terra cotta. The geographical surroundings of the city were untouched, granting Chicago the natural beauty of Lake Michigan’s luminous complexion. 

The Great Chicago Fire is responsible for Chicago’s most dramatic architectural revelation, and as a result, its world-famous reputation as the birthplace of skyscrapers.

Daniel Burnham was a notable architect of this time period. Burnham grew up in Chicago and moved back after his search for an education, where he met John Wellborn Root, another architect who formed an integral partnership with Burnham. Together, the two completed a collection of projects around the city of Chicago, the most notable of which was called the “White City”. It was built in neoclassicism; a style that combined appearances of early European architecture and integrated it with the public American eye. 

Some of Burnham’s most notable works are the Rookery Building, the Monadnock Building, and the Flatiron Building found in Wicker Park. 

However, the trend Burnham sought to begin in Chicago’s architecture was widely discredited by architect Louis Sullivan, who also designed the groundwork for many iconic buildings in Chicago, such as the Sullivan Center and the Auditorium Building. Sullivan was a pioneer in popularizing the architectural style Chicago Commercial (or Chicago School). While this style appears to borrow habits of classical Roman or Greek structure, Sullivan believed it belonged strictly to the city of Chicago as an independent phenomenon. 

Sullivan believed in democratic voice through architecture, especially through his unique use of organic ornamentation, and that buildings should reflect its environment and the demographics surrounding it. 

“All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other,” he once stated. 

Sullivan crafted an aesthetic that dispersed around Chicago over the course of many years. The city’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, was built in Chicago Commercial Style by Chicago architect William Le Baron Jenney successfully in 1885, 14 years after the fire. It stood at 42 meters tall and was demolished in 1931. 

Chicago’s business district continued to be reconstructed until the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, in which the new city was presented to the world. 

Today, we see these styles exist all throughout the city, along with many more. Chicago is unique in its diverse range of architectural styles, some from our modern era and some that are derived from earlier styles. An example of this is the famous Tribune Tower, constructed as a result of the 1922 Interior and Exterior Design Competition hosted by the Chicago Tribune. The tower is extremely ornate with a beautiful gothic facade and striking buttresses surrounding the peak, a symbolic characteristic of Romanesque architecture. This competition accepted over 260 entries worldwide, driving America into another new age of architecture. 

Buildings continued to increasingly get taller and taller as time progressed. In 1970 the famous Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) was built, and at 1,451 feet it was the world’s tallest building until 1996, when it was surpassed by the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

Although skyscrapers occupy the majority of Chicago’s architectural reputation, it’s important to also pay attention to the intricate details and variety of styles that we find within Chicago’s buildings. 

As modernism develops, buildings will only continue to get taller and cities will only continue to expand, but these historical landmarks will always stand to serve as a reminder of Chicago’s rich history of progressive standing and diverse population; if only we decide to look up.