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Chicago meatspace

The fin-de-siècle Modernism of Chicago was determined by its secret twin city: the South Side Stock Yards and their infrastructural logic

One of the most intriguing qualities of late 19th-century Chicago School buildings is their meaty and rugged object-hood, their continued solid presence in the contemporary city of flows. The well known examples of the Rookery, Monadnock Building, Auditorium Building, and the Fine Arts Building characterise this brash materiality. Encounters with these buildings continue to intrigue. Where did this unique architecture come from? What were the sources and drivers of their emergence? And increasingly, how did this shared architectural value of a strong visceral materiality work with the social, ecological, and economic systems emerging at the same time?

The short answer is meat – or more precisely, the convenience of industrial-agricultural supply chains and infrastructures which poured into the growing city, marking a new prairie dialect of Modernism within emergent modernity, and secretly carrying a corporeal value-shift towards carnivore architecture legible from from the boxcars to the fine table cutlery.

Historically, modernity comes to Chicago by rail. The infrastructures, as foodways, sustained modern urbanism and urban life, beyond the inherited Victorian model in fin-de-siecle Chicago, to become a new carnivore Modernism. Driven by diverse hungers, hyper-consumption, and a rising middle class, the grocery store and domestic stove are just as central to modern life as the elevated Loop trains.

‘As a city hinging the networks of the Great Plains and the Great Lakes, Chicago was to become the productive site of a certain ‘leakage’ of capital’

The late 19th-century rise of Chicago’s distinctive modern architecture and urbanism was forged in a spirit of pragmatism whose values had long sustained life in the prairie lands; however, the specific causal agent for this development was actually located in the Midwestern industrialisation of agricultural production. The physical fabric of the modernising city was interconnected with the growing assemblage of trans-continental producers (accelerated by the first train in 1848). This meant modern urban work was increasingly organised around expanding supply chains, a growing class of middlemen, and an increasing population of consumers – each subtly affecting the emerging architecture. The public realm as the locus of the exchange of goods in this emerging modernity produced many opportunities for architectural innovation. These sites of exchange were interlaced with the grid pattern, a subtle terraforming immediately influencing the urban fabric, demographics and tempo of Chicago life. More than the infamous fire of 1871, it is this pioneering infrastructural thinking, guided by a capitalist spirit, that drove the new architecture.

Burnham and Root, The Rookery, Chicago, 1888

Burnham and Root, The Rookery, Chicago, 1888

The historical rise of Chicago’s rugged modern architecture and urbanism benefited from Chicago’s fortuitous location. As a city hinging the networks of the Great Plains and the Great Lakes, Chicago was to become the productive site of a certain ‘leakage’ of capital at all the points of exchange that advanced building opportunity. The distinct place of Chicago’s fin-de-siècle modern architectural masterpieces respond directly to this developing agricultural-industrial assemblage.

Rapid urbanisation in the later 19th century along these expanding Victorian-era supply chains into the city did cast much of the emerging infrastructure in the new vocabulary of industry. The urgency of supply chains set a curious pattern of inventive engineering including movable bridges (Rush Street, from 1856), elevated rail stations in the Loop (Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company, 1892), and even reversing the flow of the Chicago river (implemented with the Sanitary and Ship Canal of 1900) for sanitary water supply reasons. The case of architecture, naturally, is more complex.

‘We can still imagine the shock of the ‘Chicago Frame’ method of infrastructural-architectural assembly’

The growth of supply chain infrastructure and the accumulation of wealth from the exchange systems in play were drivers for other forms of growth, intentional and unexpected. Here the pragmatic business practices of optimising this growth through schedules, tracks, exchange rates, regulation and calculated financial speculation all influenced the spatial unconscious of the architects through their clients, while at the same time the engineering accomplishments they saw around them offered more explicit inspiration. The growth of the so-called Chicago School of architecture reveals the tension between this organisational imperative and engineering aplomb, situated in grids-within-grids, and legible in the robust and rusticated public buildings created by clients whose pragmatism often eschewed stylistic excess.

The transport infrastructure eventually delivered high-performance milled steel materials: precursors for new urban morphologies. By revisiting the image of linear rolled steel of rail lines given an upward turn, we can still imagine the shock of the ‘Chicago Frame’ method of infrastructural-architectural assembly (and be shocked again as the frame is always then masked). Colin Rowe’s seminal 1956 essay ‘Chicago Frame’ translates Wright’s antagonism to machinery into a general hostility elicited by the pioneering steel framing systems in post-fire Chicago, with efficient structural framing over-determining spatial plasticity. This is most easily seen in the well-known case of the two halves of the Monadnock Building (Burnham and Root, 1891 / Holabird and Roche, 1893) that juxtapose brick masonry and a later steel frame in a hybrid ‘read-out’ device of incremental technological advances negotiated between architect and client. The building’s rugged corporeality, more than its peek-a-boo structural innovation, is still the dominant sensation today.

Union Stockyards Entrance, Chicago, c.1901

John Wellborn Root, Union Stock Yards entrance, Chicago, c1901

This architectural tension between organisational control and technological expression is equally notable in the lesser-known Union Stock Yard and Transit Company, called simply ‘The Yards’, which dominated the south side of Chicago from 1865 to 1924. Transformed from swampy terrain into the largest outdoor meat-processing plant in the US, this complex staged the international industrialisation of the meat industry, and is offered here as a prototype (or doppelgänger) of the emergence of the city of Chicago itself.

The poet Carl Sandburg wrote presciently of Chicago’s proud meatpackers as the definitive modern labour lifestyle, and Chicago as a ‘city of carnivores’. The post-fire rebirth of the ‘city of carnivores’ followed the utopian spatial logic of the democratic grid, which was consistently applied to the streets of the city, the structural frames of the buildings, and was legible in the facades of the rising office building with extruding bay window typologies. But this grid of idealism was also manifest as the ideal ordering system within the vast agricultural production fields of the South Side’s cattle Stock Yards, which were the hidden engines of rapid urban growth, both in their organisational principles, as well as the reach of the meat distribution chains into the city. The entrance gate by architect John Wellborn Root follows the popular neo-Romanesque style of much urban public architecture in that era, but the vast assembly-line Armour Plant factory anticipated the later machine age aesthetic; the drive to scale operations upwards is a shared cultural value rooted in the exchange economy, one which also influenced the architectural imagination.

There is a tradition in Neoclassical architecture of subtly encoding proportioning systems based on the body, idealised and mathematically calibrated, into the massing as a barely visible ‘ghost figure’, or virtual body. Here scaling is always proportional, up to material limits. But Chicago architecture often deforms this bodily aesthetic (until perhaps Daniel Burnham’s Beaux-Arts forays in Manila in 1904 and Chicago in 1909) in favour of the pragmatics of a gridded corpulent architectonics. For example the Rookery (Burnham and Root, 1888) shows a thickening of surface, binding and cutting formal elements, especially in the corners, to present the strength of the rigid body of building, itself a long tradition in architecture. In this fascinating project, the architectural body here is certainly fleshy, and the visual similes of body (or grid) can be considered tropes of those values originating in the industrial stockyards: meat and mobility. For as architecture is modernised through industrialisation, and agricultural infrastructure grows into the tissues of urban development, the undercurrent of carnivore values rises to the surfaces of the distinct modern architecture and urbanism of late 19th and early 20th-century Chicago. This corporal architecture-urbanism interface emerges from skins and scaffolding, surfaces and processes, whose modernity is rapid but not always in ‘good taste’.

Southside Butcher, Chicago, 1941

South Side butcher, Chicago, 1941

Carnivore infrastructure is the key to this urbanism, whereby the distribution of goods and services (and the derivative soft infrastructural distribution of values) leads to differential increases in the food industry, class mobility and even everyday nutrition and health. The appetite for flesh in the growing working- and middle-class neighbourhoods of Chicago, where meat on plates was a sign of prosperity, entangles cultural codes and implicit architectural values – though most meat was exported to the East Coast and internationally. Traced in lifestyles, the emergence of Chicago’s modern architecture and urbanism that follows the industrialisation of agriculture and subsequent distribution chains (‘foodways’) is also a local transformer of neighbourhoods, and sustainer of everyday life. The narratives of social significance of the point source of modernity in the corner butcher shop, before refrigeration, and the move from passive to active systems of ‘thermal delight’, staged the rise of the grocery store. Of course, these technologies also ‘leaked’ into the techne (and ethos) of architectural modernism..

‘The city of carnivores is vast, expansive, and dynamic’

The city of carnivores is vast, expansive, and dynamic – and not unexamined in architectural theory. Most architects will be aware of Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (1948) with a pioneering chapter on ‘The Mechanization of Death’ regarding the industrial food industry. But it is the literary muckraking of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) that articulates the other necessary context for understanding Modernism in everyday life. Here the dark side of Modernism and modern organisation appears as the literal and phenomenal corruption of the flesh.

Chicago’s elevated railway

Chicago’s elevated railway brings the agro-industrial logic of the stockyards into the city

The contemporary body of the city today still contains traces of this spectacle of Victorian-era ‘vulgar’ Modernism, where the city assemblage is squeezed between the forces of predatory business and the forces of social progress. The artifice of the machinery of production always determines our understanding of bodies, and in Chicago’s architecture we are shown both sides of the tension of industrialisation that constitute modern life: control and expression. The traditions of the body contorted into architectural theory, from Vitruvius to Durand, do not give us the taste of industrial processes. It is the theories of modern architecture (Otto Wagner, Louis Sullivan) that set the stage for the diverse forays into an expanded and transformative production of modern spaces, at a time when the sciences of the social (Weber, Simmel) also take on urbanism directly. Abrupt changes in the economies (and ecologies) of foodways are just as important as the supply chains of construction materials to track the development of carnivore architecture, and a history of carnivore architecture can bring us to a point where we can discuss nutrition, class and mobility as they are legible in architecture.

The social footprint of the meat industry is more complex today, as is architectural practice. Though not a driver for all architecture, foodways intersect with social-architectural accounts of sustainability, the new research in health through environmental design, and the question of waste from construction sites to restaurants. Architecture and urbanism is still in a close relationship to agricultural land – for examples, much fertile soil is devoted to meat production, and meatspace and its foodways now encompass the globe, though less visibly than they were manifested in the Midwest. But, learning from Chicago, we can still draw upon evidence of the specific parallels between the changes in the agricultural-industrial complex and the changes in forms of urban life, as they still register and interact with the flesh of architecture.

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