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. 

Modernism in Chicago

According to the Tate Modern Museum, Modernism “refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life.” Within a broader cultural narrative, modernism emerged as a criticism of nineteenth-century societal order, and trickled down into everything from political activism, urban planning, psychoanalysis, art, and of course, architecture. As we’ve previously explored, Modernist architecture has an important place in America’s history. But how does it factor into Chicago’s past?

After the great Chicago fire in 1871, the city was a blank slate, re-planned over an entirely new grid. With the world’s first skyscraper completed by 1884 (at only ten stories), Chicago was positioned to be a groundbreaking city for architectural innovation. Our triumphant World’s Fair of 1893 solidified the city’s confidence and paved the way for Daniel Burnham to create his comprehensive city plan. Chicago’s architects banded together to decide how to best develop ever-evolving skyscrapers within the city. One such architect was Louis Sullivan, who helped found the Chicago School of architects around his belief that “form forever follows function.” 

If Sullivan’s creed sounds familiar, it’s because function over form is a cornerstone belief embedded in the Modernist tradition. In the mid-1900s, architects from the growing practices in Europe came to the United States to avoid World War I, and subsequently, World War II. Iconic architects, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, came to Chicago to set up shop. Striking buildings of steel and glass defined an entire generation of skyscrapers, and still add to Chicago’s diverse range of architecture. 

Chicago was a city that pioneered the world’s forte into stretching and sweeping skylines. Beginning with sleek and simple Modernist structures, Chicago’s architecture is now made all the more standout by the dynamic mix of styles it holds. From Art Deco to Art Nouveau, Chicago School to International Style, Modern to Postmodern, each style is made more its own when juxtaposed with its counterparts.

Through our own addition to Modernism in Chicago, we are proud to create buildings that contribute to the movement’s and the city’s larger legacy. To learn more about Chicago’s Modernist history, the Chicago Architecture Center offers tours specifically dedicated to the style and craft. 

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