While contemporary scholars question the existence of a cohesive “Chicago School” of architecture, there is no doubt that by the mid-1890s Chicago came to be recognized nationally and internationally for the technological and aesthetic innovation evident in a number of commercial buildings erected in the downtown business area known as the Loop. These buildings serviced the rapid growth of a city founded earlier in the century as a major trading hub linking the East Coast and the American “West.” Principally office buildings, some were erected for particular companies while others were built as speculative ventures. These innovations were known first as the “commercial style,” then simply as “tall office buildings”; the term “skycraper” came into popular use around 1895. In order to find the correct expression for this unprecedented building type, local architects adapted historical styles including the neo-Gothic, the Romanesque, the Venetian, and the neoclassical. In their published writings, they positioned their work as the development of an indigenous American style particular to the region. By the 1920s, critics described this style as the product of an identifiable “Chicago School.” The idea of such a school played, and continues to play, a significant role in histories of modern architecture. For much of the 20th century, the term referred to a select group of commercial buildings erected between roughly 1883 and 1910. During that period, the Chicago School was positioned as precursor to the modern or International style, prefiguring the functionalism and “new objectivity” of the early-20th-century European avant-garde. Since the 1980s, scholars have dismantled the narrow and monolithic view of the subject, placing its key monuments back within the specific social and economic concerns of the late 19th century, introducing a wider range of projects and typologies for consideration, and including projects constructed up until about 1920. There is less emphasis on aesthetic commonality, and more on the diversity of built responses to the forces of industrialization, urbanization, and capitalism that shaped the American city. The texts listed here survey the Chicago School as it was defined during the 20th century as well as more recent scholarship that questions the canonical view.
Written for a general audience, these sources serve as an introduction to the subject. They fall into three categories; recent surveys, older guidebooks, and databases. In the first category, Clarke, et al. 1990; Pridmore and Larsen 2018; and Zukowsky 2016 offer an overview of Chicago architecture from the 19th century to the contemporary era, while Achilles 2013 deals with the Chicago School period exclusively. Clarke, et al. 1990 focuses on skyscrapers. All include basic descriptions of significant Chicago School buildings and architects. While some venture out of the downtown Loop to cover a broader range of examples and building types, they largely conform to the canonical interpretation of the Chicago School established by Carl Condit in 1964 (see Condit 1998, cited under Reference Works). Written as guidebooks, Bach 1969, Schulze and Harrington 2003, and Siegal and Webster 1965 describe the major works still extant, situating them geographically and providing brief descriptions. Although out of date, Bach 1969 and Siegal and Webster 1965 are useful for their compact size and concise summaries. The Chicago Architecture Center database provides a comprehensive, searchable survey of Chicago architecture.
Achilles, Rolf. The Chicago School of Architecture: Building the Modern City 1880–1910. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
This recent publication largely paraphrases the canonical view.
Bach, Ira J. Chicago on Foot: An Architectural Walking Tour. Chicago: Follett, 1969.
Includes thirty-three architectural walking tours of Chicago and its environs, with noteworthy buildings described briefly. The first four tours cover the major Chicago School buildings still standing in 1969.
This authoritative open access database is a good source of basic information about individual Chicago School buildings. Users may search by style, architect, neighborhood, use type, and decade of construction.
Clarke, Jane H., Pauline Saliga, and John Zukowsky. The Sky’s the Limit: A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
Written by knowledgeable authors, this is a well-researched and illustrated survey of 108 Chicago skyscrapers built between the 1880s and the 1990s. Entries are arranged chronologically with a page-long text on each. Includes profiles of significant Chicago architectural firms.
Pridmore, Jay, and George A. Larsen. Chicago Architecture and Design. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2018.
This is the third edition. Covers the history of Chicago architecture from the mid-19th century to the late 20th. Chapter 2 is on the “Chicago School.” Beautifully illustrated with large-format photographs, many by famed Chicago photographer Hedrich Blessing.
Schulze, Franz, and K. Harrington. Chicago’s Famous Buildings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
The fifth edition of a popular pocket guidebook. Geographically organized, it contains short entries on many significant buildings, including not only commercial buildings in the Loop, but also residences, churches, and other institutional buildings outside the city’s core.
Siegal, Arthur S., and J. Carson Webster. Chicago’s Famous Buildings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.
Often found in secondhand bookshops, this is a useful pocket guide to the Chicago School buildings still extant in 1965. Keyed maps locate ninety-three structures, with photographs and brief descriptions provided. Some entries include plans. Includes introductory essays by Hugh Dalzeil Duncan and Carl Condit.
Zukowsky, John. Building Chicago: The Architectural Masterworks. New York: Rizzoli, 2016.
Written by a former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, this book covers the history of Chicago architecture from the 1880s to the present day.
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