The Not-So-Second City

What to read this month—and what not to



Affirming the evident, the American Institute of Architects recently judged Chicago the city with the finest architecture in the country. To take the obvious a bit further, Chicago holds more important buildings of the past century and a half than any other place in the world. And to look at it another way. Chicago’s architecture constitutes one of this country’s greatest contributions to modern civilization. Appropriately enough, since Lewis Mumford’s 1931 classic The Brown Decades and Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1933 show, Early Modern Architecture Chicago, 1870-1910 writers have produced a wealth of often beautiful books that examine myriad aspects of this rich subject. They’ve authored asp inventive social and environmental histories.


They’ve traced the city’s architectural evolution, in works like Carl W. Condit’s pioneering annals of Chicago’s building technology and the Art Institute of Chicago’s monumental, multi-authored, gorgeous (but highly selective, often eccentric, and overly specialized) two-volume exhibition catalogue of the cites architecture and design. They’ve chronicled the lives and careers of the seminal architects-Louis Sullivan, John W. Root, Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ludwig Mies van der Roe in biographies that range from the workman-like to the sparkling. They’ve probed, in meticulous and abundantly illustrated monographs. many of Chicago’s most significant structures-including the Glessner, Charnley, and Robie houses and the Carson Pirie Scott building-and the creations of many of its important architectural firms, inducing Holabird and Roche; Holabird and Root; Graham, Anderson, Probst. and White (GAPW); Keck and Keck; Perkins and Will; and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM).


There’s even a book on SOM’s interior design, specifically, and the past three years alone saw the publication of definitive works on Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building and on the creations of Daniel H. Burnham’s firms. All these books, though, are obviously aimed at the cognoscenti, and Chicago’s architecture—a national cultural bequest as expressive of this country’s creative character as movies and jazz-demands to be illuminated for the general reader. Here the choices have been inadequate. To be sure, two exceptionally incisive and well-written handbooks-the saucy, compact Chicago’s Famous Buildings and the more comprehensive but even less detailed AIA Guide—identify the major edifices and concisely explain their significance; but these books are frustrations not just because of their brevity and lack of narrative but also because they’re arranged geographically. not chronologically, so they obscure the development of and continuities in Chicago’s architectural direction and styles. And—an even greater shortcoming—their photographs are uniformly small and in black and white, often unimaginative, and nearly exclusively devoted to exteriors.


This book, a thoroughly revised and greatly expanded edition of a work originally published in 1993, and a wholly satisfying marriage of photography and text, is by far the best introduction for the general reader. Its plenteous, aptly chosen, sometimes stark-sometimes lively, but always extraordinarily comprehensible photographs are mostly drawn from the archives of Hedrich-Blessing, the venerable Chicago architectural-photography studio. Captured in these images are. for instance, the mass and rhythmic   grace of H. H. Richardson’s near-mythical and long-ago demolished Wholesale Store (but why no picture of Holabird and Roche’s demolished Tacoma Building?), the simplicity and power of Burnham and Root’s Monadnock Building. The golden light that infuses their Rookery Building, the monumentality and surprising sprightliness of the Auditorium Building, and the almost anachronistic functionalist elegance of Burnham and Atwood’s Reliance and Railway Exchange Buildings, with their windy undulating curtain wails of terra—cotta and glass. Most books for the nonspecialist linger with these and other iconic buildings of the Chicago and Prairie Schools and then rush forward to praise the purity and exactness of Mies’s IIT campus and his 860/880 North Lake Shore Drive apartments before concluding with a few photographs displaying the post-modernist exuberance of the swaggering, cape-clad Helmut Jahn (long the dominant figure among contemporary Chicago architects). In contrasts Pridmore and Larson properly emphasize the still neglected interregnum of the 1920s and 1930s, as they explicate and champion the subtle blending of modernism and art deco achieved in Holabird and Root’s urbane, sleekly masculine skyscrapers, in GAPW’s streamlined Field Building and at once plain and sumptuous Merchandise Mart, and in the homegrown, pre-Miesian modernism of the houses of Keck and Keck and Paul Schweikher and the interiors of Marianne Willisch, with their clean and graceful lines and airy, light-filled rooms. Pridmore, who wrote the text, has achieved a feat of synthesis as he chronicles a century and a half of the city’s architectural history in a smooth, lucid style that eschews the gaseous abstractions infecting far too much writing about architecture. Even when retailing the frequent and bitter controversies that have marked the past few decades of the Chicago architectural scene-over, say, Jahn’s clamorous James R. Thompson Center, Rem Koolhaas’s equally cacophonous IIT student centers Thomas Beeby’s historically eclectic public library. or John Vinci’s restrainers elegant. and unfairly disparaged Arts Club—Pridmore nevertheless remains authoritative and cool.


(Though occasionally he weighs in with invariably considered and fain minded assessments) Critics in thrall to modernism used to strain to discern connections between the nineteenth-century Chicago School and the International Style that reigned in the city from Mies’s arrival there, at the end of the 1930s, through the late l960s.


Pridmore is appropriately skeptical of such efforts, but he’s sensitive to the often nuanced continuities In the city’s architecture across the decades (continuities impossible to deny, given the interconnections between generations of the city’s architects and the historical-mindedness of the architecture profession coupled with the long-recognized unique place the city occupies in the annals of architecture).


From the 1870s through at least the 1970s, as Jahn astutely notes in a foreword to the book, the relationship between design and engineering was unusually close (Root excelled equally in the two fields, and the city’s architectural history is characterized by such architect-engineer collaborations as Adler and Sullivan and SOM’s Bruce Graham and Fazur Khan). This has engendered buildings distinguished by what the critics Franz Schulze and Kevin Harrington call “a high level of detail, craft, and finish,” and ones that far more effortlessly than most reconcile form and function, which is probably one explanation for the most compelling and amorphous quality of Chicago’s finest buildings: they usually manage to combine a handsome solidity with a graceful clarity. This means that for me the book’s last section, on the globalization of the architecture in Chicago, makes for depressing reading. The most ambitious projects in the city-as in nearly all the world’s great cities—get bestowed more and more on what Pridmore nicely calls international architectural stars,” who are designing for Chicago in Los Angeles, New York Amsterdam, and Osaka. I find that this results in a homogenized, globalized aesthetic. To me, Chicago’s best building of the new century is the Sofitel on the Gold Coast (alas, unnoted by Pridmore). Although the Parisian architect Jean-Paul Viguier designed the striking, cantilevered, bladelike, at once slick and luxurious structure, its unusual footprint and modernist look respond marvelously to its site and neighborhood, and Viguier’s heroic efforts to “bring the sun into the project’’ show a sensitivity to both the city’s climate and its architectural heritage, which virtually fetishizes openness and natural light.


But another structure, the Millennium Park band shell, also designed by an out-of-towner, Frank Gehry has won the attention and praise; Pridmore, in a rare lapse, judges it “the most spectacular structure to go up in early-twenty-first-century Chicago.” While no doubt dramatic, and apparently an acoustic marvel, the band shell, festooned with the architect’s trademark nifty giant stainless-steel ribbons, could of course be anywhere (Angelenos with somewhat untrained eyes would swear they’ve seen something awfully similar downtown, on Bunker Hill). Despite Chicago’s abundance of talented young architects, including Jeanne Gang, “Chicago” architecture is no longer a living tradition. But there’s nothing to be done. The forces of globalism, or cosmopolitanism, as Marx both lamented and cheered long ago, are unstoppable.