1.4. THE THREE VARIABLES OF THE CHICAGO SCHOOL: CONCEPT, ORNAMENT, AND ARCHITECTURAL EXPRESSION

The School’s architectural aesthetic or vocabulary, as do all architectural styles, comprised of three parts: the concept for the design (the plot, if you will permit an analogy with literature), the building’s overall artistic/architectural expression (the rules of its grammar), and the style/type of ornament that the architect put on the building (the words) .  These Chicago architects used as their bible British architect Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, in which he exhorted his readers not to “slavishly copy” the works from the past, but to develop new styles of art for the contemporary world:

“How is any new style of art or new style of ornament to be formed, or even attempted to be formed?… the rising generation in both classes are born under happier auspices, and it is to them we must look for hope in the future.  It is for their use that we have gathered together this collection of the works of the past; not that they should be slavishly copied, but that artists should, by an attentive examination of the principles which pervade all the works of the past, and which have excited universal admiration, be led to the creation of new forms equally beautiful… The principles discoverable in the works of the past belong to us; not so the results.”

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. “Proposition Ten.” Jones recommended achieving harmony in a new ornamental system by “the propering balancing , and contrast of, the straight, the angular, and the curved.” One can find Jones’ system in most of Sullivan’s ornament. (Flores, Owen Jones)

Root had thoroughly digested Jones’ theory and applied it rigorously:

“To rightly estimate an essentially modern building, it must not be viewed solely from an archeological standpoint… Whenever in the world there was a period or style of architecture worth preserving, its inner spirit so closely fitted to the age wherein it flourished, that the style could not be fully preserved, either by the people who immediately succeeded it, or by us after many years… Our architecture if it is good will fit us… The object of all this study of architectural styles must be to acquire from former times the spirit in which our predecessors worked; not to copy what they did.”

While during the School’s early phase, its ornament admitted the free use of any historical detail, including Classical details, the real challenge faced by these architects was the development of a “modern” expression or language.  Taking their cues from European modern theorists that included Jones, Augustus Welby Pugin, John Ruskin, Gottfried Semper, Viollet-le-Duc, James Fergusson, and Edward Lacy Garbett, the key idea was Truth:  truth in function, truth in the use of materials, and truth in construction.  During the 1880s, they slowly but consciously moved away from their starting point, the then fashionable Romanesque Revival (the round-arched style championed by H.H. Richardson and used throughout the country) and abandoned the romantic, but anachronistic use of arches (needed to span openings in masonry construction) as the iron frame was carefully worked into the exteriors of their buildings.  

Adler & Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1890. (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City)

So my thesis is that while this group of similarly minded architects, the “Chicago School” started by designing in the Romanesque Revival, they evolved a new architectural language, the “Chicago School,” that expressed the structure of the building and enriched it with a modern, ahistoric style of ornament.  Note that this means their language was not a formal language, but a theoretical or process aesthetic.  It was not, therefore, formally limited to expressing the skeleton frame, as some historians have claimed, for the objective was to express the structure, whether it was a bearing wall or an iron frame.  Another misinterpretation by some historians equates “express” with “expose” the structure.  Therefore, such a critic could condemn Sullivan’s Wainwright Building on the basis that every other column in its façade is not a structural column but a mechanical run, even though they are detailed to look the same. The word “express” in architecture has an artistic or poetic side that allows for the architect to blur the literal meaning of the word “express” in the employment of his/her “artistic license,” such as Sullivan was prone to do.

This is my definition of the “Chicago School” aesthetic, not the Romanesque Revival buildings that these architects had cut their professional teeth on.  The best example of this difference in the Chicago School architects’ two aesthetics are the elevations in Root’s Rookery designed in 1885: the exterior is Romanesque Revival, while the lightcourt elevations are Chicago School.  

Burnham and Root, The Rookery, Chicago, 1885. (Zukowski, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)
Burnham and Root, The Rookery. Lightcourt. (Author’s collection)

So if you are following my logic, the vast majority of buildings designed during this period by the Chicago School architects were in the Romanesque Revival style, while a few examples of the new, modern “Chicago School” style did manage to be erected, sometimes only in portions of an elevation during the first experiments. Examples included the Shillito’s Store, the First Leiter Building, the Phoenix and Rookery lightcourts, the Tacoma, the Second Leiter, the Monadnock, the Chicago (Great Northern) Hotel, the Masonic Temple’s lightcourt,  and the Wainwright Building.

Burnham and Root, Phoenix Building, 1885. Rear elevation showing the skeletal nature of the lightcourt facade, the first use of exterior iron framing in post-fire Chicago. The alternating horizontal bands of brick spandrels and glass foretell of the elevation of the Rookery’s lightcourt and the exterior of the Tacoma Building, and predate Le Corbusier’s principle of the “free façade” by some thirty years. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)
Holabird and Roche, Tacoma Building, Chicago, 1888. (Online)

FURTHER READING:

Flores, Carol A. Hrvol. Owen Jones. New York: Rizzoli, 2006.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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