Yesterday, Nancy and I took a boat tour of Chicago's architecture; what we did was ride up and down the Chicago River while a guide pointed out buildings, and I'm here to tell you it was plum fascinating.
Chicago's architectural history begins with the Great Fire which wiped out most everything, so the city had to be rebuilt from the ground up. (Atlanta was also destroyed by fire, but we didn't end up with architecture, we just got buildings.) Now you need to know at the same time Chicago was rebuilding, there were some important technological achievements like they learned how to make steel in really large quantities and all about central heat and things that made skyscrapers possible.
The first skyscrapers were called "the Chicago School" and were built right here in Chicago, hence the name. Some went up to ten stories tall. Basically, the building was designed like a Greek or Roman column, which was something the architects knew would look okay even though it was long and skinny: there was a base at the bottom, a long middle part, and then a cap at the top called a cornice. The windows were also divided into three sections, because even though Greek and Roman columns didn't have windows, if they did have them, the windows would probably come in three sections. If you can think of the old Superman comics where he's jumping over a tall building in a single bound, it's probably a Chicago School skyscraper.
Then, just before the turn of the century, the Beaux-Arts movement came to Chicago in a big way. (Don't pronounce it like it's spelled, or people will call you a rube.) In my personal opinion, these are the coolest skyscrapers. They look like the people who built Notre Dame came over here to whip up some skyscrapers. There's stone buntings and angel's faces and flying buttresses and gargoyles all over the place, and even though it looks kind of odd having a fifty-story Gothic-Roman temple, you can't help but look up at them and murmur, "Gawrsh."
Then came the Great Depression, which put a halt to major building projects, and when construction started up again, Chicago was in the throes of full-blown Modernism. I will not put too fine a point on it, Modernist architecture is Dullsville. It was like the Chicago School only without the base, cornice, or three-part windows. Basically is was basic. A tall concrete and steel box with windows. If you ever drew a city skyline with an Etch-a-Sketch - and what else can you draw with an Etch-a-Sketch? - you were probably drawing Modernist Architecture. The whole idea of Modernist architecture was it wouldn't have any personality or be distinctive in any way. It was called the International Style because no matter you were in Tokyo or Times Square, it would be exactly the same. Like McDonalds, only with buildings. One Modernist pioneer in Chicago was a guy named Goldberg who specialized in round buildings like the ones George Jetson lived in. The paradox of Goldberg's buildings is, they probably looked neato and futuristic when they were first put up, but then one minute later, they looked out of date. Be careful you avant-garde wannabes out there; if you're ahead of your time now, you'll be forever behind the times later. Better to borrow from the past and be quaint from the get-go, but at least people will know it's supposed to look that way.
On to Post-Modernism, which is where we are now. It's kind of like Modernism, only with a little flair. The buildings are still sleek without all the gargoyles and doo-dangles hanging from them like the Beaux-Arts style, but the facades curve and swoop, and there's different-colored glass, and in general it's a lot hipper.
One way to view Chicago's architecture is just a history of taste. People used to like it this way, then they liked it that way, and so forth. But I think there are important permanent lessons to be learned from it. Beware of any style that seeks impersonality - better to live in a faux cathedral than a concrete box. But also, even though you have your favorite style - just as mine is the Beaux-Arts - the world would be a poorer and darker place if that's all there were. I know Chicago would be maddening if it was just one fancy-shmancy neo-Gothic-Classical-Greco-Roman skyscraper piled up on another. Your favorite tree might be the dogwood, but an unbroken forest of dogwoods would try your patience. "Enough with the dogwoods," you would say. "Give me some Georgia Pines." What's great about Chicago is looking at the steel and glass boxes and finding among them an ornate limestone turret with maybe the allegorical face of Chicago herself watching over all.