on tour with mmj - chicago architecture

evolution of the skyscraper

architecture of Chicago 


We attended this informative tour by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and learned how the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed almost every building in Chicago. The city was rebuilt with strict fire controls in place. Typical buildings were brick load bearing maximum 5 stories high, as this was consisted the highest people could walk. The invention of the escalator in the 1850's changed all that. 


The Manadnock building completed in 1893 by architects Burnham and Root, rose to 17 stories high and was built using load bearing brickwork. When it was built, it was the world’s largest office building, however the walls are 6 feet thick at the base, with small openings for windows. Interestingly, the second half of the building looks like the first half but is built of steel construction! Windows are larger and let in more light and ventilation.  


Photo credit: www.monadnockbuilding.com


The Marquette building competed in 1895 by Holabird and Roche has a steel frame construction. Cladding is unglazed terracotta which is fire proof and decorative. The beautiful foyer (pictured) is designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.


The question for these architects was, how to make these buildings look? Buildings this high had never been built before. Whilst Burnham and Root opted for a plain utilitarian facade, Holabird and Roche continued the traditional format of 'base, middle, top' with decorative elements - like a Grecian column. 





Viewing the Chicago Federal Centre by Mies van der Rohe just nearby, shows how modernism turned all this around.  Even though it was completed in 1974, after Mies' death, the principles are all evident.  With the same tools of steel frame and elevator, the buildings now hover off the ground, with no ornamentation. Empty space encircles below, around and over each element.  


For more information on Chicago Architecture visit



Mies van der Rohe

project focus


As pictured below: sleek and slimline Farnsworth House designed 1945 and constructed in 1951; modern design of Crown Hall with exposed steel frame and suspended roof, construction timeline 1950-1956; and, the Mies van der Rohe classrooms.