Lonely Planet just tweeted the top 10 things to do if you’re a traveler in Chicago, and I have to say, I’m underwhelmed. Deep-dish pizza? Second City? Lincoln Park Zoo? Shopping? All fine things, and I’ll agree with the Cubs game—though I’d point out that a Sox game would round out the tourist’s impressions well, too. (OK, I don’t agree with deep-dish pizza. I’m with my kids on this one. Even in Chicago, go with thin crust).
Still, meh. This has me thinking about the top 10 things for an architectural tourist to do in Chicago, and in the hopes of creating a stats-bending, vitriolic, all-in argument, I’ll suggest the following, in no particular order. Disagree away.
- Mourn at the wailing wall(s). The Art Institute has one of the great architectural reliquaries anywhere in the city—or the world. Stand next to the entry arch from Adler and Sullivan’s Stock Exchange, walk around its surgically excised trading floor, and browse through the fragments of lost buildings in the main stairwell.
- Have a drink. The three best architectural bars? The top of the Hancock Building serves overpriced drinks that amortize out well if you count the view. Atwood’s, in the first floor of the Reliance Building, is the only bar in town named for a compositionally gifted opium addict. And the roof of the Wit, if you can stand the crowd and the prices, has the best view of the neighborhood skyscrapers—including a loomingly intimate one of Giaver and Dinkelberg’s 1926 Jeweler’s Building.
- Loiter. A handful of great historic interiors are semi-open to the public. The Rookery tolerates architectural gawkers who want to see the layering of Frank Lloyd Wright’s lobby and John Root’s courtyard. If you stand in line to send a postcard, do it at Mies’ Post Office in the Federal Center. Wander through the old Chicago Library on Michigan, which is now the Chicago Cultural Center but still maintains the nicely pretentious 1896 interiors—including the historical curiosity of the Grand Army of the Republic Hall.
- Visit some architects. Graceland Cemetery is full of them. Burnham, Mies, Fazlur Khan, and Louis Sullivan are easy to find. William Le Baron Jenney is a bit off the beaten path. And for bonus points? Find Peirce Anderson, of Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White. (Hint: you can see him from the El).
- Take the train. Ride the Loop El and get off at each platform. Every single downtown stop gives you a good angle on at least a couple of historic buildings. Wabash Ave. is particularly rich, and the Library stop gives you a view up Dearborn that’s unparalleled.
- Take a boat. The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s River Tour is designed for laypersons, but it offers the best possible views of the city. Aqua is particularly good from the low angle. Of course, if your brother-in-law has a bass boat, you can make your own River Tour.
- Take a walk. The CAF Walking Tours are led by inspiring docents who know their stuff. But even a walk down Michigan Avenue and back up Dearborn and State Street will tell you more about 19th and early 20th century commercial architecture than any book out there (yet).
- Go South. The University of Chicago was largely designed by Henry Ives Cobb to replicate the feeling of eastern colleges. IIT was largely designed by Mies van der Rohe to not replicate anything. You can see them both on the same bus line, throw in the Robie House and the best used bookstores in town, and end up catching that ballgame at Comiskey after you see IIT.
- See Burnham’s best design. The Reliance? The Railway Exchange? The Rookery? Nope. Chicago’s lakefront. OK, it wasn’t all him, but he was the major design force behind the amazing jogging path—with a rather nice string of parks attached—that makes up the Chicago shoreline. From downtown to Bryn Mawr Ave. and back is 14 miles, and you can go a similar distance south and see almost nothing that isn’t beautiful. Paris, Rome, New York all have a lot of nice things, but this is the one thing that Chicago has that no other city does.
- Go to church. Or, really, temple. I think Unity Temple is—hands down—the best thing Frank Lloyd Wright ever did, and it’s easy to tour. But to really see it in action you can check out the annual series of concerts that take place within the sanctuary. Tickets support the building fund, which is obviously needed.
I’m in Philadelphia this week, doing some research on engineer and philosopher Robert Le Ricolais for an upcoming museum show.
When I was finishing up work here on Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science, I was fortunate to have an afternoon with Anne Tyng, who was Kahn’s most important collaborator during the 1950s. Tyng died last week, at age 91, and she was actively lecturing in support of a traveling retrospective of her work over the last couple of months.
For better or worse, many architects know more about Tyng’s personal relationship with Kahn than about her influence on him. She arrived at his office in the late 1940s after working for Konrad Wachsmann, and she brought what would be a life long interest in geometry, organic form, and structural efficiency with her. Her tetrahedral competition scheme for an elementary school formed the conceptual basis for the Yale Art Gallery and the City Tower projects, and she was a key influence on the deceptively simple Trenton Bath House, which Kahn regarded as the foundation for later, more sophisticated projects such as the Salk Institute and the Kimbell. After winning two major grant awards in the early 1960s, she forged her own career as an architect and teacher, continuing her obsessive interest in mathematics and gently reminding subsequent generations of Kahn scholars of her influence and the importance of natural geometry and mathematics to his development.
My afternoon with her was spent talking about Yale. Fifty years after its construction, she was able to elaborate on its complex tetrahedral structure and its detailing. She was delighted when I pulled out the time cards from its time in the office, which showed that she had indeed spent nearly twice as much time as anyone else (except, of course, for Kahn himself) working on its development. And while she complained about being slowed down by age, her mind was ferociously sharp. It was easy to see what Kahn had seen in her as an architect and as a partner, and the afternoon was–by far–one of the most rewarding moments on that project.
Couldn’t be happier to report that an essay I wrote for the Journal of Architectural Education a few years ago on Louis Sullivan forms the postscript for a new facsimile printing and French translation of “The Tall Office Building Artistically Reconsidered.” Nikola Jankovic and her team at Editions B2 do great work, and this is a spectacular looking publication. Claude Mignot contributed an introduction, too.
Not available in the U.S., at least not yet, but if you want to get your recommended daily allowance of causation and architecture en francais, you can find it on nouveautes-editeurs.bnf.fr.
Via the Architect’s Newsletter, here’s a provocative take on facade restoration…
Gensler is re-habbing a 1913 building at 618 South Michigan Ave. for Columbia College. The original building, by William Zimmerman, had a fairly standard-issue expressed frame facade with tripartite windows and a robust (if somewhat clunky) program of classical ornament. By 1913, this was practically the Chicago commercial vernacular, and it was being eclipsed rapidly by heavier stone facades.
Apparently the existing fabric is still more or less intact, but the facade got the blue-glass and metal mullion treatment in the 1950s. As part of the renovation, Gensler has proposed a new glass curtain wall with the original elevation etched into the glass surface, which will show a ghostly image of Zimmerman’s original. Gensler’s project architect (Elva Rubio, who gave a fantastic lecture at ISU a couple of years ago) came right out and said that the design team felt some pressure from Krueck & Sexton’s Spertus Institute next door, and that this was as bold a statement as the budget allowed.
It raises some interesting questions, of course. First, Zimmerman’s facade was hardly missed–a classic case of “historic” without really being “historical.” On the one hand, a graphic treatment of, say, some Sullivania would be downright insulting, so maybe it’s proper to deploy this strategy on a facade with little real historic baggage. On the other, though, part of the richness of the old expressed frames is, surely, the depth of the skin, and the resulting heavy shadow lines and articulation between vertical and horizontal elements, which obviously get eliminated with this approach.
Still, almost any nod to the history of Chicago’s commercial blocks is welcome, and while a whole row of these would probably be numbing, as a one-off this seems kind of fresh. And it certainly plays off the brilliant glazing details of Spertus while recalling the classic post-1909 Plan facades that still dot this end of Michigan Ave. And the best part–I think–is that there’s another kind of conservation going on here. In addition to reproducing Zimmerman’s rather heavy-handed detailing, Gensler have also included etched bird silhouettes that are designed to keep shorebirds from flying in to the glass wall. That alone makes me want to give it the benefit of the doubt.