A Tale of Two Cities – the Skyscraper and the Suburb

The Frank Lloyd Wright Studio in Oak Park
The Frank Lloyd Wright Studio in Oak Park

Oak Park, Illinois is known throughout the world for its revolutionary architecture that defined the American suburb.  From his Oak Park studio on Chicago Avenue, Frank Lloyd Wright and his entourage created the suburban home format on a basic grid-iron layout of streets; they developed an entirely new aesthetic order of clear geometry arranged in abstract compositions that reinforced sensitive spatial hierarchies.  One would think that modern day Oak Park would attract attention as a world-class center of architectural research and innovation, no?

Chicago, Illinois
Chicago, Illinois

Well, Oak Park is located a short, ten mile ride along any one of an assortment of rapid transit, commuter railroad, expressway or surface streets from Chicago. Chicago, a much larger city, is the world class architectural attraction.  Oak Park is just a neighbouring community.  This, despite Frank Lloyd Wright’s practice that attracted world wide attention was located here.  Not to mention that the Twinkie was invented in Oak Park.

Though the skyscraper was invented and developed in Chicago; its antithesis – the American suburb – is Oak Park. 

After the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago grew on a clean slate.  Horses were dirty animals to have around in a crowded urban setting, so the chief methods of transportation were walking, and trains.  By walking, one could comfortably walk about half a mile – a kilometer – or so between places.  From house to work, from house to church, and so on.  Each of these destinations attracted a population from within a similar radius.  Eventually, putting all the radii between houses and destinations together, one was faced with a large, seething urban mass that was too large to walk from end to end – certainly during bad weather.   Now, a train could take people from this great urban mass through rural countryside to a station about ten miles (sixteen kilometres) or so to another station where the urban mass could start all over again.  The new urban mass never seemed to attain the same size or prominence as the original city.  This describes Chicago and Oak Park, or River Forest, or Evanston, or Riverside, or Pullman, or… this list goes one.  This is the classic American suburb.

Once private automobiles began to proliferate, people weren’t bound to travelling from train station to train station.  They could travel from point to point.  They didn’t even need to travel from town to town; they could travel from a point in the countryside to another point in the countryside, giving rise to what we affectionately know today as “sprawl”.  Some cities – like Los Angeles – became of a size after the advent of the automobile, so they academically don’t have suburbs, they only have sprawl.

There are only a certain few cities in North America that reached this critical mass of size to have classic American suburbs before the proliferation of the automobile brought about a different type of development – Chicago, New York City, Boston, and to an extent Philadelphia, Cleveland and Montreal (being Canadian).

Garden City Concept by Sir Ebenezer Howard

The British equivalent of the classic American suburb is the Garden City, whose format was developed by Sir Ebenezer Howard.  His model saw a city grow to a certain size, then be surrounded by smaller cities that functioned through “interurbanity”, all connected by railways and separated by farmland.

Does the Garden City seem anything like the classic American suburb?  It should.  While Sir Ebenezer Howard grew up in Dickens’ era London, a little known fact is that he homesteaded on farmland in eastern Nebraska in 1871 or thereabouts.  Dissatisfied with this, he migrated to Chicago, where his shorthand skills landed him jobs court reporting and reporting for newspapers.  Riverside was being planned and developed at this time – while it’s thought that he knew of it, it’s not thought that he actually visited Riverside.  He undoubtedly knew of, and may have visited, any one of a number of suburban communities surrounding Chicago.  He returned to England in 1876.  His Garden Cities concept is simply modeled after what he happening in Chicago.

The two extremes of twentieth century architecture – the skyscraper and the suburb – were invented and developed here in the Chicago region.