Chicago’s Castles In The Sky

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The Windy City’s architecture is something to be admired, which is exactly what the rest of the world is doing. Dave Southwood visited Chicago recently to find out whether or not the locals really own their city’s architectural heritage.

It was late autumn and the citizens were beginning to baton down the hatches and hunt the last thinning rays of toasty sun with ice skates and scarves.

Most passed through the sculptor Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate or “bean” as its affectionately known, which sits the epicentre of AT&T’s Millennium Park on Lake Michigan.

Other standout architectural objects, in the broadest sense, at the Park include Frank Gehry’s high-handed Jay Pritzker Pavilion and the spooky Crowd Fountain, which features vertical screens of the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa displaying portraits of Chicago citizens sprouting water like gargoyles.

An Architectural Gem

The way in which the people of the city carry this architectural DNA became apparent to me while sitting in a coffee shop waiting to meet Iker Gil, an architect who generously offered to meet and decode the city. I met two older women who said they’d just been on a tour of the Pedway.

I learned that the Pedway is a comprehensive system of underground passages designed for pedestrians and built from 1951 to link services and retail zones. It’s about as obscure as an archi-tour could possibly be.

Pride of place and the sense that Chicagoans and the city authorities have of their city as an architectural gem is pronounced with any number of architectural tours and a plethora of architecture institutes occupying some standout buildings, most notably the Chicago Architecture Centre which highlights work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Helmut Jahn and Frank Gehry.

Crown Fountain, Chicago, Illinois. Interactive fountain designed by artist Jaume Plensa. Faces made with light emitting diodes.
Crown Fountain, Chicago, Illinois. Interactive fountain designed by artist Jaume Plensa. Faces made with light emitting diodes.

Iker is a Spanish architect who lives, practices and teaches in Chicago. He was part of the team that rallied the US Pavilion’s contribution to the the prestigious Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2018.

He too believes Chicagoans sense of place is cast in the city’s concrete and points out that the six-year-old Chicago Biennale, which will enter its third cycle this year, is a sign that Chicago has mojo.

He hands me a neat publication he compiled with a photographer friend of portraits of the inhabitants of Marina City, the playful multi-use, primarily residential building that Bertrand Goldberg completed in 1964 and is arguably Chicago’s most widely loved structure. Iker lives in Marina City, which resembles a very large corn cob constructed of concrete.

Marina City 

Marina City is located near the corner of Upper Whacker drive and State street on Chicago river, a confluence that has to be one of the most filmed parts of urban landscape in film history, having served as a backdrop for action in films such as Mercury Rising, Jupiter Ascent, Gotham, Metropolis and Midway City.

In addition to Marina City, the precinct has the angular, former IBM building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and a shiny curved TRUMP Tower by the renowned architecture practice Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – anything from the Depression era to decades into the future can find a filmic home here.

Marina City
Marina City

Through friends, I managed to meet Bertrand Goldberg’s son Geoff and his daughter Lisa. Again, supremely engaging people who were bursting with stories about their dad and the mid-century architecture scene.

“When we were growing up, there were two bloodsports … politics and architecture!” says Geoff emphatically.

Geoff and Lisa continue to flesh out the golden age of Chicago architecture and characterise the milieu with descriptions of other luminaries who ran the scene after fleeing Nazi Germany and bringing with them the principles of the “New Bauhaus”, Germany’s most famous creative and artistic export.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was the first director of the New Bauhaus, started in 1937, but his counterpart Ludwig Mies van de Rohe, famous for his glass boxes, is the architect through whose legacy most admiration is channeled.

Photographing Like Candy 

I visited the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), where the Bauhaus was restarted in 1937, to see a famous glass box by Mies, the SR Crown Hall designed in 1956. IIT’s faculty of architecture occupies this landmark structure, so I snuck inside and asked some of the students how the building worked.

The reply was, “Stinking hot in summer, freezing in winter and too much glare through the glass envelope to facilitate studying.” I have done a lot of snooping around famous buildings all over the world, and my experience is that at least half of them don’t fulfill their programme with the same ease that they slip into history as icons. The good news is that they photograph like candy.

The Riverwalk combines symbolic links to the past with state-of-the-art facilities
The Riverwalk combines symbolic links to the past with state-of-the-art facilities

A great place to witness the city is the upper deck of one of the many boats that ferry tourists up and down Chicago river. The grid that underpins Chicago becomes apparent, as does the sheer bulk of the city. One also sees the multi-layered road system that features the stacked lanes in which Batman and the Joker faced off in The Dark Knight.

From the water level, the River Walk, which runs down the South Bank of the main branch of the Chicago River, is apparent. This recently initiated, work-in-progress pedestrian walkway is the New York Highline but located on the river. Any diverse city that is to function correctly, transform and be its best self needs public space so that its citizens can walk, contemplate, mix, trade and reflect.

Closer To Home

Both Johannesburg and Cape Town sorely lack these sorts of public spaces. DHK’s new Battery Park project at the Waterfront in Cape Town and Local Studio’s Sophiatown NMT framework along the Westdene Dam are examples of promenades adjacent to water that stimulate the best sort of urban experience.

One-and-half centuries after a fire razed 17 500 buildings, claiming the lives of 300 people, Chicago sports an intense sense of reinvention and technical prowess. The city is modern in style and, more crucially, in outlook.

The contemporary urban skyline is dominated by construction of the world’s tallest building by a woman, Vista Tower by Studio Gang in the city’s Lakeshore East Neighbourhood, proof that Chicago can’t help but keep raising the bar.

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