How would you describe Chicago and its architecture?
That is a very broad question!
Chicago has its origins as a boom town. It exploded from a modest frontier trading post into the fast-growing city in the history of the world between 1800 and 1840 as the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal brought a flood of land speculators here to the wild interior of the country. Although many modern-day Chicagoans are completely unaware of this history I think the “boom town” mentality informs Chicago’s personality to this day.
It seems to me that Chicagoans generally are more interested in and proud of their architecture than residents of many other cities.
There have been several times in history when Chicago played an important role in the art and science of architecture.
In the late 1800s some of the most important innovations in high-rise (“skyscraper”) and residential architecture were pioneered here, both in technology and design at firms like Adler and Sullivan, Holabird and Roche, Burnham and Root, and of course Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the 1950s and 60s Mies Van Der Rohe and later Skidmore, Owings and Merrill pioneered the stripped-down style that came to be called “Modernism”.
Most Chicagoans are proud of the excellent collection of buildings in our downtown area. And architects generally seem to respect Chicago’s history of fine buildings. Unfortunately the boomtown mentality in our recent real estate market was bad for our built environment. The explosion of condo development on the edges of downtown in recent years has given the city a disappointingly large number of mediocre buildings.
Can you compare Chicago to any other city?
I have heard people say that Toronto has some similarity to Chicago. It’s a waterfront city on the Great Lakes with a dramatic downtown skyline. Cleveland is another example of this.
But with the exception of New York (which is of course much larger) there’s no other American city with anything like the scale of our downtown. L.A. which has a larger population is a sprawl city without a concentrated downtown.
The building boom in some Asian and Middle Eastern cities today in some ways is similar to what happened in Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. Like Chicago, these cities are trying to assert their greatness with huge urban developments and astonishingly tall buildings that push the envelope of technology. The scale of what’s happening today in places like Shanghai and Dubai dwarfs what Chicago did during its boom a hundred years ago.
You know so much about Chicago, what have you learned/discovered recently that surprised you the most?
I rode a tugboat up the Illinois Waterway from Joliet into the South Loop. I had absolutely no idea there was so much maritime activity still surviving here. Huge barge tows, amazing shipping terminals, a lock almost as big as those on the Panama Canal and a hydroelectric dam built in the early 1900s. I was astonished.
How do you see Chicago (its architecture) in the 21 century? Is there a particular trend you have noticed Chicago architecture is following?
Chicago may have clung a little too tightly to its history of great buildings and so it was slow to embrace international architects and new, avant-garde design.
But recently international architects have been getting lots of commissions here. So we now have (or soon will have) excellent buildings by architects like Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Renzo Piano and others.
There have also been some excellent new buildings from locally based architects including Helmut Jahn, Studio Gang and Krueck + Sexton.
In all of these projects architects have embraced technologies that allow them to create forms that would simply have been impossible before the era of computer-aided design. New technologies in the engineering of glass and framing also allow new artistic possibilities.
As everywhere else, the interest in sustainable “green” architecture has firmly taken hold here.
Having explored all the possible and impossible tour routes in Chicago what would you recommend Chicagoans as well as visitors to see in the city?
The lakefront and river tour boats are also wonderful ways to experience the city.