Thomas Leslie’s Chicago Skyscrapers 1934-1986 offers a wide survey of high rises across the socioeconomic spectrum

High in the Sky, Where the Money Stacks Up  

Thomas Leslie’s Chicago Skyscrapers 1934-1986 offers a wide survey of high rises across the socioeconomic spectrum

First National Bank (Architects for the First National Bank of Chicago: C.F. Murphy Associates and the Perkins and Will Partnership, 1964-1969). Aerial view. (HB-28541-J2, Chicago History Museum, Hedrich-Blessing Collection)

Chicago Skyscrapers 1934-1986: How Technology, Politics, Finance, and Race Reshaped the City | Thomas Leslie | University of Illinois Press | $44.95

In the 1960s, the same Chicago city agency conjured some of the worst and the best in American residential high-rises, and in rapid succession. The Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) Robert Taylor Homes were the nation’s largest public housing project when they opened in 1963: the buildings locked in a grim march two miles long on Chicago’s South Side. Twenty-eight 16-story towers, both shoddily built and maintained, were designed to conform with the creeping austerity that has plagued public housing in America. Yet by contrast, less than three miles north and a few years hence are Bertrand Goldberg’s Hillard Homes, where a circular, cellular arrangement of spaces in senior citizen towers provide generous community space, and arcing family apartment complexes curve so that two apartments always have an eye on what’s going on in the extra-wide corridors.

(Courtesy University of Illinois Press)

In the mid-1960s, South Side residents, activists, and civic leaders were appalled at how terribly the Robert Taylor homes were turning out, and activism resulting from the catastrophe at the Robert Taylor Homes was what allowed Goldberg’s Hillard Homes to shine. They shamed the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) into giving Goldberg a free hand to produce imaginative, humane housing. Goldberg argued for greater input from prospective residents, took their advice, and produced a complex of residential skyscrapers still beloved to this day, which in the end was no more expensive that the pro forma poverty warehouses of the Robert Taylor Homes that would be torn down less than 50 years later. Hillard Homes worked, but it was the last high-rise the CHA would ever do.

Robert Taylor Homes (Shaw, Metz, and Associates, 1958-1962). Exterior view. (HB-26129-B, Chicago History Museum, Hedrich-Blessing Collection)
Francis Cabrini Extension (A. Epstein, 1957-1958). Aerial view. (ST-12003522-0078, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum)

This history of Hillard Homes in Thomas Leslie’s Chicago Skyscrapers 1934-1986: How Technology, Politics, Finance, and Race Reshaped the City, does check several of these post-colon points, but the book is not quite a people’s history of midcentury skyscraper design; it’s too engaged with the developer and designer-led architectural canon of Chicago. But it does reassess this canon with a mostly unromantisized eye for political economy, implicitly concluding that no matter what the chamber of commerce might say, the skyscrapers aren’t special. Leslie’s book puts them on the same conveyor belt of material production and abstract financialization as any complex commodity, subject to technical horizons, policy environments, social contexts, and yes, individual imagination and prejudice. “Throughout the city’s history, the ends to which skyscrapers immense multiplicative capabilities have been marshalled makes their outcome dependent on and sensitive to their motivating conditions,” he writes. It’s a granular and sober story that knows where the spandrels are welded as well as where the bodies are buried, which are often too close to each other for comfort. This tension is what makes Chicago Skyscrapers an admirable document for our age of crushing inequality in the built environment.

A follow-up to Leslie’s previous book, Chicago Skyscrapers 1871-1934, this sequel traces the tectonic lineage of Mies, Charles Murphy, and SOM that led to the iconic brand of structural expressionism. Leslie’s overarching thesis is that centralized planning from city hall pushed high rises as a tool to provide new tax revenue, patronage jobs, urban anchors for middle classes fleeing to the suburbs, and to isolate poor Black people, who were regarded as a virulent contagion by Chicago’s racist planners and civic leaders. Here, skyscrapers are elements of population control, creating moats and beacons to isolate populations in both splendor and squalor.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). (HB-35283-A2, Chicago History Museum, Hedrich-Blessing Collection)
Prudential Building (Naess and Murphy, 1951-1955). Contemporary postcard view. (Author’s collection)

Leslie draws much of his material from newspaper architecture columns and architecture magazines, which foreground the developers and architects of the time. To its credit, the book continually points out that wide swaths of Chicago’s citizenry got nothing out of its world-class collection of skyscrapers, and sometimes, the realization seems to bum out even Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley out, who is somewhat superficially presented as the primary force pushing Chicago’s skyline higher. At the 1968 topping-out ceremony for SOM’s Hancock Center, just a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the mayor limply intoned: “People are overwhelmed by the magnitude of issues and seem to have lost faith that this nation can overcome such problems.” But one early chapter on technological achievements furthering skyscraper development sets the tone for Leslie’s detail-oriented analysis. Here, we learn how the putty-like qualities of aluminum led to the explosion of curtain wall innovation. Leslie also dabbles in energy usage, drawing a connection for readers between two technological revolutions—air conditioning and fluorescent lights. Previously, standard incandescent bulbs converted only five percent of their energy into light, and the heat fueled by the other 95 percent required approximately $20 of air conditioning per bulb to mitigate. Fluorescent lights stormed in, converting 18 percent of their energy into light, but the payoff of technical specs isn’t touted as an ecological win. Rather, it’s made clear (granted, much later in the tome) that the C-suite were the sole beneficiaries of these new efficiencies. In Leslie’s words:

“The immense fiscal leverage offered by techniques such as tube structures, high-speed elevators, and more efficient curtain walls continue to concentrate wealth—and whiteness—in one cohort of the city, accruing benefits to a narrow slice of the region’s population while amplifying economic and geographic issues in the rest of the city.”

Most vitally, the book admits Chicago’s skyscraper failures into the skyscraper canon through close architectural analysis. The wide survey of residential high rises runs the length of the socioeconomic spectrum. Whether huddled next to elevator shafts filled with trash at Cabrini-Green (designed by PACE and Epstein) or sheathed in cocktail attire amid the quiet gardens and effervescent courtyards at Solomon and Cordwell’s Carl Sandburg Village, Leslie carefully demonstrates how skyscrapers were used to re-shape entire neighborhoods to maximize real estate value for the city’s incumbents. He observes how “housing in Chicago underwent a notable transition from amenity to commodity,” tracing a path other contemporary critics have followed much further afield.

Lake Point Tower (Schipporeit and Heinrich with Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, 1965-1969). Aerial view. (HB-28204-X3, Chicago History Museum, Hedrich-Blessing Collection
Sears Tower (SOM, 1969-1974). Press conference announcing design with Sears chairman Gordon Metcalf and Mayor Daley, January 1969. (ST-70006269-0011, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum)

Skyscrapers have not stopped coming up with new ways to consolidate wealth. With its clear-eyed analysis of how skyscrapers, simultaneously pragmatic and awkward structural solutions, have often made things worse for most of us, Leslie’s book acts as a yardstick for a new generation of writers and critics, challenging us to pull back the curtain to reveal the structural un-soundness of our technocratic achievements.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist and critic focused on the intersection of design in architecture and landscape architecture and policy.