Chicago, Elevation: 597ft
143 years ago, on a dry Sunday evening in October 1871, a fire started burning in a barn just southwest of the heart of Chicago, Illinois. Whether Mrs. Catherine O’Leary’s cow accidentally (or, perhaps purposefully, since almost all cows are known arsonists) kicked over the lantern, or if it was a gust of that famous Windy City wind (well known aider-and-abetter to conflagrations) that knocked it over is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the Great Chicago Fire changed forever the way cities are built, and therefore, the way cities are designed.
I was recently in Chicago. As an industrial designer, wandering around that city is kind of like turning the pages of a beautifully designed Architectural Design & History textbook—only colder and windier—each corner turned revealing some other masterwork of steel and glass and stone. The density and the scale of the structures in Chicago are fascinating, and are unlike that of New York or San Francisco, or Tokyo, Hong Kong, Berlin, London—or any other modern city—all of which owe their basic building principles to the material and engineering innovations that happened in Chicago as a result of the destruction caused by the fire.
And as happens with any sort of boom—be it economic, industrial, or tech—the building boom in Chicago during the late 1800s attracted some of the most talented professionals working in the building trades—Louis Henry Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, William LeBaron Jenney, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, etc.
Chicago’s rich history of building and architecture, fueled by the fire that destroyed what was, and cleared the way for what would be, and is, infused the entire city and its surrounding areas with an elevated standard of design. The evidence of which is is plain to see, and anything but plain.
Senior Industrial Designer
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