A really fun evening last night lecturing for the Iowa Architecture Foundation’s celebration of Architecture Month. Their theme this year is Skyscrapers in the Tall Corn State, so it was a welcome invitation, indeed…Paula Mohr and Kristin McHugh-Johnston put a good evening together.
I convinced them to let me talk about skyscrapers and the midwest region, instead–admittedly kind of a dodge, but this let me go back to some of the earliest ideas for the project. William Cronon’s 1992 book, Nature’s Metropolis, inspired me to start thinking about Chicago’s buildings as products of their region and not just of the architects ad engineers who designed them. His thesis (as I understand it), is that the city came about because of its location at the confluence of trade routes–first water-borne, and eventually rail–and that the abundance of natural materials within the resulting transportation network influenced and to some extent determined the scale and culture of the city’s economic growth.
It’s a powerful argument, especially when it’s paired with the maps in Cronon’s book. And while the skyscraper project has expanded beyond the influence of the region’s natural resources, this lecture gave me an excuse to go back to some of my first notes. One of the ideas buried in there was to recreate Cronon’s geographic argument using similar maps, but showing where the city’s building materials came from. That’s the master map above, and while it’s not quite as clear as the argument for grain or timber, I think it does suggest how the city drew resources and industry into its sphere. Particularly important were the locations of energy resources–coal from southern Illinois and (for a time) natural gas from Indiana.
Anyway, fun to put this together, and a good reminder that there’s a “you are what you eat” argument to Chicago’s building history. And it was great to lecture to a ‘home crowd,’ which included a number of ISU grads, good friends, and even family–a rare treat.
Chicago Skyscrapers 1871-1934 is on schedule to ship in mid-May, and it looks like there will be a handful of events around its release (watch this space). Still some free dates in late May and early June, though, so if your organization or office is interested in seeing more, by all means get in touch…