The Chicago School of Architecture by Carl W. Condit

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The Chicago School of Architecture by Carl W. Condit is an academic examination and description of the architectural movement in Chicago after the Chicago fire, from about 1875 until about 1925. Because it was written in 1960s, some of the information may be dated, but it was still an informative introduction to the study of modern architecture, specifically the style prevalent in Chicago during those years. This is the first book I’ve ever read about architecture, and I certainly enjoyed the experience. I’m looking forward to reading more about the subject.

The architects that flocked to Chicago after the fire of 1871 found a willing city. Chicago was determined to rebuild, and the architects were eager to comply. The most interesting aspect was that for the first time in history, architects were able to look upward: new engineering techniques were encouraging taller buildings. Yet,

[I]t became more and more difficult for [the architect] to develop an exterior form that grew out of and gave expression to the dominant social factors of the time, chiefly the new conditions of urban life in the great centers of trade and manufacture. (page 2)

Thus, a new style was needed for the new type of taller and larger buildings that were being created.

Condit’s book had long sections at the beginning and end about architecture and where it was and is going. For example, “architecture is the only art that is both utilitarian and aesthetic and hence ought to express its practical function as well as the inspiration that leads to the creation of beauty” (page 9). These passages were slow and difficult for me to read, but I still learned a lot about architecture as an art, and I feel a new interest in this field of art. It may be a new favorite, along with photography which always has been.

What I liked most was the direct discussion about the specific buildings and how certain buildings were influential. I liked hearing what the architectures themselves said about their designs. One significant architect (and my favorite) was John Wellburn Root, who died in 1891. I wonder how the face of modern architecture would be different if he had lived longer!

For example, Root says,

As far as material conditions permit it to be possible, a building designated for a particular purpose should express that purpose in every part. The purpose may not be revealed by conventional means, but it must be so plainly revealed that it can be escaped by no appreciative student. . . . another essential characteristic of all true art work – moderation. (page 47-48, italics added)

The Monadnock

My favorite building that I read about was one of Root’s buildings, The Monadnock (mouth-watering but copyrighted picture here). It was one of the last masonry constructed buildings, and yet, it was in a design that seemed to indicated it was a sky scraper (a building which could only truly reach the sky once steel framing was readily adopted):

…[T]he projecting bays of the walls with their large glass area give the structure a light open appearance in spite of its great mass and the relatively small size of the windows. Stripped of every vestige of ornament, its rigorous geometry softened only by the slight inward curve of the wall at the top of the first story, the outward flare of the parapet, and the progressive rounding of the corners from bottom to top, subtly proportioned and scaled, the Monadnock is a severe yet powerfully expressive composition in horizontal and vertical lines. It presents in its relentless exactitude the formal beauty latent in the commercial style, but at the same time it demonstrates the limitations of the old method of construction. (page 68)

When I first read about this building, I thought back to Lost Chicago (thoughts here), which documented all the buildings in Chicago that have been torn down. I got very scared and ran to my computer: Is the Monadnock still standing?! Yes, it is. I love to look at this building: I keep searching for more pictures on the Internet (such as here and here). I can’t wait until my next visit to Chicago so I can go see it in person. (Yes, I am a nerd.)

I love it even more when I read the contemporary praise of this building:

This building has no precedent in architecture. It is itself a precedent. Yet is has a precedent outside of architecture; it comes up to an ideal, and by virtue of its correspondence with this ideal it becomes a work of art. (page 68, quote of Robert D. Andrews of Boston Architectural Club).

The Auditorium

Auditorium Theater, image via Wikipedia

Another significant Building was the Auditorium, built by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. I didn’t feel any connection with the building, but it was interesting to see the impact:

Like the Monadnock, [the Auditorium] was the high point of masonry and iron construction in the new age of mechanized industrial techniques. It brought the old system of construction to a close and at the same time substantially advanced the new structural technique growing up and around it. (page 77)

I’m glad I didn’t start with a book about or by Louis Sullivan, even though he was one of the only architects I’d ever heard of. Sullivan was one of the most well-respected architects in the world, always encouraging “the rule with no exceptions in the concept ‘form follows function’” (page 36), and yet it seems he was a bit of a feisty, rude man. His own pride and his cantankerous personality were his downfall: once his partner left the firm, he was unable to gain any large commissions.

My History with Architecture

When I was in a seventh or eighth grade elective class (I think it was an art class), we had one week of lessons on architecture. As a special field trip, we walked around the houses near my junior high school and my teacher told us “That one is Victorian style” and “Notice the gables on that one” and so forth. That was all I’d ever learned about architecture.

Because I’ve been reading about Chicago lately, I have become quite interested in the buildings down town. They didn’t mean anything to me, so I researched, and apparently, there is an entire school of architecture based on the buildings created in late 1800s in Chicago! Duh! I should know these things.

While The Chicago School of Architecture was a slow and sometimes boring read, I’m so very glad I read this book. I look forward to learning more about various architectural styles, preferably the 19th and twentieth century architecture styles.

Have you read any easy-to-approach architecture books? I’m in the middle of another dense one, and I’m hoping the next after that isn’t quite so academic.

What is your favorite type of art?

Reviewed on August 26, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • What timing! I was just in Chicago this past weekend and found the buildings to be just marvelous. I’ve never been much of a fan of skyscrapers, but the ones in Chicago are just beautiful.

  • You know, I think I’d rather learn about architecture by lecture/example combination – walking around different buildings with a lecturer, or something like that – than from a book. I don’t think I could get through a book on the subject. Some things are just easier to understand in person. For me at least.

  • Oh my, now I’m homesick for Chicago! When we lived in Michigan we would go there occasionally and I always was looking up when walking around :-). I’m not educated about it, but I do enjoy looking at good architecture. I picked up “150 Years of Chicago Architecture 1883-1983” by Glibot and Edelmann on one of those visits. Although it’s not recent either, it’s a nice photograph-filled coffee-table type book.

  • Teresa, yeay! Another Chicago building fan. So glad I’m not the only one obsessed a fan of the Chicago skyscrapers.

    Amanda, see, I think of a lecture and I think: I’d sleep every single class. At least with the book I could reread passages when I fell asleep 😉 It would be nice to have more pictures or to see the buildings in person. The shots they gave weren’t always totally helpful.

    Valerie, ooo, that book sounds like just what I’d love to browse through next! thanks for mentioning it. I don’t care if it’s “old”. The buildings I like best are old too. And I’m not “educated” about it too. This was my first really look at the buildings: and I’ve lived here most of my life. oops!

  • Oh, I don’t mean a class where you sit down, I mean more like a tour where they’re pointing things out and explaining to you. I could do that. A class – I’d fall asleep there, too!

  • Amanda, I took a “tour” downtown once. but I got a cheaper alternative. And it wasn’t very educational. If I do it again, I’ll go for the architecture and not the entertaining boat ride. It was disappointing.

  • MS Reid – The book I was telling you about actually mentioned Chicago architecture, even though it focused about Europe – the rebuilding after the fire is where alot of the methods for modern foundations were developed. Some of the stories it told about the foundations were fascinating – did you know, for instnace, that sinking the foundations for buildings and bridges was how they learned about people getting the Bends (pressure sickness)? They pressurized the air when digging tunnels and deep foundations, in order to stabilize the walls, and men would just go in and out with no decompression before and after their shifts. Not so good for the whole not dying thing…

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