As an architect I think of the city as an assemblage of people and the urban fabric as the built or unbuilt components – a physical manifestation of the occupants. The urban fabric is an assimilation of the infrastructure and streets, the buildings, landscape, open spaces, parks and vacant land.
The city changes minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour as the masses of people travel through it. It is comprised of more than residents of the city, it includes those who work, play and pass through.
Chicago is one of the most diverse cities in the world with a mix of local, national and international residents, many who moved to Chicago because of the number of factories based here. Chicago’s central location, rail hub and easy access to Lake Michigan and the Mississippi river has always been a draw for manufacturers, and the infrastructure for all modes of travel make it an easy city to get to, visit and live.
Characteristics of the city
As an architect born and raised in Chicago I feel the city’s history of a diverse population is its most unique quality. Each neighborhood is defined by the people who originally settled there, whether Italian, Chinese, Korean, Irish and many more. This diverse collection of individuals established neighborhoods with others of similar origins. This diversity is what makes Chicago special, but it has also created the most significant challenging feature of Chicago – racial segregation. This separation is the biggest issue in Chicago today, with areas of the city thriving, while other locations are in decline.
The two most significant features of Chicago are its location along the shores of Lake Michigan, and the Chicago River that runs through the central business district. The 28-mile (45-km) lakefront features an 18-mile Lake Front Trail with a continuous public park. I am an avid biker, and this trail offers me an open, natural space to travel while enjoying indigenous plants and landscape, the lake and beach, and the breathtaking panoramic view of Chicago’s skyline. Buildings are prohibited from occupying the precious land. Access to the water and the resulting vistas along the entire lakefront are therefore open to all. The Chicago River, used for hundreds of years entirely for manufacturing and commercial transportation, has recently been cleaned up. Through urban landscaping the south side of the river bank has been converted into a public playground. The visual experience from the River Walk is of muscular iron bridges acting as frames for legendary modern skyscrapers that dot both sides of its banks.
The Cartesian street grid is another significant feature because it provides order and predictability, allowing one to locate themselves in any part of the city. Alleys are part of the grid system as they bifurcate the city block enabling all deliveries and trash removal to happen in a concealed secondary street network. This seems inconsequential but compared to other American cities, Chicago is remarkably clean because of this ally feature.
Preserving architectural heritage
The greatest protection of our urban fabric is the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Ordinance. This law is meant to protect the shoreline, protect our water and to designate special environmental, recreational, cultural, historical, community areas for everyone’s use – guarding the aesthetic values which define our city. (see chicagocode.org)
Architecture is particularly significant in Chicago. Unlike other cities that grew over time, the 1871 Great Chicago Fire and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition are defining events that made Chicago the center for new ideas in city planning, building design, material innovation and construction. Preserving this heritage is part of the fabric of the architecture community as a whole, and important to the city itself. The Historic Michigan Boulevard District is an example of how Chicago has protected its 19th and early 20th century architectural heritage. The design guideline notes that the historic street-wall ‘forms one of the most distinguished images of downtown Chicago’ so all the buildings along the 2-km stretch are protected from demolition or any significant modification. The history of Chicago being on the cutting edge of architectural design is written on the facades of these buildings. The city, however, is not frozen in the past as it encourages contemporary architecture in open property along the Boulevard. An example of a dynamically modern building is the Spertus Institute on South Michigan Ave that we designed. It is clearly a building of the 21st century, adding to the architectural language, richness and integrity of the iconic street.
Symbolic places and the story behind them
The only remaining components of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition are the Museum of Science & Industry Building (originally the Palace of Fine Arts) and the Olmsted designed landscaped Campus of the adjacent Jackson Park. This was a significant chapter in the history of the city. The idea that a city could be clean, white and ordered was unheard of in America during the industrial-focused 1800’s. The museum campus remains a living example of these ideals.
Daniel Burnham’s 1909 plan for the city was the framework for the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Ordinance. The historic Michigan Avenue Boulevard District is the symbolic representation of this significant condition. It performs as the dividing wall between the city and park land, a frame for Millennium Park, what is now the large recreational and cultural epicenter in Chicago. Millennium Park, opening in 2004, is an audacious assembly of art, architecture and landscape and has become the most visited place in the Midwest, not just in Chicago. With the Pritzker Bandshell and the BP Bridge, both designed by Frank Gehry, the stainless-steel Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor or the Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa (and our firm) – all components are unabashedly modern and physically interactive, serving to amplify Chicago’s progressive vibe.
The legendary buildings of the first Chicago School include the 1891 masonry Monadnock Building on Jackson Boulevard and the 1894 steel frame Reliance Building on State Street, both by Burnham & Root. The Monadnock Building was the tallest masonry bearing building in the world and became the final structure of that type. Three short years later, the Reliance building, with its expansive glass and terracotta façade foreshadowed the modern movement, profoundly influencing architecture across the globe. The second Chicago School blossomed after World War II with acceptance of Modern Architecture and the work of Mies van der Rohe. His 860 – 880 Lake Shore Drive apartment towers in 1951 and the Inland Steel building by Skidmore Owings & Merrill in 1957, opened the chapter of modern residential and office towers, creating a new look for skyscrapers not only in Chicago but the world over. I think the climax of this second school can best be seen in the 1965 Daley Center by C.F. Murphy’s Jacques Brownson. The building’s rusting COR-TEN steel and massive structure spans is the ultimate realization of Miesian architecture.
Architectural material which shapes the city
Prior to the 1871 Great Chicago Fire most of the buildings were constructed of wood. After the destructive fire more enduring materials like stone, masonry and terracotta became the predominant resources for both residential and commercial structures. Mies’ 860 – 880 Lake Shore Drive residential towers unequivocally changed the course of building materials both in Chicago and worldwide. There were only two materials used on the entire buildings – steel and glass. This revolutionary approach of exposed structural steel was deployed in the service of architecture – as a façade element, bringing in a new architectural style.
These towers had a profound effect on Chicago architecture materials starting in 1957 with the column-free, stainless steelclad Inland Steel Building and reached a peak of structural steel expression with the 1974 John Hancock Center. Like Mies’ exposed I-beam façade, the 100-story Hancock building is a bold concept of elevating a building’s structure to become its architecture. Steel and glass is certainly not the only material of choice for Chicago architecture today. Aqua, at Lake Shore East by Jeanne Gang, is a sinuous structural concrete tower that was inspired by Bertrand Goldberg’s visionary Marina City of 1961 – 1968. For Marina City’s twin towers, exposed concrete is used to create cantilevered balcony petals and becomes another brilliant example of structure elevated to architecture.
What the future material will be is anyone’s guess but you can be sure that Chicago will embrace the new with the same degree of innovation as the world has witnessed in the last 150 years.