CHICAGO — A saving grace of the the Urban Land Institute conference held here a few weeks ago was that, when tired of the often self-conscious and self-aggrandizing proceedings, one could slip away to explore this architecturally rich city.
It was in Chicago that skyscraper construction was perfected, that distinctive commercial, retail and residential design flowered, and both modern architecture and urban planning first asserted themselves.
It also was in Chicago where at the turn of the century, a young Frank Lloyd Wright began exercising his genius; where in the late 1930s, modernist master Mies van der Rohe settled to pursue his purist Bauhaus concepts of design and construction; and where now, some of the nation's more inventive architects, such as Stanley Tigerman and Helmut Jahn, practice.
One of the founding saints of Chicago's rich architectural tradition and an inspiration for Wright, Mies and generations of other architects was Louis Sullivan, who practiced and preached design theory in the city from 1880 to his death in 1924.
It was Sullivan who first uttered the oft-quoted architectural phrase "form follows function," explaining that he meant not mechanical functions, but human functions, and that for a building to be successful, it had to satisfy the needs of the user and the surrounding community. It made sense then and it makes sense now.
Another aspect of Sullivan's design theories was the use of architectural ornaments, such as sculpted terra cotta panels, carved wood handrails, cast-iron balusters and stained glass.
But Sullivan used ornamentation not for its own sake or to be trendy, as it is used today by some architects, but to give metaphorical expression to a building's function.
This was explained and illustrated quite well in an engaging exhibit on Sullivan's ornamental style at the Chicago Historical Society that I viewed while in the city for the ULI conference. The exhibit runs until to Jan. 4, after which it goes to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York.
The nice thing about seeing the exhibit in Chicago was that afterward I could view some of the actual buildings. Among those persevering is the Carson Pirie Scott and Co. store, where Sullivan used richly encrusted cast iron to frame the display windows. He is said to have wanted the ornamentation to look like elegant picture frames, and they do.
Also persevering in the downtown area known as the Loop are a variety of other noteworthy commercial buildings from the turn of the century. The aged structures look modest now, but when built their use of structural steel was quite radical, forming as they did the nation's first true skyscrapers. This is where it all began. (And not in New York, as implied by hype-architect Robert A. M. Stern in his prissy, parochial "Pride of Peers" television series.)
Of historical interest also, and appearing in the evening in the gleam of floodlights and quite striking, is the terra-cotta sheathed, neo-Renaissance-topped Wrigley Building, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. Matching the Wrigley in architectural melodrama with its neo-Gothic detailing, including extraneous flying buttresses, is the Tribune Tower, designed by Hood & Howells. Both buildings rose on the banks of Chicago River in the early 1920s, and are beloved.
Looking as fresh as ever despite now being nearly 40 years old are Mies's austere apartment towers north of downtown at 860 and 880 Lake Shore Drive. Also still provocative and hinting at the city of the future are the graceful twin 60-story cylindrical towers of the multi-use Marina City, designed by Bertram Goldberg 20 years ago.
And one only has to look at the Chicago skyline to be reminded that two of the tallest buildings in the world are here: the John Hancock Center, a tapering 1,105-foot structure, a vertical small town of offices, shops, apartments and parking and recreational facilities, built in 1969; and the Sears Tower, built in 1976, and soaring 1,450 feet, 100 feet taller than the Twin Towers in New York City.
Both the Center and the Tower were designed by Bruce Graham of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, though the center, with its external diagonal braces, by far being the more dramatic and interesting. Still, for architectural power, either one of them far surpasses anything in Los Angeles.
Very much in keeping with Chicago's tradition of architectural innovation is the State of Illinois Center, a $118-million, futuristic extravaganza designed by Helmut Jahn of the Chicago firm of Murphy/Jahn.
Selected in a brave gesture in the early 1980s by Gov. James Thompson over two other, much milder designs, the center, which opened last year, is not your usual pallid public building.
Looking like a huge, squat, chiseled glass and steel tower, with its top sliced off at a sporty angle, the center, occupying an entire downtown block, is in a word, spectacular.