Chicago small buildings

Chicago and Small Buildings | Architecture

On a recent visit to Chicago, Richard Porch explored its small buildings and concludes size really doesn’t matter…

The contribution that small pieces of architecture can make to city life should never be underestimated. They do this by adding surprise value to encounters that enrich our experience of the environment out of all proportion to their scale. The Japanese are good at doing small buildings that have significance of impact and presence despite their size. It’s a small country with a big urban population which maybe has something to do with it. I saw a Kōban (Police box) in Tokyo and a tiny temple structure in Kyoto which punched well above their weight visually.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that a big American city like Chicago could produce good, small buildings too. This is surprising given that it is the city where the skyscraper was invented and was home to the architect who could make them look like something other than mere money-making exercises in three dimensions, Mies van der Rohe. I anticipated wall-to-wall high-rise architecture and the canyons created by them. To a certain extent I was not disappointed but in other ways I was completely taken aback. To my intense delight the architectural features that captured my interest most were probably the smallest elements in what is inevitably referred to as ‘the windy city’. That and water; many great world cities often owe their existence to a river that runs through them – but that’s for another time.

My previous experience of Chicago had been limited to what I had read in books and the film While You Were Sleeping starring Sandra Bullock. The latter picturesquely portrayed the city as sutured together by urban bridges spanning a river with amazing backdrops and framed by gleaming office block architecture. I was therefore expecting the prototypical American city; a concrete plateau over which had been superimposed a gridiron layout and defined by mirror-glazed skyscrapers that were clustered in a crystalline-like formation around a central business district through which a river meandered.

From the day of my arrival many of my initial expectations of the city had been fulfilled. It was like many major American cities, in that it was a hive of activity and defined by its stock of modern architecture as three-dimensional logos and tangible badges of its success.

There was an abundance of public art; pre-eminent among them a bright red stabile called ‘Flamingo’ by the late Alexander Calder (1898-1976). Despite its name the latter actually looks more like some architecturally-scaled rain forest plant that had taken root in the uncompromising corporate soil of the inelegantly-named Federal Center Plaza Complex. If ever a place name ticked all the boxes while simultaneously defining a space, this one does. Full marks to the bureaucrat who conferred that name on it. Designed by Mies Van Der Rohe in the late 1950s but not completed until 1974. It is a hymn to right-angled orthogonality with variations on squares and rectangles all too visible in the dimensions of the architecture, the floor finish and even the street bollards. This must have looked splendidly rigorous when Mies had this on the drawing board. Nevertheless; full marks to whoever commissioned Calder’s stabile which rescues the entire ensemble.

The Calder stabile

I can hear hard-line Modernists gnashing their teeth as they read that. Fashioned in steel and painted a vivid red its flowing, organic shape is the perfect antidote to the ruthless geometric purity of the John C. Kluczynski building immediately behind it. So obsessional is the geometry of the plaza that Mies designed it to an 8.5 metre grid. This was so the joints in the paving could extend into the lobbies of the buildings and then march up their sides in order to create visual unity among the three structures that comprised the Plaza. In theory it would also help merge their and private realms. It never quite comes off though as the severely corporate nature of the privatised space around most skyscrapers works to alienate rather than engage. This is hard-edged architecture that defines a hard-nosed environment in every sense. Walking around in it and then taking in that other great place of homage for the architecture of Mies, Lakeshore Drive the individual has little to relate to in this concrete jungle created by capitalism. Although invariably impressed by the scale of it all, one is also inevitably alienated by it to a large extent. That is until one takes to the Chicago River and the city throws a surprise or two your way.

 Chicago small buildings
Roosevelt Road – Bridge Tender Houses

It does this by dropping you down a couple of storeys into the city’s basement; the true swampy ground floor that it grew so rapidly away from. There is a marvellous architectural tour to be done which sets out from near Navy Pier and which takes you up the Chicago River and into the city’s fascinating Loop District. So called because of the elevated railway which circled the area in the late 19thcentury it is now the heart of the central business district of Chicago. The north and west sides of the loop are defined by the Chicago River while the west is by the blue vastness of Lake Michigan. Only the south side of the loop faces dry land as it empties into the Prairie Avenue Historic District. The Loop District can only be roughly 4 miles by 4 miles square but it is a kind of core sample of architectural history as it has been affected by high-rise building. I took a 90-minute trip which showed me 50 different skyscrapers and 18 *bascule bridges that spanned the Chicago River in a short canyonised experience of a few square miles. The modern office blocks were built by a who’s-who of American high-rise architecture in the period 1950-2000. Leaven this with a similar amount of older stone-faced (mid-rise) structures dating from 1900–25 and the banks of the river have been endowed with a fascinating architectural fringe.

This said; the structures that most caught my eye were the smallest to be seen and the most idiosyncratic. They were the river bridge control rooms and you found two of them wherever there was a bridge that needed to be raised. Most of the bridges that span the Chicago River are of the bascule variety. Without getting too technical they are counter-balanced bridges that snap open in the middle to allow river traffic to pass through unimpeded, think of Tower Bridge in London and you have the idea. This kind of bridge has to have people in control rooms to operate them and so you need one on each side of the span to operate each half of the bridge. This need for bridge control gear and a person to operate it generates the need for a small piece of architecture to accommodate them. In Chicago they are known as bridge tender houses and this is where it starts to get interesting.

It gets interesting because these tiny little functional buildings once lodged in your consciousness retain a level of visibility out of all proportion to their size. Most people only see the bridges but I think these miniature pieces of architecture are worthy of appreciation as well. Seen from the river their highly individualistic appearance has made them into genuine landmarks, which is just what was wanted. What is perhaps even more interesting is that the older ones are visually more memorable than the newer ones. The older ones were made of stone and their design informed by Beaux Arts classicism rather than the bland cool of the modern ones. The latter seem to owe their design to a misplaced zeal for a kind of stripped-down modernism whereby a lack of detail and ornament was supposed to represent modernity. Whereas all it really seems to stand for is a lack of ideas and thinness of spirit.

Chicago small buildings
Michigan Avenue Bridge House

My favourites are the West Washington Street Bridge Tender House which looks like a kind of Tardis given a classical make-over and then squashed between an office building and the bridge it makes rise and fall to order (at least if you give 48 hours’ notice). It looks quite stylishly tatty and the way it is wedged into position makes it seem as though it crashed there on the way back from a distant galaxy. Its theatrically dilapidated turn-of-the-20thcentury appearance is at odds with the fact it houses the controls for raising and lowering the enormously heavy steel bridge it exists cheek-by-jowl with. This is the other thing; they have a kind of symbolic ceremonial role, a bit like sentry boxes beside the entrance to a royal palace or similar. This perhaps why they are usually very soberly decorated using a variety of classical ornamentation such as banded rustication, pilasters or lead mansard roofing.

I suppose one has to be fair-minded and remember that such little buildings were new for their time and therefore no precedent existed to inform the way they looked. The electro-mechanical control gear inside them was not exciting enough to help shape the building (form following function etc.) so the designers (often engineers) were just looking at what the trade calls an ‘envelope design’ to house the rude mechanicals, in every sense. Anyway at the time when most of them were built (i.e. 1910 – 30s) overtly ‘mechanical-looking’ structures (bridges and power stations etc. aside) would have been inconceivable. They would have to be dressed-up as small pieces of architecture i.e. something resembling a classical kiosk and not wrapped in a metal casing like some architecturally-scaled piece of industrial design.

Chicago small buildings
North Lasalle St Bridge Tender House

The interiors of bridge tender buildings are frankly disappointing. They often resemble nothing more than well-appointed garden sheds in which a model train enthusiast with a complex track layout has taken up residence. All the heavy equipment needed to lift the bridges such as counterweights, electric motors and power lines etc. are either buried in the ground nearby or hidden from view. This only serves to make the appearance of the tender houses more odd as (to the uninitiated) they appear to serve no immediate purpose.

Chicago was lucky in that it was home to a number of talented architects’ chief among being Daniel Burnham (1846-1912) and E. H. Bennett (1874 – 1954). Who, in addition to designing a lot of its key landmark buildings (in the period 1891 – 1912) also helped create its most prestigious bridge at Michigan Avenue. It was the only bridge with four tender buildings (two on each side of the river) only two of which actually operate the bridge the other two are there just there for symmetry. Again more an architectural consideration than an engineering one. Construction started in 1918 and it was opened in 1920. In 1928 four large bas-relief panels on suitably high-minded themes were added. This was allowed because of the civic importance of the site and this modest public art element / decorative element lifts the appearance of the bridge enormously. One beneficial side-effect of effect of having an architectural community in the city was that it meant talented people were available to drive up the quality of the bridge tender buildings design and keep them out of the hands of mere engineers. This is important given that the creation of a new bascule bridge (in the early 20thcentury) and its attendant bridge tender structures would have been primarily the responsibility of a firm of bridge builders and their sub-contractors. Then as now; not a recipe for civic-minded landmarks.

Chicago’s bridge tender buildings are a modest architectural contribution to a great American city yet one of its most interesting – once you are alerted to their existence. Size does not matter.


Richard Porch is a regular contributor at Wales Arts Review.