I am, essentially, a modernist. I was trained in the tradition of Mies van der Rohe, the most conservative of modernists, but when I say that word, I actually am applying it quite a bit more loosely. Modernism is, essentially, the search for a personal architecture, rather than working to create an architecture that you believe society will expect. It is the great conflict in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.
As I see it, Chicago has four major modernist architectural traditions:
- Frank Lloyd Wright and his disciples, Barry Byrne and Walter Burley Griffin. In his creation of the "Prairie" style, Wright was trying to create an architectural vocabulary that was in tune with the landscape in which he was building.
- Mies van der Rohe and his disciples, Myron Goldsmith, Jacques Brownson, and many others. This is the tradition that follows directly from "form follows function" and derives its roots from the German Bauhaus. It is a heavily aesthetic tradition that ignores many of the human elements of architecture in the pursuit of simplicity. While it is often stated to ignore history, in reality its sense of order is based primarily on values espoused in Classical architecture. The corporate architecture of the 1960s through 1980s was a continuation of this tradition, usually carried out by one of the city's two massive modernist firms of the time, C.F. Murphy Associates and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.
- Walter Netsch, Harry Weese, and Bertrand Goldberg. While each of these men was influenced by the Miesian tradition, they carry other influences as well, often from outside Chicago. This shows in each of their architectural styles, and each developed a very distinctive style in time. Netsch developed "field theory," which takes the modernist square or rectangular, uses many of them, and rotates them to create complex, if disorienting, forms. Weese was interested in an 'architecture of accidents' that allowed for unexpected moments in a buildings. Goldberg worked from the Miesian tradition but refused to be bounded by the orthogonal, and worked to push materials to their limits sculpturally as well as structurally.
- Bruce Goff, George and Fred Keck, and Paul Schweickher. Perhaps the least studied of Chicago's modernists, this group did some of its most interesting and unconventional work. Each of them used materials in bold and unexpected ways, was willing to defy tradition, and played with technologies that hadn't been yet fully explored. There was an interest in manufacturing techniques, and the use of everyday materials in architectural ways. These architects, in direct contrast to the Miesians, were intensely focused on the site on which they were to build, and their buildings relate directly and intimately to their sites.
Each of these traditions owes a debt to the very earliest men who developed a sculptural and personal architecture. Among the best known of them would be Louis Sullivan and Frank Furness, his mentor.
The last two of these four traditions have not been fully explored and researched, and they fascinate me. This blog will be my medium through which to explore them in the near future, so you will see bits and pieces of knowledge about them here.