Behind Chicago’s Architecture

Chicago is home to the world’s first skyscraper, and since that momentous milestone, has remained a pioneer in the architectural world. But what gives Chicago its trendsetting je ne sais quoi? A unique history drives the diverse array of styles and voices that have forever marked architecture in Chicago, and in the world. 

Epicenter of Manufacturing

By the mid-19th century, Chicago was an essential trading hub, with imports and exports flowing in and out via the Illinois and Michigan Canal and railways. Impressive stockyards, manufacturing, banking and other commercial industries, combined with the country’s first comprehensive sewage system, drew in a large, urban population. That population flocked to a concentrated city-center, where buildings shot skywards to keep pace with the growth.

The Great Chicago Fire

Chicago grew quickly, and fell just as fast. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed 17,500 buildings, leaving devastation in its wake and demanding the city rebuild. With the chance to start fresh, Chicago rebuilt bigger, better and smarter. A city grid was established, adding order and intentionality. Propelled by two crucial inventions, safety elevators and the Bessemer Convertor, Chicago architects could also build higher than ever before. It was during this time that the world’s first skyscraper, the ten-story Home Insurance Company, was built, marking the dawn of a new era in architecture.

City views from an apartment at Optima Signature
City views from an apartment at Optima Signature

The Burnham Plan

Chicago reached an all-time-high during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, with 27.5 global visitors flocking to the city. Planning for the city’s continuous and rapid growth, director of the fair, Daniel Burnham proposed the 1909 Plan of Chicago, or simply the “Burnham Plan.” Their utopian design for the city included lakefront improvement, increased transportation systems and an abundant outer park system. Though not every component outlined came to fruition, the Burnham Plan left a profound mark on contemporary urban planning.

A sweeping view from Club 52 at Optima Signature
A sweeping view from Club 52 at Optima Signature

Modernism Rises

While the Burnham Plan was classically-influenced, up and coming Chicago architects shared new ideas. Louis Sullivan led the legion of Chicago School architecture under the motto “form forever follows function,” a creed later adopted by the Modernist movement. As Sullivan pioneered a new class of skyscrapers that had international impact, his mentee, Frank Lloyd Wright, explored architecture closer to the ground with his Prairie homes. These innovative thinkers helped drive the diversity of Chicago’s architecture, creating a skyline that is storied, varied, impressive and influential. 

Optima adds our own voice into the mix, designing in the Modernist discipline and applying new approaches, to honor a legacy of harmonious and mixed voices in Chicago. 

A Brief History of the Terrace

A hallmark of Optima properties is our integration of the built environment with the natural. Oftentimes, we employ terraceslevel platforms incorporated into buildings that allow for plantlife to thrive—that allow our buildings, and their residents, to live in harmony with the surrounding landscape. The usage of terraces is one that dates back for over 12,000 years, evolving over the millennium to be the sophisticated components of urban architecture that they are today.

Terraces of Ancient Times

The word terrace is derived from terra, the Latin word for earth. The technique has been in use for over 12,000 years, first utilized as an ancient farming method in hilly regions. Agricultural terracing involved cutting the land into a series of successively receding flat platforms, much like steps, to allow for more effective farming, by decreasing erosion and surface runoff and increasing the effectiveness of irrigation.  

An illustration of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
An illustration of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

In 9800 BC, ancient civilizations realized that they could adapt this technique to buildings, and they began to add terraces to their homes and other domestic structures. This first usage was seen across the globe, from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands. The most famous interpretation is undeniably King Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Although no actual proof of its existence has been found, depictions show an ascending series of tiered gardens abundant with plantlife, complete even with a waterfall.

Thousands of years later, from 3000 BC – 600 BC, Mesopotamians grew gardens atop ziggurats, terraced religious temples that allowed for religious spaces to become placed ever higher. The structures were placed upon many layered platforms, and it’s believed that ziggurats were what inspired the Biblical parable The Tower of Babel. 

Terraces continued to be integrated into homes. Around 1500 AD, Venice adopted terrace design to the tops of their homes, called altanas. Altanas were private, slat-floored roofs. They started out as a place to hang laundry out to dry, but continue to be used today as social spaces.

The terraced design of Optima Camelview Village.
The terraced design of Optima Camelview Village.

Terraces in the Modern Age

Following the progression of altanas as a place to socialize, people began more and more to use the terrace as a location to congregate in privacy. Private rooftop and per-unit terraces became luxury amenities in the 1920s, when building height began to increase due to the adoption of the elevator. At that time, terraces become a status of wealth, allowing for privacy, fresh air and separation from the increasing bustle of life on city-level. 

Today, the use of terraces continues to flourish, finding increased purpose and urgency in response to population growth and a changing environmental climate. They provide private places to reconvene with nature, away from the bustle of the city. Terraces also create sustainable and contributive space, by providing thermal insulation, solar shading to mitigate air pollution, increased biodiversity and enhanced quality of life. 

At Optima, we incorporate terraces to create private social space, to integrate nature into our communities through our signature hanging gardens, and to contribute to our sustainability practices at many of our properties, including Optima Camelview Village, Optima Sonoran Village and Optima Kierland. Terraces at Optima serve as outdoor living space, connecting the outdoor and indoor for a seamless living experience. From agricultural beginnings, the terrace stays true to its roots, allowing us to find harmony with nature.

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