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  • Preservation, Polemics, and Power:Carl W. Condit, The Chicago School of Architecture
  • Sharon Irish (bio)

In 1952 the University of Chicago Press published a book by a thirty-eight-year-old assistant professor of English and humanities at Northwestern University, Carl W. Condit, titled The Rise of the Skyscraper . Twelve years later, in 1964, this book was revised, expanded, and published as The Chicago School of Architecture: A History of Commercial and Public Building in the Chicago Area, 1875–1925 . 1 The Chicago School remains in print to this day, the press estimating that it has sold 10,000 copies. Like many influential books, it both conclusively shaped the issues under discussion and opened new areas for further investigation.

Condit was a transdisciplinary scholar. After receiving his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Purdue in 1936, he followed with an M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Cincinnati in 1939 and 1941. He taught mathematics and mechanics during World War II and then became an assistant design engineer with the New York Central Railroad's Building Department in Cincinnati. When the war ended, he was hired by Northwestern to teach English. During the late 1940s, he published several articles, including "The Chicago School and the Modern Movement in Architecture." 2 Then, in 1951–52, he was awarded a Ford Foundation grant [End Page 202] that supported him as a postdoctoral fellow in the history of science at the University of Wisconsin. While at Wisconsin on leave from Northwestern, Condit was able to complete The Rise of the Skyscraper .

In the years between The Rise of the Skyscraper and The Chicago School , Condit published much else, including his two-volume American Building Art and an article in the very first issue of Technology and Culture . 3 He also inaugurated the history of science program at Northwestern and, as Mel Kranzberg wrote in the special issue of Technology and Culture that I edited in Condit's honor, "introduced courses in the history of building technology and the history of urban form." Kranzberg continued: "These were among the first of their kind, if not the very first, at any American university. There were few textbooks and precedents to follow, so Condit's own research provided much of the substance for the students who took these courses." 4

Preservation and Polemics

I have written before about Condit's contributions to historical scholarship. 5 Here I want to consider the milieu in which The Chicago School was published and some of the ideas that have coalesced since then that have stimulated my own thinking. But first, a few words about the word "polemics" in the heading. Condit used polemics strategically to advance his case that architecture should be an art in which modern structural techniques predominantly shaped form. He defended his strongly held position by using generalizations that often reduced complex situations to either/or stances and by glossing over nuances and distinctions that made these [End Page 203] either/or positions difficult to maintain. In the last section of this essay, I introduce some ideas about "performance." Rather than offering "performance" as a counterpolemic to Condit's argument, I hope to suggest—in keeping with the performative—that there is room for movement, for shifting interpretations, for recentering our investigations around different constituencies. My stance is polemical to the extent that I firmly believe this recentering is long overdue and urgently needed.

One catalyst for Condit's revision of The Rise of the Skyscraper was the demolition of so much of Chicago's commercial architecture in the dozen years between 1952 and 1964. As Condit told the history of tall office buildings in Chicago, he simultaneously noted how many of the buildings had met the wrecking ball since his original publication: seventeen by my count. 6 One strategy to try and prevent further destruction of a historic heritage is to unify threatened buildings into a "school" or other grouping that would amplify the importance of single buildings by categorizing them under a label of significance. To do this, Condit recruited the work of art historian Sigfried Giedion, whose highly polemical and influential Space, Time, and Architecture was published in...


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