One of the things about living in Chicago — or anywhere, for that matter, I guess — is that unless you take the time to play tourist in your own city, there are things you miss. Particularly in Chicago, which aside from being hog butcher to the world is also one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders, even if you know it’s there, you tend to walk right past it.
Pomegranate Books, in conjunction with the Chicago Historical Society and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, has come out with a series of guides to some of the remarkable things about Chicago. (I personally am a Chicagoan by habit as much as for any other reason: the only other place that I’ve found that I would want to live is Paris, and Chicago and Paris have a lot in common; Paris is just a lot older. I figure I might as well stay here.)
Jay Pridmore’s Soldier Field and John W. Stamper’s North Michigan Avenue point up something that people sometimes forget: as much as Chicago is prey to the whims of developers, it is a planned city. After the Fire in 1871, which completely destroyed everything in what was then “downtown” as well as the near north side — that is, the area from the Chicago River north to Fullerton Avenue (the only structures left standing were the Water Tower and the pumping station next to it) — while the city began rebuilding with a will, there was strong awareness that the chance had come to develop a city that made sense. Frederick Law Olmstead gets the credit for the overall plan, but Chicago’s own Daniel Burnham presented the City with a plan for North Michigan Avenue in 1909 that has largely been followed to the present day (although his restrictions on building height went by the board due to the demands of economics). The Magnificent Mile, as it was termed by developer Arthur Rubloff in his plan of the late 1940s, was to be a high-end retail area, a gracious boulevard lined with trees and providing the finest goods available for shoppers. In fact, North Michigan Avenue is today considered one of the premier retail areas in the world, along with Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue. It is also, as one might expect in this city, quite possibly the most architecturally distinguished. Anchored at the north side of the Chicago River by the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower, Michigan Avenue north of the river boasts the Hancock Center, a revolutionary building in its aesthetic use of structural steel (although I have to admit, it wasn’t immediately accepted: we used to call it “Kong”); the Allerton Hotel (now the Crowne Plaza), modeled on the architecture of medieval Italy; Water Tower Place, which combines a twelve-story commercial base with a 62-story hotel and residential tower, and was one of the earliest skyscrapers with a concrete frame; and the McGraw-Hill Building, a fine example of Art Deco architecture.
South of the river, the Avenue is anchored by the London Guarantee and Accident Building, with its strong classical references (generally considered: I would call it Hellenistic, with some touches of Italian Baroque in the top stories), and 333 North Michigan, influenced by Eliel Saarinen’s second-place entry for the Tribune Tower competition, a study in verticality. Illinois Center, by the Office of Mies van der Rohe, demonstrates the importance of placement on the site: each component building is showcased, and there is room for an open plaza (we love our plazas almost as much as we love our parks). The Associates Building at 150 North Michigan, with its steeply raked, truncated and glazed top, stands across Randolph from the Chicago Cultural Center — our old Public Library, itself a prime example of Chicago’s approach to the Beaux Arts style. (This is really just a random sample; looking through the book again, I’m amazed at the number of stunning buildings along what is not, really, a very long stretch — slightly over a mile. One thing that’s very nice about this book is the chance to see the whole building — walking along at street level, you miss a few things.)
We don’t think small in Chicago: thus, Soldier Field, which at its origin after World War I was intended to be the largest open stadium in the country, seating 120,000. (It actually managed to accommodate 200,000 at the International Eucharistic Congress of 1926, and was big enough to contain ski runs for competitions.) The story of Soldier Field illustrates very well the kind of trade-offs that we always somehow manage here (well, almost always) — the land, which was mostly marsh, was part of the railroad right-of-way; South Lake Shore Drive ran right along the shore; and there was great concern that the lakefront be kept uncluttered and available for public use. Unlike other cities on the Great Lakes, or on waterfronts at all, Chicago’s lakefront is a long stretch of parks and harbors that run from Hollywood Avenue in the north past Hyde Park in the south, and they are, believe it or not, all landfill and reclaimed marshland.
The Field Museum of Natural History was the anchor for what has become the Museum Campus, which now holds the Field Museum, the John G. Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, and Soldier Field, rebuilt in 2002-2003 to accommodate new technology — everything from giant scoreboards to improved means of dispensing soft drinks — and the demands of a multi-use stadium in the 21st century. (Keep in mind that the whole project over the years has involved rerouting Lake Shore Drive, dropping the railroad tracks down out of sight, and extensive landscaping that has introduced a rolling countryside into the heart of the city. Like I said, we don’t think small.)
The new Soldier Field has been more than a little controversial: many think it resembles nothing so much as a broken spaceship set down in the middle of a Roman temple. My own feeling is that it is a breathtaking example of the possibilities of architecture in the twenty-first century, coupled with the observance of the history of the building and the city. The original Soldier Field, a strongly classical structure modeled quite openly on Roman examples, was dedicated on its completion in 1925 as a memorial to the fallen of World War I; today, it is perhaps even more significant as a monument, retaining the original bronze sculpture of a doughboy and adding a Memorial Wall that is reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, along with portions of the original facades that contrast and complement the new structure: architecturally, it is really all about purity of form as seen from two viewpoints. The book shows the development of this site, the old Soldier Field (including pictures of the ski runs), and some stunning views of the new hybrid. Controversial it was (and the law suits continued along with the construction), but I think it will eventually be seen as one of Chicago’s great works of architecture — it’s beautiful, and it works.
These two guidebooks, because that is really what they are, are small treasures: they are beautifully produced and extensively illustrated with photographs and drawings both contemporary and from various archives that show their respective subjects in various stages of development. The texts are clear and concise and contain a wealth of information, supplemented by the timelines in the front of each book that give significant dates in the history of the subjects. It’s this historical view that is most welcome, because we sometimes forget that architecture, of all the arts, exists in a context that ultimately involves all who have come in contact with it — which is just about everyone.