The aesthetic/theoretical issue that all architects faced with the use of the iron skeleton frame was how to design the exterior elevation that was to be placed onto the iron framework.  Although architects throughout time had faced a similar problem with timber and masonry/stone skeletal structures, “modern” European architecture theory in the middle 1800s had called not just for “honesty/truth” in architecture, but for also a new style of architecture that was an expression and a product of the era/context that they were living in, not a temporally displaced copy of an architectural style from a different period/context.  We have seen (v. 2 sec. 1.7) that this debate over the use of the art of the past versus new innovations of the present extended back to 1687 in France with the publication of author Charles (the younger brother of architect Claude) Perrault’s “Le siècle de Louis le Grand” (The Century of Louis the Great). Perrault had come to the defense of his fellow authors who were attempting to write pieces about and with contemporary (moderne) subjects, arguing that the literature of the current era was superior to that of the past (ancien). Perrault’s essay was just one small shot in the grand battle that began in Europe across the entire spectrum of all the arts referred to in France as la querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (the war of the Ancients vs. Moderns). 

Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’Architeture, 2nd Ed.,1755. The Muse of Architecture directs the attention of the young architect to Nature’s “Primitive Hut,” and away from the collapsed Classical pieces made by Man. (Online)

In architecture, France’s Marc-Antoine Laugier’s 1753 Essai sur l’Architeture is credited as having made the earliest such argument in architecture.  It was now time for American architects to enter the fray.  They would do so, and as was the case in Europe, there would be advocates for tradition, and there would be advocates for innovation.  The Chicago School took the side of innovation.  It was this idea that compounded the problem of designing the elevation of a skyscraper in Chicago in 1888.


Given that an architect now had to use the iron frame in the exterior of a skyscraper. how was one to design the building’s elevation? An American architect facing the design of a twenty-story skyscraper in 1888 had at least one of two directions:

George Post, St. Paul Building, New York, 1895. (Landau and Condit, New York)

First, they could apply directly onto the building’s iron structure a direct copy or an assemblage of historic designs and details.  As this size of an appropriate building in the past would have been more than likely constructed from masonry bearing walls (with arches), this practice would be attacked by “modern” critics as being “false/fake/dishonest” because the new building’s structure did not comprise of masonry bearing walls but a steel skeleton. The pejorative word best used by these writers to disparage this approach was “pastiche.” (An artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.)

Henri Labrouste, Longitudinal Section of Paestum Temple, 1828. By cutting the section through the columns, instead of in front of them, Labrouste has consciously focused on the wall beyond, and not the ornament of the columns. (MOMA, Labrouste)

The alternative was to find the solution to the design by understanding and artistically interpreting the problem (and not merely copying the details of the past). Once solved, they then could enrich their design with a modern, ahistoric style of ornament. European architects (see v.2 secs. 1.4 and 1.7) at least since Henri Labrouste’s 1828 envoi had been trying to break the tradition of using details of past styles to define architectural “beauty.” A nineteenth century architect could attempt to evolve either an “honest” design (Pugin, Ruskin, Jones, Fergusson, and Semper), or one that went beyond honesty, that is, a more rigorous or “rational” solution (Garbett and Viollet-le-Duc).  The inspiration of these architects for these designs came not from the past, but from a study within their own imagination of the problem they were then facing in their present. They were not Latin-speaking Romans; they were not building with cut stone. They were English-speaking Americans designing a new type of building to be erected with a new material, iron.  So how were they to express these issues?  Honestly and artistically how…?   Note that this means the Chicago School language was not a formal/visual style, but a theoretical or process aesthetic.

Holabird and Roche, The Tacoma Building, Chicago, northeast corner of La Salle and Madison, 1889. (Online)

The aesthetic of the Chicago School was not, therefore, formally limited to expressing (let alone to exposing) the skeleton frame, as some historians have claimed.  In fact, let’s not even limit it to the skeletal frame, but expand the definition to the building’s structural system, be it frame, wall, or composite. This neuters Winston Weisman’s criticism about Carl Condit’s failure to address the “patterns of [structural] development” in these buildings, i.e., Condit favored the exposed frame over the “curtained-walled” frame.  My thesis negates both authors’ arguments. The Chicago School aesthetic was not limited to only expressing the building’s structure.  Expressing a building’s structure was but only one of the design processes that these architects pursued.

I believe the Chicago School’s “collective” goal was to express the building’s function/s or purpose: this definition of function/purpose ranged from “being architecturally artistic” to “being an office building containing 20 repetitive floors,” and everything between these bookends (that includes, of course, “being a system of construction”).    As in most things in life, there would not be only one, right way to design a skyscraper.  Claude Perrault had dispelled such an idea in 1683 when he introduced the validity of the subjective/arbitrary in aesthetics in his Ordonnance pour les cinq sortes de colonnes d’après la méthode des anciens (Ordinance for the five kinds of columns according to the method of the ancients).

Adler & Sullivan, Chicago Stock Exchange, Chicago, 1893. (Online)

Once solved, they then could enrich their design with a modern, ahistoric style of ornament.  As Thomas Leslie so aptly inverted Adolf Loos’ famous 1910 dictum, ornament in the Chicago School was not a crime.


Leslie, Thomas. Chicago Skyscrapers: 1871-1934. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012.

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

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