Chicago Architecture

Chicago Architecture is a style that applied to certain commercial buildings in North America, especially the United States from the 1890s to the 1930s. It was derived from new techniques in commercial construction in large urban centres especially Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century.

The most striking visual characteristics of these multi storey buildings were the grid like design of window and wall surfaces. The elevations are usually divided into three distinct zones with a base devoted to large glass display windows, an intermediate section consisting of the bulk of the floors and an attic storey that is often capped by a bold cornice. Decoration, usually sculpted stone or terracotta was often concentrated at the ground on the base storey as well as on the attic storey. These buildings are often clad in stone and brick with some use of cast artificial stone.

In Canada many large commercial buildings like the Robert Simpson Store in Toronto (1895) or the Daly Building in Ottawa (1905) were built using this model.

By the late nineteenth century new building materials and new building types emerged with reinforced concrete and steel being used. Although cast and wrought iron had been in use for some time it was the development and commercial availability of the stronger and more fire resistant steel and concrete which changed the way buildings were constructed and the way they looked and the effect was first seen in Chicago.

A devastating fire in 1871 had almost levelled the city. Faced with the need for fast, massive rebuilding in the city center and rising real estate values architects designed increasingly high buildings that provided for maximum rental space on a lot.

Architects designed buildings whose exterior walls acted more like protective skins stretched over an internal skeleton. Since these exterior walls were no longer load bearing window areas could be expanded to provide improved interior ventilation and lighting. The divisions between the windows lost much of their three dimensional mass, while the glazed areas gained in size and prominence. These were often arranged as extending bays or as large sheets of plate glass flanked by narrower, movable side lights which became known as Chicago windows.

Improved structural steel framing along with the perfection of the electric elevator allowed the construction of increasingly tall building. These buildings became very popular in urban cores where high density brought high real estate costs. The skyscraper, in fact was derived from thses early Chicago style buildings and has survived through many changes to become the norm for urban structures in the twentieth and twenty first century.

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