Although the Great Chicago Fire leveled almost 3 square miles of the downtown area in 1871, it did clear the stage for Chicago's emergence as a breeding ground for innovative architecture. Some of the field's biggest names -- Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Ludwig van der Rohe -- made their mark on the city. And today Chicago's skyline is home to iconic buildings, including the John Hancock Center and the (former) Sears Tower.

Early Skyscrapers (1880-1920)

In the late 19th century, important technical innovations -- including safety elevators, fireproofing, and telecommunications -- combined with advances in skeletal construction to create a new building type: the skyscraper. These buildings were spacious, cost-effective, efficient, and quick to build -- in short, the perfect architectural solution for Chicago's growing downtown. Architect Louis Sullivan (1865-1924) was the first to formalize a vision of a tall building based on the parts of a classical column. His theories inspired the Chicago school of architecture, examples of which still fill the city's downtown. Features of Chicago school buildings include a rectangular shape with a flat roof; large windows (made possible by the development of load-bearing interior skeletons); and the use of terra cotta, a light, fireproof material that could be cast in any shape and attached to the exterior, often for decoration.

A good example of the development of the skyscraper is the Monadnock Building, 53 W. Jackson Blvd. (Holabird & Root, 1889-91; Holabird & Roche, 1893). The northern section has 6-foot-thick walls at its base to support the building's 17 stories; the newer, southern half has a steel frame clad in terra cotta (allowing the walls to be much thinner). The Reliance Building, now the Hotel Burnham, 1 W. Washington St. (Burnham & Root and Burnham & Co., 1891-95), was influential for its use of large glass windows and decorative spandrels (the horizontal panel below a window).

Second Renaissance Revival (1890-1920)

The grand buildings of the Second Renaissance Revival, with their textural richness, suited the tastes of the wealthy Gilded Age. Typical features include a cubelike structure with a massive, imposing look; a symmetrical facade, including distinct horizontal divisions; and a different stylistic treatment for each floor, with different column capitals, finishes, and window treatments on each level. A fine example of this style is the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. (Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, 1897), originally built as a public library. This tasteful edifice, with its sumptuous decor, was constructed in part to help secure Chicago's reputation as a culture-conscious city.

Beaux Arts (1890-1920)

This style takes its name from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where a number of prominent American architects received their training, beginning around the mid-19th century. In 1893, Chicago played host to the World's Columbian Exposition, attended by 21 million people at a time when Chicago's population was just over 1 million. Overseen by Chicagoan Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912), the fairgrounds in Hyde Park were laid out in Beaux Arts style, with broad boulevards, fountains, and temporary ornate white buildings, mostly by New York-based architects. (One of the few permanent structures is now the Museum of Science and Industry.)

Grandiose compositions, exuberance of detail, and a variety of stone finishes typify most Beaux Arts structures. Chicago has several Beaux Arts buildings that exhibit the style's main features. The oldest part of the Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue at Adams Street (Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, 1893), was built for the World's Columbian Exposition. A later example of yet another skyscraper is the gleaming white Wrigley Building, 400-410 N. Michigan Ave. (Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, 1919-24), which serves as a gateway to North Michigan Avenue.

Art Deco (1925-33)

Art Deco buildings are characterized by a linear, hard edge or angular composition, often with a vertical emphasis and highlighted with stylized decoration. The Chicago Board of Trade, 141 W. Jackson Blvd. (Holabird & Root, 1930), punctuates LaSalle Street with its dramatic Art Deco facade. High atop the pyramidal roof, an aluminum statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, gazes down over the building. The last major construction project in Chicago before the Great Depression, 135 S. LaSalle St. (originally the Field Building; Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, 1934), has a magnificent Art Deco lobby. A fine example of an Art Deco town house is the Edward P. Russell House, 1444 N. Astor St. (Holabird & Root, 1929), in the city's Gold Coast.

International Style (1932-45)

The International Style was popularized in the United States after 1932 through the teachings and designs of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), a German émigré who taught and practiced architecture in Chicago after leaving the progressive Bauhaus school of design. Structures all shared a stark simplicity and vigorous functionalism, a definite break from historically based, decorative styles. Interpretations of the “Miesian” International Style were built in most U.S. cities as late as 1980. In the 1950s, erecting an office building in this mode made companies appear progressive. In later decades, after the International Style was a corporate mainstay, the style took on conservative connotations.

Features of the International Style as popularized by Mies van der Rohe include:

* A rectangular shape

* Frequent use of glass

* Balance and regularity, but not symmetry

* Horizontal bands of windows

* Windows meeting at corners

* Absence of ornamentation

* Clear expression of the building’s form and function (the interior structure of stacked office floors is clearly visible, as are the locations of mechanical systems, such as elevator shafts and air-conditioning units)

* Placement, or cantilevering, of building on tall piers

Some famous Mies van der Rohe designs are the Langham Hotel; 330 N. Wabash, once known as the IBM Building and now AMA Plaza (1972); Chicago Federal Center, Dearborn Street between Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard (1959–74); and 860–880 N. Lake Shore Dr. (1949–51). Interesting interpretations of the style by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a Chicago firm that helped make the International Style a corporate staple, are the Sears Tower (1968–74), now begrudgingly (sometimes) called Willis Tower, and the John Hancock Center (1969)—two impressive engineering feats rising to 110 and 100 stories, respectively.

Postmodern (1975-90)

As a reaction against the stark International Style, postmodernists began to incorporate classical details and recognizable forms into their designs -- often applied in outrageous proportions. One example, 190 S. LaSalle St. (John Burgee Architects with Philip Johnson, 1987), brings the shape of a famous Chicago building back to the skyline. The overall design is that of the 1892 Masonic Temple (now razed), complete with the tripartite divisions of the Chicago school. Another amalgam of historical precedents is the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St. (Hammond, Beeby & Babka, 1991). An extremely modern interpretation of a three-part skyscraper -- but you have to look for the divisions to find them -- is 333 Wacker Dr. (Kohn Pedersen Fox, 1979-83), an elegant green-glass structure that curves along a bend in the Chicago River. Unlike this harmonious juxtaposition, the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St. (Murphy/Jahn, 1979-85), inventively clashes with everything around it.

Only in Chicago: The Master Builders

Visitors from around the world flock to Chicago to see the groundbreaking work of three major architects: Sullivan, Wright, and Mies. They all lived and worked in the Windy City, leaving behind a legacy of innovative structures that still inspire architects today. Here's the rundown on each of them:

Louis Sullivan (1865-1924)

  • Quote: "Form ever follows function."
  • Iconic Chicago building: Auditorium Building, 430 S. Michigan Ave. (1887-89).
  • Innovations: Father of the Chicago school, Sullivan was perhaps at his most original in the creation of his intricate, nature-inspired ornamentation.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

  • Quote: "Nature is my manifestation of God."
  • Iconic Chicago building: Frederick C. Robie House, 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave., Hyde Park (1909).
  • Innovations: While in Chicago, Wright developed the architecture of the Prairie School, a largely residential style combining natural materials, communication between interior and exterior spaces, and the sweeping horizontals of the Midwestern landscape.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)

  • Quote: "Less is more."
  • Iconic Chicago building: Chicago Federal Center, Dearborn Street between Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard (1959-74).
  • Innovations: Mies van der Rohe brought the office tower of steel and glass to the United States. His stark facades don't immediately reveal his careful attention to details and materials.

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