Chicago's Century Of Architecture As an Art Form

CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN, 1923-1993: RECONFIGURATIONHDOF AN AMERICAN METROPOLIS Edited by John Zukowsky, Prestel-Verlag 479 pp., $70 cloth, $39.95 paper.

AIA GUIDE TO CHICAGO Ediited by Alice Sinkevitch Harcourt Brace & Co. 541 pp., $34.95 cloth $22.95 paper.

ESSAYS ON ARCHITECTURE IN THE MIDWEST By Robert Alan Benson Interalia/Design Books 156 pp., $20.

THE fresh-faced exuberance of Chicago's soaring skyline catches both the eye and the imagination.

The preeminence of the city's architecture dates back to the World's Columbian Exhibition held 100 years ago. Through that event, the city located itself on the American landscape as a crucible of progress, a place for things modern and inspiring. The legacy of great urban architecture has continued.

This year (the centennial of the 1893 exhibition), the attention of the architectural world turned to Chicago for the American Institute of Architects/ International Union of Architects World Congress held in June.

The occasion proved to be a publishing event as well. Several books look back at how the city has changed.

"Chicago Architecture and Design, 1923-1993: Reconfiguration of an American Metropolis," edited by John Zukowsky, was produced in conjunction with an exhibit currently at the Art Institute of Chicago (see listing, left). It takes a searching and comprehensive look at what Chicago's tradition of great builders and buildings means to the city and the profession.

For Chicago, great architecture is not simply a means to accomplish other civic goals. Great building is an end in itself.

Architecture "has clearly become, over time, the city's premier art form," writes Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman. In describing Helmut Jahn's United Airlines terminal, Ross Miller writes that by expressing "fantasy along with utility," it becomes "architecture, not just building."

The book digs deep to find the events that inspired the city's drive to build. From the Great Depression's stranglehold on construction to the spending of World War II and on up to the recent recession, the book analyzes the economic forces behind the business of building.

World War II was the "catalyst to revitalize industries that were just beginning to make their way out of the decade-long Depression," Zukowsky writes. Companies that would be instrumental in building and promoting Chicago's infrastructure, including Douglas Aircraft Company and the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, were launched during this period.

Through good and bad times, however, Chicagoans are unabashed in building concrete expressions of their hopes.

Early in this century, this urban center, stranded in midcontinent, looked to the airplane as the ultimate symbol of modernity and progress. Airplanes literally brought the world to Chicago's door. The book follows the development of airport architecture from 25 small airfields to Jahn's terminal at O'Hare International Airport.

While the weighty volume sometimes bogs down in numbing detail - such as the overtold saga of the Merchandise Mart's creation - compelling page layouts and exceptional type design keep the reader's attention.

For a good part of the century, Chicago has been a mecca for architectural aspirants. The arrival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Armour Institute of Technology (later the Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1938 cemented Chicago's standing. Zukowsky has compiled a genealogy of Chicago architects and their firms starting in the 1860s. Old firms spawned new ones throughout the century.

Zukowsky balances the theater of big-building construction with a look at the unglorious history of Chicago housing projects. Mention Cabrini Green, Robert Taylor Homes, or Stateway Gardens to a Chicago resident, and the alarm that registers says it all. The book examines the political and economic histories of Chicago's public housing to explain its genesis, siting, and plight.

Another chapter looks at the political machinations that have resulted in the barren and empty Block 37. Located in the heart of the city's business district, it is a wind-swept testament to failed politics and squandered potential.

But Chicago does not work the way most cities do. "If anything, Chicago's traditions encourage rather than discourage land development, thereby continually challenging architects to respond or react to the city's past," Zukowsky writes. With five new buildings taller than 60 stories erected in the 1980s, Chicago still seems to be a promising stage for new projects.

With a trend to revive and enhance the outside lighting of the city's big buildings, the stage set is getting brighter. Chicago has long promoted itself as "the best lighted city in the world." Successive programs to illuminate city streets and to floodlight the tops and recesses of important buildings have lit up Chicago. While the programs have been promoted as a way to convey a bold image of the city, public safety has been a primary goal.

Readers who want more on this city should search out the predecessor volume to this one: "Chicago Architecture, 1872-1922: Birth of a Metropolis," also edited by John Zukowsky. The book was published in conjunction with a 1987 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The "AIA Guide to Chicago" is another option for those interested in the city's foundations. Published concurrently with the American Institute of Architects/International Union of Architects World Congress, the book leads off with several concise and readable essays on "The Shaping of Chicago." Seminal architectural events from the Great Fire of 1871 to the tax reform acts of 1986 and 1989 are traced in a quick sweep.

But the bulk of the book is dedicated to a street-to-street search for the delightful and mundane details that underpin Chicago's architectural reputation.

The guide contains several surprises, such as the entry on the Graceland Cemetery. Architecture and design greats such as Daniel Burnham (author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis H. Sullivan, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy are buried there.

The guide also sagely warns of a few neighborhoods into which excursions for architecture viewing would be unwise. A glossary and thorough index are welcome.

When a shiny new building opens to the public, the architect who designed it has to prepare his ego for a pummeling. "Essays on Architecture in the Midwest," by Robert Benson, is a book of architectural criticism that has a little populist fun with some of today's reigning architects.

Benson describes a building at 190 South La Salle in Chicago as a "piece of trompe l'oeuil by the million dollar mimics, Philip Johnson and John Burgee of New York."

He is as comfortable writing on the broad sweep of the architectural process (Benson defines originality as "creating taste through radical example") as he is with skewering a particular building (the State of Illinois Center, he says, is "sliced down like an Edam cheese to fit the site").

Criticism, it seems, is salutary as long as you are the critic, not the architect.

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