Chicago- A stimulating metropolis for any architect

Part One - Chicago 2013


Immersing oneself in the metropolis of Chicago is stimulating for any architect. Its pivotal contribution to 20th century architecture as the home of many influential architects guarantees its place in history. The beat of any city is often defined by its people, their spirit and culture, their desire for progress, their passion for innovation. Chicago in many senses is defined by the impact of the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871, the subsequent reconstruction of much of the city and the eventual hosting of the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition in 1893. With over 200 buildings constructed for the Fair, this made a statement of Chicago rising from the ashes and instilled in its people a new vigour for a visionary future.


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Aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, 1871


Out of this revitalization came a new sense of determination to design and construct buildings based on new industrial techniques using not only mass brickwork, but steel and concrete. The skyscraper was born and walking through the streets of the Loop is a museum like experience. The evolution of techniques and the influence of the beaux arts, arts & crafts and art deco movements in the decoration is there for any ardent observer. In this context, to then add the work of Frank Lloyd Wright becomes an architectural tour de force!


 I have always been an admirer of FLW from very early days of my career. To visit Oak Park, the classy suburb to the west of the city, is to step back into an age when the architect developed as an apprentice, learnt their profession from the masters and confidently stepped out at the beginning of the 20th century towards a new future. Frank Lloyd Wright was both an apprentice, (of Louis Sullivan in Chicago) and a master (from his early studio in Oak Park to the two Taliesins in Wisconsin and Arizona). It’s always a thrill to experience things at first hand, to enjoy the totality of the design intent from the structure, colour, decoration and furniture, and marvel in the craftsmanship that FLW demanded.


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 The brick detailing is second to none and the strong horizontal lines that became known as the Prairie Style sits so beautifully on the site. I also enjoyed visiting the Unity Temple, home of the Unitarian Church in Oak Park. Built some years into last century, this has been described as FLW’s ‘little jewel box’ and exudes details of careful resolution.


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“Form follows function-that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” FLW 1908


I encourage any person visiting the Chicago area to participate in the brilliant tours conducted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation It makes for a more meaningful experience when with an architect!! 


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Chicago Model City- Chicago Architecture Foundation’s atrium gallery


With the prelude to World War II came an influx of architects and artisans from Germany to the US. This added a new dynamic to Chicago and saw the International Style of modernism thrive in many of its new skyscrapers. The most influential of these architects at the time was Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. His buildings adorn the streets of Chicago, both in the Loop and to the north of the Chicago River. The simple detailing but carefully resolved structures stand as a contrast to the earlier towers, but a prelude to a continual evolution of the skyscraper.


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Chicago River skyline including Mies Van Der Rohe’s 333 Wabash Drive (centre) located between the Trump Tower (right) and Marina City (curved façade).


I had the pleasure of visiting Perkins + Will, Architects, a long established international studio with offices in the Mies building highlighted above. It’s a long way from 340 Hay Street, Subiaco!


Chicago is a vibrant and culturally rich metropolis. I may have been but a visitor, but it’s a celebration of a people growing out of adversity and making their mark through a strong belief in the future.

Philip Idle

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