April 14, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

This week I would like to journey back to my second visit to Chicago, when I took teenage Benjamin along to the AIA Convention so that he could gain some more independence and I would have someone to join me for dinner. The only rule he had to follow was that he absolutely, positively had top be back in the hotel room at 5:00 P.M. or I would kill him. Each day I would hand him a twenty and he had the run of Chicago. We had a wonderful time.

These images follow a theme that I was concerned with at the time, which basically asked the question of how a building should meet the sky. While I never worked on skyscrapers as an architect, I felt this concern was relevant in that I was very interested in how to "include" the interaction with the sky in my residential projects. As an architect in Portland, I was never going to build a flat roof if I could help it, and our grey skies seemed to allow for as many skylights as I could get past my clients' fears and their budgets. So meeting the sky with bold gestures, and inviting it into the interior spaces I was designing for my clients were very important to me. Chicago turned out to offer very valuable architectural lessons.

This first "pinnacle" is one of the most famous in the history of the skyscraper as a building type. The Chicago Tribune Building was the result of what might be the most famous architectural competition ever held in America, and the winner enraged most of the early modernist architects that had made Chicago's skyline famous since the Fire. The idea that a skyscraper would be topped by an obvious Gothic crown was blasphemy. Yet this confection so many years later seems to enliven the skyline no matter how ridiculous it seemed at the time. Part of its charm is that it is so real - the stonework and arches and details could have been done by medieval stonemasons. The building actually used tiny parts of famous buildings as decorative plaques at ground level, ranging from the Parthenon to Cologne Cathedral to a broken piece of the World Trade Center.

These next few images show how the skyline became crowded with many different historical motifs way before Mies Van de Rohe would decree that all towers would just be sliced off with a razor at the sky. And I must say that once you've seen one flat roof you have seen them all, so that I am a big believer in "romantic tops", especially those that are well proportioned and well-built.

                                                            A CLOCK TOWER BECAME A NECESSITY FOR URBAN LIFE

                                                            WHO CAN ARGUE WITH POLY CHROME MASONRY AND A DOME?

                                                             INNOVATIVE DESIGNERS COULD INVENT THEIR OWN ORNAMENT AND THROW IN SOME ART DECO PANACHE

I think this is the top of the Auditorium Building by Louis Sullivan; Frank Lloyd Wright was his main assistant until he was fired for having too many side jobs. Here it is apparent that even a flat roof can sing with enough detail and a change of windows that could come straight from an Italian Palazzo. The ornamental details appear vaguely classical but are in fact the creations of Sullivan's incredibly fantastic imagination. I feel that this kind of ornament was in fact the road not taken, lost to either no ornament at all or slavish copies of historical motifs without the craftsmanship that rendered them beautiful. Just imagine those attic offices behind those round windows.

Chicago architects of every generation seemed to delight in bringing the gray skies right inside their buildings. Not content with inventing "The Chicago Window" that lit up these early office interiors enabled by the steel structural frames, they found many excuses for featuring skylights and entire glass roofs that brought the sky right into their interiors.These are some examples that fascinated me.

                                                             O' HARE AIRPORT CONCOURSE - CUE "AMERICAN IN PARIS"

One of the earliest examples of a modern airport terminal as one big skylight, with the architecture a celebration of how the whole thing stood up. Architects were now following the lead of the early Twentieth Century engineers who had built the great station sheds that were the real main event behind the serious architectural lobbies on the streets of major cities around the world. This terminal also shows off then innovative sun-shading devices built right into the glass itself. Don't ask me what the dinosaur is doing there, except maybe as a comment on the structural skeleton of the terminal itself.

                                                            BUILDING AS SKYLIGHT

This is a detail of Helmut Jahn's Illinois Government Center which was pretty new, and pretty controversial when I visited. Round, structural to a fault, with so much glass that glare wasn't a problem so much as a feature, it never really worked as a building but it certainly caught your attention. Mies was rolling over in his grave. This black and white rendition ignores the colors, which are way too many, in favor of the exuberant structure and reflections. I'm so old that Google is now renovating this building for new offices for people who don't want to come to the office anyway.

This final pair of images come from another newer building at the time I visited. The Harold Washington Main Library was built to be as traditional as it could be, a giant masonry Library that is so solid and just plain large that it makes Portland's brick pile seem absolutely feminine and delectable in comparison. But this is Chicago, and this the Loop, and now the masonry skyscrapers, once revolutionary, are the new tradition. Richardson couldn't have made a tougher pile of bricks and stone. Even the Ornamental Metal details seem positively Medieval, and one looks over one's shoulder wary of gargoyles.

                                  SULLIVAN WOULD SHOUT FROM THE ROOFTOPS

Yet when you get to the top floor, the entire roof is revealed as a skylight invisible from the street. The only probem is that this was a "party" space instead of the reading room it deserved to be. Who knows, wiser heads might have rectified that by now.

                                   THIS IS CHICAGO, AND WE DON'T DO "DAINTY"

I hope you have enjoyed this very narrow architectural foray through Chicago, circa 2004, and I hope that we all can visit there soon. Benjamin is now thirty-five, and comes and goes wherever and whenever he wants, most likely chasing my grandson Isaac.