Chicago’s modernist architectural history is especially rich because the city burned in 1871, leaving the downtown tabula rasa just as modernity took hold. And the Chicago School’s experiments in structural steel and large swaths of glass produced the skyscraper as we know it today. During the heyday after the fire, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Burnham and Root made the major American contributions to early modernism, and Mies joined the party in 1937. He would go on to build some of the most iconic American buildings in the Windy City.
Today, Chicago remains in the vanguard. The skyline is dotted with buildings by Mies, Bertrand Goldberg, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and more recently, Studio Gang. With Stanley Tigerman still hanging around town, an argument could be made that Chicago’s architectural scene is as strong as New York’s is today, especially when considered for quality, not quantity.
Here’s what’s poppin’ off today in the Windy City, and why it’s the contender for the architectural crown.
1. Chicago Architecture Biennial
In October 2015 the new international biennial, titled “The State of the Art of Architecture,” will look to challenge Venice as the premiere venue for architectural discourse. Its lineup of exhibitions, full-scale installations, and overall program of events has not yet been released, but we trust it will be spectacular. We do know that Iwan Baan and Theaster Gates will be making new works for the showcase and the international advisory committee includes Frank Gehry, Stanley Tigerman, and Hans Ulrich Obrist.
2. Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Chi-town’s mayor has made it his personal mission to not only build on Chicago’s art and architectural legacy, but to create something entirely new — thus, the Biennial. The mayor has a vested interest in making Chicago a newly relevant modern-day omphalos, and no doubt his future political ambition plays a role in what he wants to do and what he’s willing to do to make that happen. Here, the personal is the political, and that means Rahmbo will continue supporting innovative architecture along with the Biennial, one of his pet projects. Cultural feats prove Chicago’s ongoing relevance, showcase his political savvy, and bring in money. Plus, the new Biennial can’t happen in a city where its ongoing architectural narrative isn’t worthy of pilgrimage.
3. George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
Speaking of narrative: Commissioned by the Star Wars director and designed by Chinese architects MAD, this monumental addition to the city’s waterfront will be surrounded by park space and will join several institutions — The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, and Northerly Island — that together will encompass a new lakefront cultural zone. The design drives a narrative of its own, as the ground plane is extended up and over the building, framing views of the iconic skyline and telling a story about the site. Despite the heated conversation about the building, it proves Chicago is a home for new architecture and new thinking about it.
4. The Abandoned Calatrava Creates Possibilities
Now that Santiago Calatrava’s Spire skyscraper has gone the way of the dodo, there is a massive new site prime for development in the heart of Chicago’s lakefront district. What remains of the project is a huge hole where the foundation for the structure was built, a massive divot with a foundation surrounded by some overgrown greenery. After developers lost funding, they turned the site over to investors, and the fate of this unique location is uncertain. Given the various local developers and architects who would recognize the possibilities of the site — not to mention Mayor Emanuel’s activist engagement with architecture — this site will not remain dormant for long.
The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts keeps the discourse at a very high level, both in Chicago and globally, by granting funds for research and other avant-garde activities. That is certainly evident in Treatise, a project the organization funded and is conceived by Chicago-based firm Bureau Spectacular. The series of abstract manifestoes serves as a snapshot of some of the young practices who are making experimental architecture today. Bittertang, Design with Company, and SOFTlab are among the featured collaborators. A series of programs will follow in the new year, including a summit with manifesto authors joining to discuss the role of speculative work in forming a young practice. One day the publication, designed by Pentagram, could be an important artifact in the history of architecture — especially at the point when the onetime avant-guard becomes mainstream.
6. University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago’s architectural schools have always pushed the architectural conversation forward. Mies designed Crown Hall for the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he served as director of the architecture school. The building is considered a classic example of his rational, machine-like architecture. Stanley Tigerman depicted the building sinking in his collage “The Titanic,” which was a manifesto of sorts for the postmodern era. The piece underscored the ideological battle between Tigerman’s University of Illinois-Chicago and IIT. Today, UIC’s Robert Somol and a host of young talent continues the tradition of the Chicago legacy, carving out their own color-saturated cartoon niche and some of the most exciting work in the design world.