The growth of Chicago and the demise of Detroit. (August 2015)



Chicago is an amazing city.

Incorporated in 1837, it has a city population of 2.7 million and a further 10 million living in the metropolitan area. In 2012 it was named as an alpha or world city by the Globalisation and World Cities Research Network.

It’s also the eastern home of Frank Lloyd Wright and the birthplace of the Prairie School of Architecture.

We decided to spend a day with Frank and drove down to Oak Park. It’s here that he had his eastern Home and Studio.

We had visited Taliesin West, his architectural school and winter house in Scottsdale Arizona, so we were interested to compare.

The house was designed and built by Wright in 1889 with a loan from his then employer, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). The Wrights raised six children in the house and it has been restored to its 1909 appearance, the last year Frank lived there with his family.

The original house was small and in 1898 it was enlarged to make room for the growing family and the thriving business of Frank Lloyd Wright and Associates.

Although it doesn’t seem much from the outside it’s the inside story that makes this particular house so significant.

Part of the team that was responsible for the development of the Prairie Style was Walter Burley Griffin of Canberra fame.

Born in Chicago in 1876, Walter was an architect and a landscape architect and very influenced by his early work with Frank Lloyd Wright. He spent a lot of time in Australia and apart from his extensive work in Canberra made major contributions to both urban and commercial architecture in Sydney and Melbourne. Both Newman College, at the University of Melbourne and the Capitol Theatre are fine examples of his work.

In later years he even went on to work in India, which is where he died in 1937.

Just around the corner from Wright’s home and studio is Forest Avenue. Along this treelined street are a number of houses designed by Wright.

This was all part of Wright’s plush middle class neighbourhood.

Here he designed his first independent commission, the Moore-Dugal Residence. Originally built in 1895 in a traditional style, it was extensively remodeled in 1922 after a fire destroyed much of the existing building.

Frank was much happier with the later design.

Also along Forest Avenue are the Hills-Decaro and Heurtley Houses, both designed by Wright in the Prairie Style. These are beautifully proportioned private homes on large well maintained grounds.

Looking around Oak Park there were plenty of well-healed neighbours that undoubtedly helped Wright’s business prosper.

We then drove over to the Robie House in the Hyde Park neighbourhood. This is situated on the campus of the University of Chicago and not far from the shores of Lake Michigan.

Designed between 1908 and 1909 for 28 year old Frederick C. Robie, the house is regarded by many as the finest example of the Prairie School style – it’s uniquely American.

Inside the Robie House all the influences of the Prairie Style are brought to bear on the visitor. It’s here Wright’s concept of compression and release can be experienced. In many of Wright’s designs the entrance was usually hidden from view and small in scale. The visitor would therefore have to ‘compress’ themselves to pass through the opening. Once inside the space would open up in a dramatic way thus ‘releasing’ the visitor to move on.

Like many artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Wright was profoundly influenced by Japanese art. This can be seen in the use of space, materials and decoration.

Part of the principles of the Prairie School allowed architects to go beyond designing buildings and took them into the area of furniture, light fittings, windows, carpet and textile design.

Wright was a master at this, evidenced by the Robie House’s carpet. Here Wright used the floor plan as a decorative motif.

Wright’s furniture owes much to the Arts and Crafts movement that had its roots in Britain around 1880. This style was largely a rebuttal of industrialisation and desire to return to making objects by hand from natural materials.

Chicago was a haven for architecture and building construction, a direct result of the Great Fire of 1871. The fire burned out of control from October 8 to 10, killing 300 and leaving 100,000 residents homeless. It also destroyed 9 square kilometres of the Chicago CBD.

With a need to re build much of the city centre, the Chicago School was born and with it came the development of the skyscraper.

Louis Sullivan was one of the original architects associated with the development of the skyscraper. He was also a partner in Adler and Sullivan, the firm that gave Frank Lloyd Wright his first job and financed his first home.

As a result of technical development the new Chicago was all steel, brick and glass. Far less flammable than the timber buildings that they replaced.

Chicago today is still a centre for good architecture and urban environmental design. This is seen in structures like Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion by Frank Gehry.

These are situated in or around Millennium Park in the Loop community area of the city.

Another wonderful piece of public art is the Crown Fountain. Designed by the Catalan artist Jaume Plensa. this interactive fountain and reflection pool is a magnet for the local children, especially on a warm summer’s day.

They wait, with huge anticipation, for the LED display of two faces to squirt water at them.

The Art Institute of Chicago is what’s described as an Encyclopaedic Gallery. This means it covers the full gambit of art history, from classical Egyptian, Greek and Roman eras to modern and contemporary art.

It has been in its present location in Grant Park since 1893 and is one of the most patronised art institutions in the world, with over 1.5 million visitors per year.

Apart from fine art, the furniture design exhibition was also very interesting. The styles in early American furniture design, from the 17th century, was influenced by where the craftsmen originated. For instance the Dutch settled in New York, while, understandably, the English settlers went to New England.

Two of the most recognisable pieces of art in the gallery were Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ from 1930 and Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ painted in 1942. Both were surrounded by crowds either wanting to look at it, or more importantly take a ‘selfie’ in front of it.

The fall of Paris to the Nazis in 1940 drove many European artists to the USA. This led to America becoming the centre of the contemporary art world. This was very evident in a lot of the exhibits in the Art Institute of Chicago.

After a day of art and architecture we met up with Chris and Susan Landers. After dinner on the river we had a night walk around Chicago where many of the new and old 20th century skyscrapers were lit up. This gave us yet another perspective of this mega city.

We drove the 460km from Chicago, Illinois, around the bottom of Lake Michigan, just touching on Indiana, to Detroit in Michigan,

In Detroit we stayed at the Roberts Riverwalk Hotel, which was opened in 2011, formerly being the Parke-Davis Research Laboratory. Built in 1902 it was the first industrial research laboratory in the USA. It’s also known as Building 55-Detroit Research and in 1976 was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

It’s situated on the banks of the Detroit River and we were lucky enough to have a room with a river view.

This is an up and coming area and part of the redevelopment of Detroit. While much of the city is derelict and looks like something post apocalyptic, this area was thriving.

We then spent a day in Motor Town.

First was The Henry Ford or the Henry Ford Museum as it is also known. Built in 1929, it’s so much more than a car museum and pays homage to transport and the Industrial Revolution in the USA. It initially started with Henry Ford’s private collection, established in 1906, and has grown from there.

Henry Ford (1863-1947) wasn’t an overnight success. He started building cars in 1896 and it was only in 1908, with the introduction of the Model T, that his vision became a reality.

There was a lot of hard work between his Model A and Model T.

Interestingly while Henry was developing his internal combustion engine and the assembly line system, there were electric cars operating within the USA. In 1923 there were dozens of charging stations around Manhattan.

In the USA the oil companies were winning even then – not much has changed.

With the popularity of the automobile came the interstate Highway system. Initiated in 1956 by President Eisenhower and completed in 1992. 65,000km of roads were constructed, inspired by German Autobahns of the 30s. Ironically the building of autobahns and the construction technique of reinforced concrete was championed by Adolf Hitler in 1933.

The Michigan Central Station, built in 1914 and now dilapidated, is another example of Detroit’s forgotten past. Its demise was a result of Amtrak ceasing operations in 1988. In its heyday, at the start of WWI, 200 trains left the station each day.

With the rise of importance of the car and the fact that there were no parking facilities at the station the rot set in.

Another of Detroit’s dinosaurs is the old Packard Automotive Plant. Started in 1903, the 325,000 square metre factory was the first US auto plant to use reinforced concrete.

Our last visit was to Heidelberg Street and the Heidelberg Project. Created in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton and his grandfather Sam Mackey, it’s an urban art project in the mainly African-American area, amusingly called Black Bottom.

It’s a vast area with decorated houses, community gardens, graffiti and art installations. There is an ongoing war between the residents and the city for its survival.

Detroit was an interesting city as this was where America fell in love with the ‘automobile’ and the Industrial Revolution refined mass production.

It was also the place that saw the decline of the US car industry and a city that was hardest hit by the 2008 recession.

Marketing blunders of monumental proportions had a lot to do with the downfall of Detroit. The US car makers didn’t see the need for smaller cars and kept on designing and building what they wanted, not what the consumer needed. Once the Japanese, European and Korean car makers filled the gap, Detroit was destined for the scrap heap.

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