World-renowned architecture is one of Chicago’s biggest draws, often listed as one of the top reasons to visit the city. Few would dispute that Chicago has one of the most beautiful skylines in the world, and many would argue that, in fact, the skyscraper itself is a homegrown form of architecture.
The development of skyscrapers is the subject of Thomas Leslie’s engaging survey, Chicago Skyscrapers: 1871–1934. Leslie, the Pickard Chilton Professor of Architecture at Iowa State University, has crafted a well-researched study of the technical history of skyscrapers in Chicago, noting the politics, materials, and technological innovations that allowed buildings to soar ever skyward.
Leslie examines the intersection of art, architecture, materials, politics, and technology in this highly documented study, focusing on the years between the Great Fire, which in many ways launched one of Chicago’s most important building booms, and the Great Depression, which brought architectural innovation and related building to a near standstill. More than a hundred images, including renderings and line drawings provided by the author as well as historical photographs in color and black and white, illustrate this lovely book, a large-format hardcover somewhere between coffee-table book and textbook.
Chicago Skyscrapers focuses on commercial architecture, highlighting the buildings developed for office and retail use, primarily those in the Loop. Leslie examines icons such as the Rookery, the Monadnock Building, the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, the Palmolive Building, and the Merchandise Mart. Readers will find descriptions and images of innovative structures that broke new ground in terms of design, technology, and use of materials. Leslie traces the innovation and evolution of materials as architects and builders moved from brick and stone to iron and steel in their quest to build ever-taller structures that provided more light, more space, and better views. Chicago Skyscrapers also looks at the city’s political machinations that affected building codes, codes that often restricted architects and forced creative problem solving in designing new structures.
Architects, architecture students, and enthusiasts will find much to love in this thorough survey. The book is informative and educational, engaging and thought-provoking, although at times the text feels thickly written in the vernacular of the architect’s lexicon. In fact, those with only a passing interest in Chicago’s architecture could skip the preface, much of which is a survey of previously written works and reads a bit like an academic white paper.
In its examination of the development of materials, framing structures, and electric lighting, Chicago Skyscrapers goes well beyond the many glossy, superficial coffee-table books that celebrate the city’s architecture. Leslie instead provides a sophisticated examination of his subject, educating readers who are interested and willing to dig deeper. Readers who stick with the voluminous text will be rewarded with a richer understanding of the architecture that has shaped this beautiful city.
Watch a video of the author discussing Chicago architecture and Chicago Skyscrapers.
June 2013, University of Illinois Press
$39.95, 234 pages, hardcover
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen