1.7. WHAT MAKES A “CHICAGO SCHOOL” BUILDING?

“Frame-construction,” Burnham and Root, Reliance Building, 1890, 1894. (chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com)

The constructional challenge facing Chicago’s architects in 1888 was how to incorporate the fireproofed iron skeleton frame, i.e., “Chicago construction” into the exterior of skyscrapers over ten stories in height. This problem was rather unique to Chicago (the majority of Manhattan’s soil had no such limits on taller buildings) and so, it is appropriate to place these new buildings under the taxonomy of a new style that I will label “Chicago School.”   It was not the technical challenge that triggered the search for a new style, but the fact that the iron frame did not require arches, the signature detail of the Romanesque. Using an arch on an iron frame brought the theoretical issue of “honesty in construction” to the forefront, that resulted in the search for an “archless” style of architecture. That is, Chicago architects were evolving an architectural style in Chicago skyscrapers that employed Chicago construction. These same architects, led by Burnham and Root, were advancing at the same time, a parallel new approach to professional practice, as manifested with the break from the East Coast A.I.A. with the formation of the W.A.A. in November 1884.  Yet some historians downplay the importance of, let alone the existence of such a group of Chicago architects pursuing a distinct style of architecture in response to the Chicago context in the 1880s.

Attendees at the 1885 W.A.A. Convention, St. Louis. (Inland Architect, Feb. 1886)

Back in the beginning of the blog, in Vol. 2, Sec 1.4, I gave my definition of a “Chicago School” building:

“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 designed for the building (the words).” 

Any building that qualifies as a piece of architecture has a concept (yes, while all examples of architecture are buildings, not all buildings qualify as architecture, i.e., those that do not have a concept), so what distinguishes a Chicago School building are its expression and its ornament.  In both instances, the Chicago School architect found his solution to these design challenges, not in historical precedents, but either within himself or the problem he faced.

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. (Online)

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.”

David Van Zanten’s research has highlighted the writings of two other European writers that also influenced the design of the ornament designed by these architects: French architect Victor-Marie-Charles Ruprich-Robert and English designer Christopher Dresser.

So my thesis is that while this group of similarly-minded Chicago architects, started by designing in the Romanesque Revival, they evolved during the second half of the 1880s a new architectural language, the “Chicago School.”  So you might wonder why I included the years 1879-1886 (Volume Three) as a “Part One”? The term, “School” is multi-definitional, and I am using it as such: the “Chicago School” is a style of architecture, as well as it denotes the group of architects who produced such buildings. Therefore, it was necessary to understand their designs and ideas prior to 1888 to appreciate their achievement in evolving a new style of architecture beginning with 1888. I think a new ornament is easier to understand than is a new method of architectural expression, so I will address ornament first, than examine expression.

1.8. A NEW SYSTEM OF ORNAMENT

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. Left: “Proposition Ten.” Jones recommended achieving harmony in a new ornamental system by “the proper balancing , and contrast of, the straight, the angular, and the curved.” (Geometry); Right: “All lines should flow out of a parent stem.” (Nature) (Flores, Owen Jones)
Adler & Sullivan, Walker Warehouse. Detail of impost block along Adams Street. (urbanremainschicago.com)

The evolution of a non-historic ornament would be rather easy, compared to the exterior’s architectonics, simply because a building’s stability remained the priority in the evolution of any exterior language; meanwhile, the ornament had no such functional restraint.  Going back to the work of Owen Jones, an architect had two families of forms to manipulate: the geometrical and the natural.  Throw in color for a third. (In V. 3 Sec. 10.14 I discussed how Jones got his start with his 1841 publication of his study of polychrome in the Alhambra.)

Owen Jones, Plans, Sections, Elevations, and Details of the Alhambraa, “Detail of Mosaic in the Divan, Court of the Fish-pond,” 1841. (Flores, Jones)

During this period, a building’s ornament was of paramount concern to these Chicago architects for it made their designs “modern” and “American.” Truly, any ornament other than accurately copied Classical details qualified, while Classical details were shunned.  I chose Adler’s 1896 (three years after the Columbian Fair) quote that I have put at the top of my home page as proof of this point and as my point of departure for this story in my blog:

“What I have written is intended to be a protest against the dogma that art in architecture ended with the Renaissance.” 

I also would like add to Adler’s protest, a quote from Root’s own daughter from a conversation she had with Root’s biographer, Donald Hoffmann in 1965: “My mother was always so sad about the way the Fair turned – bastard Greek.”

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Detailing of terra cotta ornament. (Author’s image)

FURTHER READING:

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

Van Zanten, David.  Sullivan’s City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan. New York: Norton, 2000.

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

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