Living in Midland and trying to find a building with the exquisite type of architecture that can be seen in Chicago was a real challenge, one that I hope to have met, you be the judge. Driving around Midland I saw the occasional building the struck me as more unique than others, but nothing I felt I could draw a good comparison on. After a lot of thought I realized I kept going back to one place in my mind, the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio (built between 1937 and 1940). But what connection could be made between anything I experienced in Chicago to the Dow house? Then it hit me, it did not have to be about the actual building, but could be about the people who designed those buildings.
Unique, innovative, groundbreaking designs – these are all terms that have been used to describe the architecture of Alden B Dow, Daniel Burnham and John Root. Dow’s work was considered to be very modern for the time, while Burnham and Root were often thought to be using a new architectural style, which combined many styles of the past into one structure.The other thing that these three architects have in common is that they all were responsible for designing and building a city. For my fellow students it is obvious what city Burnham and Root were involved in, the White City. However many people are not aware that Dow designed and oversaw the building of the town of Lake Jackson, TX. Unfortunately from a historical perspective you cannot visit the White City today, however Dow’s city still stands today.
Burnham and Root were well known for the architectural innovation. Particularly Root’s design of a type of “floating” foundation, which allowed for building on the swampy soil of Chicago. This new design made it possible to build skyscrapers where they were previously thought impossible to build. This design was used in the building of the Rookery (completed in 1888) which Burnham and Root loved so much they moved their offices into the building
One of the innovative designs that Dow is well known for is his use of what he called unit blocks. The innovative part of this design was the Dow was doing something that people of the time (1934) were not that familiar with, recycling. Dow’s unit blocks were cast from recycled cinders he obtained from his father’s business, the Dow Chemical Company. You can see the white unit blocks in the below picture that make up the Dow house below. Although Dow’s unit block design did not catch on as much as the idea of the floating foundation (only a handful of homes in Midland are built using these blocks) these are both great examples of the innovation and forward thinking of these architects.
Another idea that Dow, Burnham and Root all shared was that of using natural light. Dow not only enjoyed using natural light by adding many windows in his designs, he like to bring nature in and give his buildings a more organic feel by also incorporating them with the nature outside. To accomplish this idea of making his home extend into nature Dow used features like the colored glass pictured below.
You may also note to the left the windows placed to also bring nature in. Burnham and Root had more practical reasons for wanting to use natural light in their design. The smoke in the city during their time from the coal and pollution caused a constant haze across Chicago. Therefore the designed what is known as the light court of the Rookery (pictured below) to allow for any natural light to assist in lighting their building.
The final commonality that I was able to find between these two structures was Frank Lloyd Wright. Dow had a fellowship with Wright for a period of time, and many of Dow’s designs have been compared to those of Wright for their organic designs and modernism. It also happens that Wright was commissioned in 1905 to update the light court of the Rookery. He maintained the glass ceiling which allowed all of the natural light in, but added bronze chandeliers and covered iron columns, which were left previously exposed, with white marble.
I learned through this project and experience of this trip that to compare architecture you don’t simply have to find two buildings that are similar, but that if you dig a little deeper you might find more. What I found were 3 architects whose designs were not only revolutionary, but also held great beauty for different reasons.
The Architecture of Alden B. Dow; Robinson, Sidney K.; Michigan Society of Architects, Detroit, 1983; Print