Architecture of the Chicago school

The Chicago school was a movement of architecture but also of urbanism. At that time, its architects advocated a new, simpler, and utilitarian style, which could be referred as “commercial style” and was opposed to the more traditional European style. If on the one hand, the utilitarian style of this school of architecture sought reality and concreteness, on the other hand, European romanticism was an attempt to understand reality through an emotional experience than a rational one. The architects of the Chicago school brought modernity, rationalism to their buildings, and were looking for a practical aim. For this, they opposed and distanced themselves from the European Romantic movement which made its architectures an expansion of the ethical and historical values that found it in the classical style. It was this modern and utilitarian approach to architecture that allowed to rationalize the architectural of the United States.

Indeed, architecture has long been seen as an extension of history, a continuity of the past in [present] time. However, the Chicago School of Architecture was against this thought, and preferred to focus on sustainability and the concrete rather than figurative and symbolic: their architecture style turned to the future, an American-style future. Using steel and other more modern materials such as wrought iron to build their skyscrapers, was a way to continue the country’s industrial revolution and assert its power by showing its ingenuity but also its advance compared to the countries “of the old continent”.

Thus, the architects of the Chicago School were opposed to the vision, the influence and style of the Europe, and they enabled the creation and development of an American urbanism. American architecture was drastically opposed to European standards. In addition, it could also be perceived as a form of provocation, as Americans’ skyscrapers were the first buildings that could compete and outstrip the height of the European cathedrals. In this way, through their architecture, Americans proved they could also build prodigious buildings that rose to the sky; and symbolically, claimed that their progress had no limit.

Following the tragic events of 1871, the city of Chicago had to encounter two problems (the significant urban growth and the soaring price of real estate per square meter) — which the solutions directly affected its architecture. The skyscrapers have enabled to optimize the space as much as possible, minimizing urban sprawl. If in the beginning, the skyscrapers were used to meet an urgent

need, they can also be symbolically seen as the affirmation of the end of the colony status of the United States and the end of the influence of European architecture. The utilitarian conception of architecture as well as the optimization of space portrays the American style as very pragmatic and influenced by capitalism: the architects had to succeed in making everything useful for the city and its development.

The second solution to Chicago’s problems was to find housing for the emerging middle class: Prairie Houses, created by the Prairie School movement in Chicago. The Prairie School movement was mostly about residential architecture (Prairie buildings), and Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the pioneers. Prairie architecture manifests its environment through its materials and structure, and distances itself from all resemblances to classical architecture. This architectural style symbolizes the new architectural Americanism. Indeed, his adherents — including F.L.W, were inspired by the vast and flat landscape of the American Midwest. They also wanted to build a new architecture in the image of the American democracy: freed from the ascendancy of European style and adapted to the modern way of life of the Americans.

Originally, the houses and buildings were inspired by the old European architecture, although very aesthetic, this style for many architects did not correspond to the American way of life and culture, but above all, to its landscape. The old buildings were stained, and discordant among the American landscape, it was not harmonious, it was not American. These new buildings stemming from the Prairie School movement advocated the harmony of their relationship with their natural environment. Indeed, to gain space in the cities, many properties and other buildings were built in the suburbs, bringing the development of residential suburbs —many of which were surrounded by vast clearings.

And, with the aim of maintaining a form of harmony with the surrounding landscape, these buildings were designed so that they would formally blend into the landscape. In order to that, materials such as stone and wood were often used in a visible way, so that the buildings could be hide among the surrounding flora. Frank L. Wright defined this concept as “organic architecture” because it maintained a link between urban (the new) and nature (the original), combining Americans well-being and respect for the environment. For architect of Prairie School movement, it was essential to associate comfort and aesthetics (domestic and natural habitat).

This is why these two buildings materialize American democracy, skyscrapers embody industrialization, capitalism, and technological innovation, while the prairies buildings embody harmony and balance to the environment: United States is a huge country with wild and formerly hostile landscapes that the Americans have managed to tame and conquer. These buildings are, at first glance, different and yet are complementary, they symbolize the same thing: independence from the old continent and affirmation within the territory itself.