Chicago's Architectural History

by Damian McKnight, Contributing Writer
Chicago's Architectural History
Globally recognized, Chicago has been called "the most American of big cities". Exponential growth, avant-garde design, and a diversified population have helped constitute Chicago as a symbol of the modern city. A world class architectural Mecca, Chicago's architecture schools are the perfect inspiration for students looking to study architecture in the birthplace of the skyscraper. Chicago is where it all began.....

"One of the unique characteristics of Chicago," said Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts curator Bob Cozzolino, "is there's always been a very pronounced effort to not be derivative, to not follow the status quo."


The architecture of Chicago, both past and present, has influenced and reflected the history of American architectural style. Since most buildings within the downtown area were destroyed (the most famous exception being the Water Tower) by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, Chicago buildings are noted for their originality rather than their antiquity. The area destroyed in 1871 by the Great Chicago Fire was four miles long and two thirds of a mile wide. In 1885, the first steel-framed high-rise building, the Home Insurance Building, rose in Chicago, ushering in the skyscraper era.

The outcome of the Great Chicago Fire led to one of the largest building booms in the history of the nation. Perhaps the most outstanding result of this event was the relocation of many of the nation's most prominent architects from New England to the city for construction of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. In 1895, Chicago was determined to have the capital of the United States relocate to the windy city. The campaign was not successful, but it did result in Chicago being granted the grandest, most expensive federal building in America.

Widely considered America's first truly modern architect, Louis Sullivan, realizing that the skyscraper represented a new form of architecture, discarded historical precedent and designed buildings that emphasized their vertical nature. This new form of architecture, by Jenney, Burnham, Sullivan, and others, became known as the "Commercial Style," but was later called the "Chicago School" by historians.

Since 1963, a "Second Chicago School" has emerged, largely due to the ideas of architect and structural engineer Fazlur Khan. Khan, more than any other individual, ushered in a renaissance in skyscraper construction during the second half of the twentieth century by introducing a new structural system of framed tubes. Khan's acclaimed framed tube structure was defined as a three dimensional space structure composed of three, four, or possibly more frames, braced frames, or shear walls, joined at or near their edges to form a vertical tube-like structural system capable of resisting lateral forces in any direction by cantilevering from the foundation.

One of the first buildings to apply the tube-frame construction was the DeWitt-Chestnut Apartment Building, completed in 1963. This laid the foundations for the tube structures of many other later skyscrapers, including Khan's own constructions of the John Hancock Center and Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). His influence can also be seen in the construction of the Petronas Towers, Jin Mao Building, and most other supertall skyscrapers since the 1960s. Willis Tower would be the world's tallest building from its construction in 1974 until 1998 (when the Petronas Towers was built) and would remain the tallest for some categories of buildings until the Burj Khalifa was completed in January 2010.

Numerous architects have constructed landmark buildings of varying styles in Chicago. Some of these are the so-called "Chicago seven": James Ingo Freed, Tom Beeby, Larry Booth, Stuart Cohen, James Nagle, Stanley Tigerman, and Ben Weese. One of Chicago's suburbs, Oak Park, was home to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright (a student of Sullivan).

Today, Chicago's skyline is among the world's tallest and most dense. North America's two tallest buildings are both located in Chicago; Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), and Trump International Hotel and Tower. Presently, the four tallest buildings in the city are Willis Tower, Trump International Hotel and Tower, the Aon Center, and the John Hancock Center. Future skyline plans include, amongst others, Santiago Calatrava's stunning supertall Chicago Spire.

Architecture Career Facts
  • Twenty six states in the United States and ten provinces in Canada require that architects take some form of continuing education each year in order to be licensed.
  • The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACS) suggests that a high school student intending on a career in architecture would do well to study math, English, drafting, the humanities, botany, government, history, geography and philosophy and that summer jobs associated with construction would also be helpful.
  • The American Institute of Architects (AIA) requires its members to annually take and complete 18 hours of continuing education, eight of which must focus on health, safety or welfare.
  • A 2001 survey conducted by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) showed that 83% of the schools responding believe that curricula for architecture students needs to be changed to keep up with changes in the practice of the profession.
For more information on architecture in Chicago, visit the The Chicago Architecture Foundation. (CAF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing public interest and education in architecture and design. CAF presents a comprehensive program of tours, exhibitions, lectures, special events, and adult and youth education activities, all designed to enhance the public’s awareness and appreciation of Chicago’s outstanding architectural legacy.

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