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CAC’s Jen Masengarb partnered with WBEZ’s Curious City to research this story in response to a question submitted by curious citizens. Listen to the broadcast.

If you’ve ever looked at Chicago’s impressive skyline and wondered how we managed to build such tall buildings in the squishy clay that lies underground, you’re not alone. WBEZ listener Mike Vendel wondered about this too, so he submitted a question to Curious City. 

Steadying skyscrapers in Chicago is a staggering feat of structural engineering. For the past 150+ years, architects have struggled to tame the Chicago swamp—with varying degrees of success. But in some ways, Chicago owes its reputation as a laboratory for the design of skyscrapers to our poor soil. These conditions forced architects and engineers to develop new innovations that would help skyscrapers sink less. If the ground had been typical, they may not have dreamt up creative solutions to lighten the walls and frames of buildings.

“Who shall restrain the great layer of jelly in Chicago’s cake?”

– New York Times, October 18, 1891


Read the full article with photos and diagrams, including more on how 19th-century Chicago architects and engineers attempted to design heavy buildings to float on the soil. You’ll also learn about how contemporary architects solve the same challenges in skyscrapers around the world today.