Tag Archives: neo-classicism

Searching for the perfect Chicago skyscraper (part 4): The Reliance Building

It is of no surprise to me that this study has gotten to its fourth post barely having scratched the surface of my search for the perfect Chicago skyscraper. In case you missed them, please check them out on the category tab under “Architecture”.
In this part I will continue analyzing skyscrapers grouped under the title “Tall and Wise” which refers to buildings built before WWII and the rise of Modernism.

Tall and Wise (…continued)

The Reliance Building

Like The Home Insurance Building before it, The Reliance is widely considered, with good reason, one of the most important steps in the development of the skyscraper. To the untrained eye, The Reliance nowadays might seem like one of many “old looking buildings” in downtown Chicago clad in stone and heavily ornamented. However, The Reliance’s greatness becomes clear given the epoch in which it was built.
For decades, neo-classicism had taken architecture hostage to ancient tradition, forcing buildings to be clad in heavy masonry. The development of steel frame construction allowed designers to call for fully glazed enclosures, which would not appear until well into the 20th century due to the stylistic and technological resistance of an always conservative construction industry.
It is within this context that The Reliance stands tall as it was a step away from the typical neo-classical high-rise of small windows and ornamented stone-clad facades, and a step toward the “steel and glass modernist skyscrapers”.
Designed by Burnham and Root, The Reliance was a happy accident. Changes in budget, technology and in the approach toward the initial design gave us a building with the highest ratio of glass to stone ever built. The overall weight and heaviness of a more typical neoclassical building was replaced by a more simple, slender and economical structure. The Reliance was not, however, a complete departure from tradition since the architects still opted to clad it in terra-cotta with ornamental motifs.
With the Reliance, Root as the head designer of the firm showed his willingness towards a more austere kind of architecture. Root was also able to adapt to a very problematic construction (the project was halted for nearly 3 years) and his ability to offer original and sophisticated solutions for projects immersed in difficulty made him a true innovator. Had it not been for his premature death, the firm of Burnham & Root might have continued to move closer towards modernism, even before the arrival of the great Mies van der Rohe to the shores of Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, Burnham had to carry the load of the partnership by himself, resulting in a step back towards neoclassicism that halted the development of architecture for years to come.
This is not to say the first couple of decades of the 20th century was void of good ideas (I have already covered great skyscrapers completed then) but it certainly represented, in the bigger picture, a transitional period of limited advancement in the evolution of the skyscraper in America.

Niels

Searching for the perfect Chicago Skyscraper (part II)

I have reconsidered the way in which I will organize the rest of my study. I think it will be more practical to analyze all of the skyscrapers that I plan to review in groups that share something particular in common.

In this part of my study I will touch upon a group of skyscrapers that I affectionately call: “the good old buddies that could have been better”

The Good Old Buddies that could have been better

The common theme in this group is that it is composed by high-rises that fulfill all of the minimal requirements of a good, decent project built before WWII and before modernism gained followers in the Americas. All of the buildings I am about to name can be considered out of the candidates for the perfect Chicago skyscraper.

The Merchandise Mart (1930)


The “Mart” suffered from the moment it was conceived as an idea. The building needed to be an urban vertical market for quality goods, a function that has changed little since its construction. Given its purpose, designers struggled to find a unique solution to a rather unique challenge. Instead of relating the massive building to its program, the architects decided to remain within the all-too-common art deco high-rise approach of grandiose, robust and repetitive architecture. The building’s scale is too great, too plain and it extends too far in one direction while not in others. There’s hardly any communication with the passerby as anyone walking by it would fail to grasp the entirety of its huge mass.

Jewelers’ Building (1926)

Despite having many admirers, this famous tower offered nothing new when it was completed. It is clearly disproportional and its ornamentation does not enrich the architecture but instead it reveals the all-too-simple approach the architects took towards the new Chicago building code of the time. The building’s area was as big as it could have been up to the point where it was forced by code to step back and give way to a tacky upper-half full of allegorical references that are somewhere in between ancient ziggurats and suburban gazebos.

La Salle Bank on LaSalle Ave. (1934)


There is nothing truly significant to criticize to this building besides the immense footprint that it covers and that extends uninterrupted 45 stories up. However, one of the biggest projects in Chicago history came to replace a true icon, the Home Insurance Building, which is widely considered to be the first modern skyscraper designed by William LeBaron Jenney. To add insult to injury the building did not offer anything new or particularly exciting to the city, much unlike its groundbreaking predecessor.

The Tribune Tower (1925)


The existing headquarters for Chicago’s quintessential company is a fine building without any major faults. However, it is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity, a great example of the common reluctance of the profession to reinvent itself. It all started when the company decided to relocate and use a new architecture symbol as a promotion mechanism that would attract interest to Chicago and to the company. An international competition was held and what ensued was one of the most significant displays of architecture of the first half of the 20th century. The competition managed to receive over 200 entries, with the winner receiving a grand prize of 100 thousand dollars. Sadly, the selected proposal was that by architects Raymond Hood and John Mead who carefully designed a neo-gothic high-rise of stone and ornamentation. They were preferred over the critically acclaimed proposal by Eliel Saarinen, whose simple design precluded the advent of modernism in the US, influencing architecture for years to come. As it often happens though, some of the most innovative architecture remains on paper to never be brought to realization.

This was only a small sample of the most significant buildings that failed, in the early 20th century, to positively contribute to high-rise architecture in Chicago.

In the next part I will touch upon a group of skyscrapers that I will call “The Old greats”, many of which might end up in the running for the perfect Chicago skyscraper.

Niels