Joanna Merwood-Salisbury


On her book Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City

Cover Interview of January 03, 2010

The wide angle

Although I was trained as a professional architect, I am principally an architectural historian, drawn especially to the social and political context of architecture and urbanism in nineteenth and early twentieth century America.  My aim is always to investigate buildings not as autonomous aesthetic objects, but as the physical manifestations of culture and society.  In this way my research ranges far from the traditional approach that focuses on individual architects and aesthetic analysis towards a more inclusive understanding of the meaning of buildings, not only for architects and critics, but also for the people who build and occupy them.

Chicago 1890 reflects this approach.  The book is firstly a reinterpretation of some well-known architectural masterpieces by Chicago architects Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, and John Wellborn Root, notably the Monadnock (1885-92) and the Reliance Building (1889-95).  I examine these buildings not only as important artifacts in architectural history, but also as sites for a contentious debate about the future of the industrial city.

Chicago’s defining events, including the violent building trade strikes of the 1880s, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago— feature large in the book as the context in which the skyscraper, at the turn of the twentieth century, was imagined, built, and finally repudiated.  This approach to architectural history provides a new way to look at the work of important American architects, understanding their designs as specific responses to modern urban phenomena.