Chicago: A Beautifully Detailed City

Chicago is a unique city: from its master plan by Daniel Burnham right down to its crafted brickwork, the Midwest Metropolis oozes its own character.  The Great Fire of 1871 and the construction of the Sears Tower in 1970 bookend a century of development in which the city showed its architectural daring.  In these architectural pursuits, the details were never overlooked; Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Burnham and Root, and Mies Van Der Rohe, as well as scores of other architects, were all seeking a kind of truth in the craft of the detail.  Sometimes we forget to fully appreciate the work that goes into the construction of our buildings, of our city, but here we’d like to hone in on some of the little moments around the city that inspire us.

Window Ornament – Carson Pirie Scott, Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan was one of the pioneering architects of the Chicago School, his organic layered ornament can be found around the city.  This first example from the Carson Pirie Scott Building (now City Target) can still be seen today on the corner of State and Madison.

Interior Ornament from Old Chicago Stock Exchange

This example shows Sullivan’s prodigious eye for proportion and order, even while working with challenging forms.  The Interior of the Trade Room from the Chicago Stock Exchange was preserved after the building’s demolition, and can now be experienced at the Art Institute.

In the early 1890s, a young Frank Lloyd Wright came to work for Sullivan.  The two collaborated on the Charnley House in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, and there we can see what would be the beginnings of the “Prairie-Style”, which would embody wrights ideals of harmony between man and nature.

View of the Charnley House Balcony

The way the freshly conceived ornaments seem to appear out of the proportions of the building continues to inspire, and as designers we are always asking, “how does the part relate to the whole?”

Interior of Unity Temple

Fast forward only fifteen years to Wright’s design for Unity Temple, and we can see a totally different kind of detail emerging; Wright was incorporating every aspect of the building, the pews, the lights, the windows, into a unified whole.  The way the light fills the space and cascades over the form of the nave creates an ephemeral experience.

Reliance Building Burnham and Root

At around the same time as the Auditorium Building, the Reliance Building was being designed by Burnham Root for the corner of State and Washington.  It should be noted that Burnham and Sullivan were not on good terms at this time; Burnham was chosen as master planner for the 1893 Exposition and the city at large, and Sullivan vocalized his distaste for both.  The repetition and precision of Burnham’s details contrast the organic flowing nature of Sullivan’s, but both contribute to the city’s beauty.

We hope that you can find wonder in the details of Chicago as we do.  Next time you’re walking around our city, or another, take some time to look around, chances are there’s something beautiful that isn’t immediately apparent.

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