Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

 

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

Cover Interview of January 04, 2010

A close-up

One of the most revered buildings in Chicago’s architectural history is also one of the strangest.  Looming over the intersection of Dearborn and Jackson Streets, Burnham’s and Root’s Monadnock building, completed in 1892, is a massive pile of purple-brown brick rising vertiginously to 16 stories above the sidewalk to a gently curving cornice line above, ornamented only by punched rectangular windows.  The Monadnock is famous as the highest building erected with solid masonry walls.  Utilizing an ancient method of building construction, but exhibiting no attempt at ornamentation beyond its highly unusual color and the sculpted effect of its brick, the Monadnock seems both archaic and entirely modern at the same time.

By 1889 south Dearborn Street was home to the tallest and most innovative skyscrapers in the world.  The Chicago Tribune described the towers rising there as “the finest structures in the city.”  The startling effect of the Monadnock was a bold experiment in urban design, one that took its aesthetic cues from its busy context.

In his writing on the design of the tall office building, John Wellborn Root imagined an entirely new aesthetic for crowded Chicago streets.  He discussed the possibility of an architecture whose effect depended on color rather than ornament.  The business block should be monolithic and plain, he said, since metropolitan dwellers were too busy to appreciate fine detail.  Thinking of his audience, those who would pass by the new buildings, he wrote, “each detail in a building goes for little with the general public, and they are more impressed by the use of certain materials, by the general arrangement of masses, by the effect of lightness or solidity” than by the fine quality of its historical references. In other words, the tall office building should not force itself upon the city dweller’s consciousness; it should simply be a dignified subliminal presence, a familiar and unassuming backdrop to the frenzy of activity on the sidewalk.

In formulating his ideas about skyscraper design, Root borrowed liberally from debates about form and color, figuration and abstraction, in contemporary painting.  His proposal that tall office buildings rely on the “art of pure color” rather than traditional ornamental scheme, for example, is directly related to his great admiration for the painter James McNeill Whistler’s experiments with tonal harmony.  This approach, along with criticism that valued the tall office building as a simple and somber backdrop to the shifting scenes of modern life, provides us with a new category of analysis for the early Chicago skyscraper: the perception of the modern subject.