Charles Waldheim, Katerina Ruedi Ray, eds. Chicago Architecture: Histories, Revisions, Alternatives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. xi + 418 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-87038-0.
Reviewed by Martha Thorne (Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize)
Published on H-Urban (April, 2006)
Reevaluating the Past in Order to Imagine the Future
In 2001, the University of Illinois at Chicago, with the encouragement of the Graham Foundation, organized a symposium to broaden the discussion about Chicago's built environment to include not only members of academic and civic communities, but also those involved in commercial and philanthropic endeavors that often have a direct impact on the face of a city. The purpose of the two-day event was to discuss the past, present, and future of Chicago architecture and urbanism. It was an attempt to analyze and revise commonly held beliefs and to open the panorama, especially of the future, to new voices and interpretations. One of the most tangible and lasting aspects of the symposium is the present book of twenty-eight articles, edited by Waldheim and Ruedi Ray, then faculty at UIC's School of Architecture.
Taken together, the collection of essays forms a vibrant collage about Chicago's architecture and urbanism. The editors succinctly state in their introduction: "The institutionalization of a normative Chicago history formed one of the key obstacles to envisioning Chicago's future" (p. xiii). Through the symposium, but even more through this publication, they have begun to address the need for alternative views of the city's architecture and urbanism. Some of the articles are a direct result of work undertaken for the symposium, some are reprints of previously written texts which add to the discourse within this book, and others are new works undertaken specifically for this publication. The editors sought to weave together a broad tapestry of subjects, perspectives, and even writing styles, to create the book.
Chicago Architecture: Histories, Revisions, Alternatives is comprised of two broad parts. The critical analyses that call into question popularly held ideas form the strong opening section. Part 2, called "Alternatives," starts to draw attention to worthy subjects, too long neglected in traditional writings on Chicago. In contrast to more standard histories of Chicago, which seem to repeat the importance of the same architects, politicians, and businessmen in the creation of the city, this book encourages us to look elsewhere to identify those who had a real and meaningful impact on the city's environment, yet are not within an easily recognizable mainstream interpretation.
Certain expected names and themes are present in the book: texts deal with William LeBaron Jenney, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Bertrand Goldberg, and Walter Netsch (partner at Skidmore Owings and Merrill). Long-standing scholars on Chicago, such as Robert Bruegmann, Daniel Bluestone, Sidney Robinson, and David Van Zanten, weigh in with insightful articles. However, many other authors are also present, giving an infusion of fresh new voices to the subjects at hand. We are invited to ponder the grid, icons of Chicago architecture, and also public housing, unknown architects, and even the recent summer public art display of "Cows on Parade." All in all, the variety of subjects and the new voices in this academic press publication make for a thought-provoking reader.
Part 1 begins the journey of revision with a series of articles that consider familiar subjects, but with a twist. Robert Bruegmann states in his text, first written in the late 1980s, that the term "Chicago School" influenced both the way the city was seen and also the shaping of it. Using the Marquette Building as a case in point, he argues for an evolution of the meaning of the term which broadens it and therefore encompasses contradictions and diverse viewpoints.
Reuben Rainy discusses William Le Baron Jenney, not as "father of the skyscraper" or co-founder of the Chicago School, but rather as landscape designer. His interesting article positions Jenney within this aspect of Chicago's history and more broadly alongside forward thinkers of nineteenth-century reformism. Jenney had a firm grasp on spatial design and the nature of the Midwestern city as reflected in his important, but little-known West Parks designs. Likewise, Sidney Robinson reminds us that "the relation of [Frank Lloyd] Wright and Chicago has many dimensions" (p. 60). In spite of the seemingly infinite texts on Wright, and Chicago's constant claim to Wright, the give-and-take was mostly Wright's taking rather than giving.
No discussion of Chicago would be possible without a discussion of Mies and Modernism, which are prominent themes in the book. Eric Mumford seeks to correct the misconception that Mies single-handedly introduced modernism to Chicago and argues in favor of the impact of others in the field of housing from 1935-65. Sarah Whiting carefully and methodically proposes a new understanding of the work of Mies in planning the Illinois Institute of Technology's campus. Setting it within the context of the near South Side, she argues that Mies through this work initiated a new form of urbanism. Conscious of overlaps and networks with surrounding areas, Mies's approach was more than a simple abstract plan on a blank canvas.
The stylistic diversity of the texts echoes the diversity of themes in the book. Katerina Ruedi Ray has written a play with Bertrand Goldberg in the leading role. Hers is a critique and lament of the loss of the visionary ideals of Marina City to the desire for money. This text is in juxtaposition with Geoffrey Goldberg's more personal view of his father's oeuvre.
History in an unexpected place is evidenced in the postcard collection of Alvin Boyarsky as revealed by Igor Marjanovi?. Well known as head of the Architectural Association of London, Boyarsky, who held a position at UIC from 1965 to 1971, carefully selected and passionately collected postcards about Chicago. Marjanovi? argues that through these simple images, it is possible to read architectural criticism. The postcards gave new meaning to everyday images and, when used in juxtaposition with other images, they were able to make poignant commentaries about our society and the built environment.
The article by Susan King on women's participation in the practice of architecture in Chicago seeks to include a sector of society heretofore underrepresented in conventional histories. One of her story lines traces the birth and growth of the organization, Chicago Women in Architecture, one of the oldest of such organizations in the country and whose history is little known outside the association's circle. Pam Hill echoes a similar viewpoint through her discussion of Marion Mahoney Griffin and Chicago. Not accepting Griffin's role as just the talented draftsperson in Wright's back office, Hill argues that only if one looks more closely at her work as architect-designer and at her life after the death of her husband (Walter Burley Griffin) can a true picture of her place in architectural history be understood. Lee Bey, former critic at the Chicago Sun Times, talks about African-American architect Walter Thomas Bailey's unsuccessful attempt to include a pavilion about the achievements of the world's black people in the 1933 Century of Progress exhibition. Instead, the usual stereotypical and demeaning displays were built. Bailey represents just one architect of an entire racial group often eliminated from standard interpretations of Chicago's architecture.
If one were to wish for something else from this publication, it would be more liveliness in the design and illustrations of the book. Chicago's architecture is beautiful and astounding, but the rather boring layout of the book and the often-dull black and white photos do not reflect this reality. The column-width shifts from narrow to medium to wide, but the illustrations always appear squeezed in. The only color found in the interior are the images of paintings Julia Fish. One of her works graces the cover, but again, the design does not do justice to the subject matter inside or the painting itself, and ultimately gives the book the feel of a bland textbook. The written word, however, is vibrant, oscillating between rather personal interpretations and more formal research papers. Of course, not all the texts are equally compelling and leaving a few out would have tightened up the publication. However, all in all, the collection of distinct styles gives the book its strength--multiple voices, even some unexpected ones, will encourage the use of this book as a valuable reference tool.
Because of Chicago's pivotal role in the narrative of the American city and the lessons that can be applied here and elsewhere, this book is timely. The editors have shown us the enormous need for reevaluating history and expanding our horizons for the future, and have given us numerous articles to illustrate their point. There is much to gain from broadening and deepening Chicago's story.
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Martha Thorne. Review of Waldheim, Charles; Ray, Katerina Ruedi, eds., Chicago Architecture: Histories, Revisions, Alternatives.
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