Chicago Birthplace of the Skyscraper

Visiting Chicago is always a treat and it was no different this month when I returned to the Windy City for a business trip. To me, Chicago, the third-most populous city in the United States, with its streets laid out in a grid, feels a little like New York City.

Sadly enough, it was the terrible destruction caused by the 1885 great Chicago fire that led the city to become a modern, well laid out city ushering in the skyscraper era.

The city was able to rebuild taking into account urban planning and setting zoning standards. Every time I see a Birmingham Beautification Board award in front of one of a historic home I am remembered that it is in Chicago where the City Beautiful Movement started. Of course, the movement, which promoted a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life, did not always succeed. Like with every great idea, there are those who are more concerned with aesthetics, at the expenses of social reform.

Another wonderful aspect of Chicago is that, just like New York City, it attracted a lot of immigrants. It seems unbelievable that in the beginning of the twentieth century over 60 percent of Chicago’s population was foreign-born or born from parents that came to this nation from Germany, Poland, Sweden, then Czechoslovakia, Ireland, and other countries.

Over the past thirty years I visited Chicago many times and yet it took research to find out that some of our nations tallest buildings are in Chicago. The former Sears Tower, now known as the Willis Tower, is the second tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. As a matter of fact, the Willis Tower, upon completion, back in 1973, surpassed the World Trade Center towers.


The architect of the Willis Tower was Fazlur Rahman Khan, born in a part of British-ruled India that became East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh. Kahn discovered that the ridged steel structures where not the way to go when taking into account wind forces, seismic forces, especially not as buildings height increased. In short Mr. Kahn became known as the Einstein of structural engineering. Among many other projects, Fazlur Rahman Kahn is also the architect of the other most famous Chicago building, the John Hancock Center.

Mr. Kahn, the father of structural engineering and expressionism suffered a heart attack while on a business trip in Saudi Arabia at the age of 52. He is buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. In 2009 he was singled out by then President Barack Obama for his contributions as a Muslim American and his achievements as an architect and engineer. The epitaph on his gravestone reads (in translation) “For you it is the beginning, For me it is the end, For you and me together, Thus flows the current.” On April 3rd, 2017, on what would have been his 88th birthday, Google honored Mr. Kahn with a Google Doodle.

While famous for skyscrapers, Chicago is also home to some amazing public art, the most famous being, Cloud Gate, the 10-ton elliptical sculpture forged of a seamless series of highly polished stainless steel plates, which reflect Chicago’s famous skyline and the clouds above by Indian-born British artist Anish Kappor. The sculpture is inside Millennium Park and lovingly called The Bean.

There is so much more to see, but no visit to Chicago would be complete without spending time at Navy Pier, or along the ocean-like shores of Lake Michigan. If the beach is not your thing, the 18-mile-long stretch of Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is perfect for running, walking, or biking. World-class museums, a vibrant performing arts scene, and great restaurants, roundup the offerings.

Chicago, I will be back, and  I wholeheartedly agree with Sarah Bernhardt when she said “I adore Chicago. It is the pulse of America.”