“Compared to Palladio, we are muppets.”

An article in this week’s Chicago Magazine on Harry Weese is worth reading, but it’s also troubling.

Weese was Chicago’s Louis Kahn–a passionate iconoclast who designed outstanding buildings while leading a personal life that was disastrous.  This post’s title is one of his more printable reflections on the state of Chicago Architecture, from the mid-1980s.  A new biography by Robert Bruegmann is scheduled for release in September, and from the tone of the article the book will dredge up details that have long been the stuff of Chicago legend–drinking binges, lost commissions, and a family–and firm–that functioned on denial for many years.

Like Kahn, these stories have often obscured a group of works that stand as some of the best of the late 20th century–the Washington Metro, alone, should put Weese in a pantheon that he’s never quite made (and, certainly, that he would have railed against).  Having spent five months living around the corner from the Cook County Jail, I had a daily reminder of just how well Weese understood cities–it’s a building that is both intimidating and urbane.  And his row houses on Kinzie Street, just west of the River, are a modest bird-flip to the 1920s neoclassical and 1950s textbook modernism that it faces.

Some of Weese’s later work wasn’t quite so good, and shows the signs of a figurehead who lost control, or who couldn’t give the same level of attention to big jobs.  The Marriott on north Michigan, for instance, is an awful building no matter how it’s dressed up.  But juicy biographical bits like the Chicago Magazine article allow us to reduce the complexities of a career like Weese’s to a one-liner; instead of trying to understand the pressure and difficulties that forged his best (and worst) works, we can simply dismiss all of this with a few words–“he was an alcoholic” in Weese’s case, or a philanderer in Kahn’s.  Bruegmann’s book is titled The Architecture of Harry Weese, so one hopes that the article has just picked out the more marketable bits and that the book will bring these buildings, and not just the personal life, to the wider audience they deserve.

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