For over 100 years, the City of Chicago has been indisputably recognized as the world capital of historical and contemporary landmarks of modern architecture. The city is a virtual open text book on the history of 20th-Century design. No other city in the world can boast the vitality and aesthetic quality of buildings designed in our century from the many high-rise towers that define the Loop to the smaller bungalows that compose many of the city’s neighborhoods. Chicago remains the birthplace of modern architecture and the modern high-rise have impacted every modern city throughout the world - from Hong Kong to Paris.
The International reputation that Chicago has enjoyed for its achievements in the building arts is due primarily to the vision and talents of the city’s important early architects: Louis H. Sullivan, Daniel H. Burnham, John Wellborn Root, Holabird and Roche, and William LeBaron Jenney. Their pragmatic approach to the earliest forms of commercial and industrial architecture, not only resulted in the invention and perfection of the first skyscrapers, but also compromise an outstanding collection of buildings that, in retrospect, offered the world something truly distinctive in terms of a design and a style of architecture that is intrinsically American. That early commercial design is further enhanced by the poetic forms and by surface decoration that was inspired by nature and by the beauty of America’s Midwest. Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, captured that aesthetic at its best and in its finest through his Prairie School.
Many of the world’s most prominent critics and historians have bestowed meritorious laurels on the city: "Athens of the Prairie," "Rival of Baroque Rome," and "Paris of the Midwest." All of these poetic references suggest that the City of Chicago, particularly at the turn-of-the-century, achieved a unique international image and recognition for civic architecture and for the quality of the urban environment. That image was formulated by Daniel H. Burnham and the successor firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White who designed many of Chicago’s prominent cultural institutions and public structures. The vision of Burnham, particularly his 1909 Plan for Chicago and the resulting parks and bridges, remain a milestone and a standard for future civic design and public architecture that Chicago has continued to achieve now as we approach the 21st-century.
Modernism and the innovation of Chicago’s industrial and commercial architecture continues from the 1920’s to the current decade through the important works of the two subsequent generations of Chicago architects: Holabird and Root, Mies van der Rohe, Bertand Goldberg, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Murphy/John, as well as a multitude of other architects from New York and from Europe. Many of these architects arrived in Chicago from foreign destinations and were drawn to Chicago because of the city’s prominence in the world of design. The impact of their presence is measured on the modern Chicago skyline, which today soars with tremendous verticality and a sense of overwhelming movement, from the earliest International Style buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe and the 1960s technical achievements of the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Center, and Marina City to the most current sky towers for AT&T, NBC, 333 West Wacker Drive, and the Chicago Title and Trust Center. These buildings have fueled debate and stirred up controversy much the same way any great art has done throughout the ages.
This page, which has been prepared by the Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design is part testament to the rich cultural heritage of Chicago and part celebration of the city’s one-of-a-kind contribution to the architecture of this century. The Museum has assembled a list of what it considers to be the most impressive masterpieces of Chicago Architecture from 1850 to the present. This list could and should be larger and endless as there are many important architectural treasures that have been lost and others of distinctive merit inside and outside the metropolitan area of the city. Furthermore, the Museum considers all of these buildings as landmarks - old and new - because of their singular identity and as an overall contribution to the continued legacy and heritage of international design that uniquely belongs to the City of Chicago.
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