Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Just why do you call these high buildings skyscrapers?"

Imagine if you can a swamp peopled by 300 hardy souls wondering why they were there and you have Chicago (or the land of the smelly onions in the local native American tongue) in 1830 or thereabouts.  Hard to think that 30 years later there would be 300,000 inhabitants, in 1900 over a million and today nearly 10 million.  Why?  The swamp hasn't gone away...

Its all about economics, the railways, cattle, the civil war and then an unfortunate drunken accident that took place in 1870 and sparked the fire that burned the wooden city that used to be Chicago almost totally to the ground.

So in order: (1) economics -- made total sense for the city that was pretty much on the western border of the USA in 1830 to control farming and the cattle industry that spread all over; (2) railways -- in the 1840's Chicago became a railway hub, actually the major railway hub.  Still is. (3) cattle -- well people have to eat and the herds ended up in Chicago, courtesy of the railways.  (4) civil war -- Chicago was a Union city so supplied the Yankees with railways, food and all those blue collar manufacturing items needed to conduct a large scale war.  That's what Chicago did and still does.  (5) fire -- well this is interesting as in 1870 a drunken man 'attacked' a domestic animal in a way that hasn't stood the test of time (but the imagination does shudder) and the animal kicked over a lamp that sparked a fire that spread throughout the entire city.  Well it was at the end of a hot dry summer where there was no rain for weeks and everything dried out completely just waiting for that spark.  When it came it burned a mile to the lake and then turned north and burned a further 3 miles along the lake.  One-third of the city was destroyed... except for the industrial logistics that made Chicago the essential crossroads, namely the railway, the meat packing section and all the grain infrastructure.

So having beaten St. Louis into 2nd place as a result of the Civil War, Chicago wasn't in the mood to lose out because of a freak accident.  They threw money and effort at the city but discovered that what survived actually prevented the city from spreading out like it should have.  So with the limited space they had, they had to go up.

Two of the early buildings

Virtually every architect worth his or her salt rolled into Chicago and the first new buildings happened immediately... while the ashes were still warm according to the docent (a snazzy word for guide) of the Chicago Architectural Foundation whose tours we went on (one walking, the other on a boat).  This was utterly compelling and fascinating to see how a city literally rose Phoenix like from the ashes.  Who wouldn't want to be involved in this?  Certainly not the building industry for workers and sub-contractors also piled into Chicago which became the fastest growing city of all time anywhere period.

The amazing Public Library, the biggest in the world

The first skyscraper took flight in 1885 and as technology moved on to steel girders from concrete load bearing walls and columns, so the skyscrapers went ever higher.

The art deco CME monster building with Cires, the goddess of grain standing 32 feet tall on top of the building

The Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) was the highest building at 104 storeys with the John Hancock Tower close behind at 94 storeys.  They've been overtaken now but they are still monster buildings.

The Willis Tower standing tall

But its not their size that amazes, its their beauty.  Back in the 1920's when building was the most intense, owners took the view that for the time, effort and money you could have the building you want but also a beautiful one.  The difference between an ugly building and a beautiful one wasn't that much more effort or money.  So they tried to outdo one another, the result being a spectacular array of magnificent buildings that really should be seen.

From the 94th floor of the Hancock Building

A guy I met at CFA told me about the architectural society tours being spectacular and he was right, they were.

Love the car park!

Trouble was it rained cats and dogs on both tours we went on.

I'm still sniffling now!

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