Chicago 2004

On this, the 45th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright's passing, I read Lynn Becker's article "Lofty Goals" in this week's Chicago Reader on the train ride into work. Concerning itself with tall buildings and their measure, the article (here in slightly different form) reiterates a few facts that put Chicago back into focus for architects, harking back to the days of Wright.

First, Chicago is the new home for the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), a non-profit organization devoted to the implementation of the principles of New Urbanism, an urban reform movement. Coming from San Francisco last year, so far CNU's presence in Chicago is almost non-existent, but that's sure to change when their 12th Congress will be held in Chicago June 24-27. "Blocks, Streets, and Buildings Today: The New City Beautiful" will focus on the smallest part of New Urbanist principles: buildings, attempting to reconcile what's seen as the weakest part of New Urbanist developments. The fact the Congress is being held in the "City Beautiful" also indicates a questioning of the impact the Modernist movement had on the urban fabric of Chicago, and the ways New Urbanism can aid in the city's transformation through a reevaluation and analysis of the original tenets of the City Beautiful Movement over a century ago.

Also mentioned in Becker's article is the relocation of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania to the Illinois Institute of Illinois (IIT) in Chicago. With IIT's high-rise design program and engineering experience the move makes perfect sense. Taking advantage of its location, the Council is hosting a conference, "Transparency, the Art and Science in Building Design" on April 15 and 16.

Not mentioned in the article, but extremely important in this year of Chicago architecture, is the American Institute of Architect's National Convention and Design Exposition being held at McCormick Place in Chicago June 10-12. Architects from all over the country will flock to the city to earn their continuing education learning units at seminars and workshops, and take tours of downtown and other neighborhoods over the brief three days.

While in town for any of these events, people can visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see the exhibit, "Unbuilt Chicago", on display until January of next year. The presented designs span almost 100 years, over 90 drawings and models crammed into the architecture department's horseshoe-shaped gallery.

Lest I sound like a tourist guide, all the attention that Chicago seems to be getting in 2004 by the architecture community differs from the attention it received during - and since - the days of Frank Lloyd Wright, as I briefly mentioned earlier. The biggest difference now is the focus on groups and organizations instead of personalities like Wright. Chicago's biggest architectural personality, Helmut Jahn, works mainly in Germany, so his presence in the city is minimal, even though the construction of a dormitory by him at IIT last year is his first building in Chicago since he was "blacklisted" after the State of Illinois Center in the late 1980's. Many of the high-profile buildings under construction or completed recently are done by outsiders: Frank Gehry's bandshell in Millennium Park, Renzo Piano's addition to the Art Institute across the street, Rafael Vinoly's Business School at the University of Chicago, and Cesar Pelli's gymnasium on the same campus.

What does all this mean? A few years ago, a symposium, "Where in the World is Chicago?" questioned the direction of architecture in the city, the general attitude being that the city was languishing in traditional designs and bland high-rise developments. Change has occurred since the symposium, especially with the construction of high-rise residential developments that break from the painted concrete extrusions that are the norm, though these few can be attributed to the need to stand out in an otherwise saturated residential market. Local architects like Studio Gang, John Ronan and Doug Garofalo create architecture of interest in the city, but not necessarily enough to generate a local movement in line with the symposium's concerns.

My problem with the symposium, and its aims, was its reliance upon Mies and mid-20th-century Modernism as the gauge for Chicago progressive architecture. Given that the architectural climate in Chicago is so different today, that clients aren't as willing to experiment, that a movement like Modernism would not be able to exist in today's pluralistic and skeptical world (though sustainability is as close as anything today, appropriately so), it's not surprising that Chicago experienced a creative hiccup in the latter part of last century.

Buy why the sudden attention? Most likely because there are lessons to be learned. Everything talked about in the symposium, liked by CNU, documented by the Council on Tall Buildings, and so forth is on display across the gridded panoply that is Chicago. The city has grown a lot since the days of World Fairs, Wright and Mies, especially in the last ten years, as downtown has evolved from a 9-5 business district to a theater and residential area as well. While there are good and bad lessons to be learned, Chicago is as good a place as any to learn from.

Update 042604: In addition to all the events listed above, from May 21-23 the City of Chicago is presenting "Great Chicago Places & Spaces", lectures, programs and tours focusing on the city's architecture and spaces. Similar in vein to previous weekends held in London and New York, the program attempts to attract people to the wealth of new and old architecture, while educating them on the city's history. Visit the City of Chicago's web page for information on the 175 free tours and other events.