4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 11: Transformations IV: Chicago

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Lecture Summary

Starting as a dozen Indian tribal huts in 1830, Chicago was built by a market economy unrestrained by walls, aristocracy or the state. From a land value of a few thousand dollars to five billion in 1930, its fortunes shifted according to a series of economic cycles documented by Homer Hoyt in 1933. These fluctuations were affected both by national economic factors but also by local activity: booms caused by the construction of a canal in 1836 and a railroad in 1854, for instance, and slumps from one of world’s largest urban fires in 1871. Speculation in land accompanied these cycles; in the first boom, the fame of Chicago real estate was so great that lots were sold in New York auctions. These real estate gambling games, it has been argued, were accelerated by the existence of a flat city grid, reducing land to a tradable commodity. Mumford recounts: “Each lot, being of uniform shape, became a unit, like a coin, capable of ready appraisal and exchange.” This does not, however, explain capitalist transactions in non-gridded cities. As a speculative engine, Chicago denied naturalness in favor of hubris. Over 50 miles of labyrinthine tunnels were built in the mud from 1899 onward by private interests “to sneak a subway system under Chicago before the city knew what was happening,” using bribes and lies to get the city’s franchise. When 18,000 buildings were destroyed in the fire of 1871, there were feelings of divine judgment and retribution but, more strongly, notions that “the day after (the fire) became the first day of the new Chicago” and “Chicago was open again for business.”

Chicago is a case study of a city first dedicating itself to assembling capital as quickly as possible, no matter at what costs to urban experience, and then socializing the wealth towards respectability and enculturation. Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium speaks to the new devotion to culture, but in Sullivan’s case culture is attached to moral propositions about modernism with which he attacked the eclectic styles of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Exposition was the grand response to a city of slaughterhouses, a “neoclassical wonderland” that attracted over 27 million visitors to its splendor. In London and Paris, the exhibitions were about progress through technology, while in Chicago, technology was already in the city: one-twenty-fifth of the world’s railroads crossed in Chicago in 1893 and there were already two dozen skyscrapers. The Exposition addressed culture in two ways. In the first case, the overwhelming scale and classical consistency of the White City spoke to classy ideals for an emerging city (and nation). This “great beautiful silence” was set against a transvestized, racially informed place for another version of American culture, located in a one-mile long boulevard called the Midway Plaisance, where, under the direction of a Jewish impresario, “half-naked savages and hootchy-kootchy dancers provided white Americans with … a journey into the recesses of their own repressed desires.” There were other temporary alternatives envisioned to the existing Chicago, among them the Reverend Dwight Moody’s Tent City and Pullman, the industrial model city, which visitors passed en route to the Exposition, but where its workers rejected its paternalism, leading to the town’s disappearance. The major effort to reshape Chicago came in the first plan for an American metropolis, Burnham’s plan of 1909. Burnham’s extraordinary stewardship over the Exposition could not be achieved at the scale of a modern metropolis. His attempts to enclose the city with an arc six miles from the center and the diagonalizing of the grid to connect the outskirts and the interior were “city beautiful” formalisms impossible to bring about: what could be made were improvements to the regional train system, the upgrading of the lake Michigan waterfront and an extension of the overall park and forest reserve system. Two attempts by architects since Burnham to change the pattern of Chicago have also been ignored: Hilbesheimer, some forty years after Burnham, proposing a systematic breakdown of the grid parcels, and Gandelsonas, some thirty years later, suggesting formal games to excavate the underlying structure of the grid.


Handout for Lecture 11 (PDF)

  • Page 1: Comparison of different city form typologies (London Square, Paris Boulevard, Vienna—Gruppenhaus, hof, Barcelona Block, Sunnyside Gardens “Superblock”) with the German Siedlung
  • Page 2: Hoyt’s cycles of land value and building construction in Chicago from 1830–1930

Referenced Texts

Willis, Garry. “Chicago Underground,” The New York Review of Books, October 21, 1993.

Appelbaum, Stanley. “Rand, McNally & Co.’s New Indexed Miniature Guide Map of the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago, 1893.” The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record. Dover Publications, 1980. ISBN: 9780486239903.

Gandelsonas, Mario. “Drawings Investigating Chicago Grid.” The Urban Text. 1st ed. MIT Press, 1991. ISBN: 9780262570848.

Examples, Precdents, and Works

Map of Illinois (La Honton, 1703); World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (1893); Transportation Building (Alder & Sullivan); Administration Building (Richard Morris Hunt); Women’s Building (Sophia Hayden); Manufactures Building (Robert Swain Peabody); Ferris Wheel (George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.); Midway Plaisance, Cairo Street, Florence Hotel, and the Arcade (Chicago, Illinois, United States); proposed grid plan (Ludwig Hilberseimer)

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