Miniview: Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park

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    In 1871 Chicago had its fire. Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the barn. The city was built of timber -not just houses but boardwalks, road blocks, fences – and with the weather tinder dry, four square miles went up in flames as the wind blew them on. The fire jumped the branches of the Chicago river, only stopping when it reached Lake Michigan. For architects it was an enormous opportunity in a land already presenting opportunity as its huddled masses expanded, although now, alas, without Mrs O’Leary’s cow.Burnham’s name became famous as the planner of much of new Chicago. He built in 1894 of one of the first steel framed glass curtain walled buildings, now preserved by the city and operated by the Kimpton group. At some 19 floors it is dwarfed by a city that at one stage had the tallest buildings in the world. It was not just upward that the city’s famed architects developed their unique much copied American style however, and one of the architects attracted to Chicago in this boom time, and who grew his own practice on the back of thriving private commissions, was the inventor of the Prairie Style, Frank Lloyd Wright. His predominantly horizontal style was developed in his own house and studio on the prairie edge of the new Chicago, in a suburb called Oak Park.

    Burnham and Lloyd Wright were just two of the architects of new Chicago whose influence was to change the world’s cities forever. Their influence was early, profound, and diverse – even revolutionary poets and artists such as Mayakovsky and Tatlin were profoundly moved to want to create an ‘America of the arts’ in revolutionary Russia. In a Europe shortly to be ripped apart by a combination of war and revolution the impact of Chicago arts and design was to be profound. Chicago became a home for refugees from Russia and Germany, including architects and artists from the equally influential Bauhaus such as Gropius, ironically whose buildings are now being demolished by the same City authorities that saved the Burnham building.

    Daniel Fountain / 23.03.2010

    Editor, Hotel Designs


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