ADAPTATION, MUTATION, AND SPECIATION IN CHICAGO
The evolution of cities occurs at all scales, from the tiniest urban gesture to the grandest of plans. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chicago.
After the Chicago Fire of 1871, when the first-growth city was destroyed, the city reacted to the trauma with a burst of creativity that virtually invented modern America. New building species emerged, most notably the skyscraper, which was pioneered there during a building boom that coincided with the arrival of steel construction and the invention of the elevator and the telephone. While the skyscraper genus quickly spread to New York, it underwent an intriguing evolution in Chicago with architects attempting to render it the various styles of the day. Thus from the Tacoma Building to the Reliance Building to the Guarantee to Carson Pirie Scott, and to the Chicago Board of Trade, the skyscraper tried on a succession of eclectic styles, from Richardsonian Romanesque, to Gothic, to Beaux Arts classical, to the iconoclasm of Louis Sullivan, settling comfortably on Art Deco as what, for me, is its defining style. That is, until Mies came along and reinvented it once again, initiating a wave of skyscraper cultivars that continues to this day.
But Chicago is also known for the efforts to plan the city. Since the Great Fire, Chicago has never stopped reimagining itself with a series of grand schemes, the most famous, of course, from Burnham and Bennett, whose plan for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was the one plan of so many proposed following the Chicago Fire to be realized. The more recent Millennium Park comes out of this tradition. A public/private partnership, it took longer and cost far more than had been anticipated, yet it has drawn an unprecedented amount of tourists and, with art and architecture by Anish Kapoor, Renzo Piano, and Frank Gehry, has cemented Chicago’s already solid reputation as a cultural capital.
Of course, it was Daniel Burnham, whose handiwork can bee seen everywhere in Chicago, who famously declared, “make no small plans.” But it is precisely in these smaller plans that Chicago is readying for the future. “Cities adapt or they go away,” is what Aaron Durnbaugh, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment said in a recent New York Times article describing plans for the city to adjust to the inevitable climate change on the horizon. The city is taking steps to prepare for hotter, wetter weather. That means devising ways to deal with stormwater with permeable paving and changing the urban plant palette toward more heat tolerant varieties. This also means taking the city in a more sustainable direction, working on an electric car infrastructure, a network of bike paths, reduction of paved areas to reduce the heat-island effect, and moving the city to zero waste through aggressive recycling. Such measures are part of a strategy of urban adaptation that Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment describes in the same New York Times article as “a constant ongoing process to make sure we are as resilient as we can be in facing the future.”
This is how the evolution of cities proceeds: not through the simple mechanics of Darwinian capitalism naturally selecting certain forms, nor merely the result of good planning, but an interaction of these and other less-obvious forces. Cities like Chicago constantly reshape themselves – from a treasured landmark adapting to a new use, to the mutation of known building species in reaction to altered conditions; from the birth of a totally new building genus that forever transforms the city, to a simple change in paving. Urban Successionism is the endless struggle to remain vital in an increasingly competitive global economy.