"Another Architectural Counterfactual: What If the Chicago Fire of 1871 Had Never Happened?"

It’s great to see that architectural counterfactuals continue to proliferate.

Coming on the heels of exhibitions of architectural designs that were never completed in Los Angeles and New York, a fascinating new project has just been unveiled about Chicago. 

Entitled, “What If the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Never Happened?” the web-based project is produced by the Chicago—based radio station, WBEZ 91.5’s program, “Curious City.”

How do the authors answer their own question?

For one thing, they emphasize the obvious point that major works of architecture would have survived the destruction (which claimed 18,000 mostly wooden structures) -- for example:

John Van Osdel’s Cook County Court House and City Hall, a domed structure with a cupola, built in 1853 where City Hall stands now, along with the Tremont House at the southeast corner of Lake and Dearborn streets,…and gems like the Grand Pacific Hotel, Crosby’s Opera House, the Academy of Design and the original Chicago Historical Society.”

Some observers expressed “missed opportunity counterfactuals” and noted that, without the fire, the city’s growth would have unfolded differently:

Richard Bales argued that “Chicago’s central business district might have been forced to expand toward the west if the fire hadn’t cleared so much land. Imagine a skyline with more skyscrapers west of the Loop.

Garrard Lowe noted that “The Loop would not have become a series of skyscraper canyons. There may have been more green spaces in downtown Chicago. … The square in which the courthouse sat had trees, and the old houses had gardens and lawns with shrubbery and trees. Indeed, in some ways, we might have had a more humane metropolis. … How nice it would have been to have green oases in the heart of the Loop.”

Neal Samors added that: “Chicago would probably have been a much smaller metropolis and not the second-largest city in the United States,” says Neal Samors, author of several books on the city’s history. He argues that the fire’s clearing effect allowed a building boom that wouldn’t have been possible without the fire.”

By contrast, other commentators provided “deterministic counterfactuals,” noting that:

“most of the changes that occurred in Chicago after the 1871 fire would have happened anyway — only at a slower pace and with subtle differences.”

Tim Samuelson said “a tall, dense downtown was inevitable. “Downtown would have still been hemmed in by immovable natural, physical and commercial barriers, so the need to build tall buildings very likely would have become a necessity as the city continued to grow.”

Moreover, Joseph Schwieterman argued that “many of the buildings destroyed by the 1871 fire would have lasted for a while — possibly until the early 1900s. Then they would’ve been torn down to make way for buildings in 20th-century styles. “We would not have the rich collection of building dating back to the 1875-1903 period that we have today,” he says. “Instead, we would have a larger stock of buildings of more recent vintage.”

Finally, there is perhaps the most important question of all:

“What about the styles of architecture that burst out of Chicago in the late 19th century? How would they be different in a world without the Great Fire?

“One common myth is that right after the fire — poof! — we rebuilt our small brick/wood city with big steel skyscrapers,” Jennifer Masengarb says. “But that wasn’t the case at all. For the most part, right after the fire we rebuilt things quickly and in methods of construction or styles that we already knew — two- to five-story load-bearing buildings.”

But architects from other places — including Louis Sullivan and John Root — flocked to Chicago.

Daniel Burnham was already in Chicago before 1871, but he emerged as an architect in the years after the fire. Sullivan arrived in 1873, just as economic depression hit, halting Chicago’s rebuilding. According to Miller’s book, this idle time gave young architects a chance to develop their thoughtful styles.

So, in an alternate universe without the 1871 fire, would the Chicago School of Architecture even exist?

 “What is considered modern architecture — stripped down, bold in mass and form — had its origins in a reimagining of the fire by a new group of architects lured to the city by the unprecedented opportunities to build,” Miller writes. “They stayed on through the difficult days with little to do but paper architecture and study of what others before them had done.”

They began turning their ideas into actual buildings when the economy recovered in the 1880s. Many structures from the first wave of post-fire construction were torn down — just 10 or 15 years after they were erected — to make way for taller ones. Chicago became the birthplace of the skyscraper.

So, in an alternate universe without the 1871 fire, would the Chicago School of Architecture even exist?

“Creative dreamer architects like Sullivan and Root likely would have never had the incentive to come here,” Samuelson says.

In other words, no Chicago School as we know it.

So what is the takeaway?

In the end, it is a “silver lining counterfactual”:  without the fire, Chicago would not have evolved into the unique metropolis it became.

I imagine that Joseph Schumpeter must be content knowing that the fire provides further confirmation of his idea of “creative destruction.”

The vitality of cities is proved time and time again by their recovery from catastrophe: London in 1666.  Berlin after 1945.  Rome since forever.

Let’s hope the world’s major cities can keep this streak going by responding creatively to the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change.


Unknown said…
This is a very sound piece, but I have a big problem with your last sentence. Climate change, even rapid climate change, is a cyclical thing that has always happened on Earth. Since way before the dawn of humans, in fact. Even the fossil fuels released today are dwarfed by natural factors as causes of climate change; climate change is much more complicated than just fossil fuels being the control knob of global climate.

Furthermore, it is quite imperative to look at the historical and geological record for clearly-laid evidence of past drastic climate change, as comparing today's climate with that of 20 or 50 or 100 years ago is taking a very narrow view and is but a micro-millisecond of geological history.

Thus, the challenges posed by any sort of climate change are not by any means unprecedented. I don't understand why "climate change" has to be insinuated here in a newsletter that doesn't even normally discuss the environment.