Taste in buildings

A recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago reminded me of a fact in architecture. Buildings go in and out of fashion, and woe to any structure deemed unstylish during a time of technological or cultural upheaval: It is likely to be torn down.

It's often after such buildings are demolished that people realize how valuable they were. Museums offer photographs and documentation, and occasionally some forward-thinking person has saved chunks of the structure for posterity. But these are pale substitutes for a standing building.

Case in point: The Chicago Stock Exchange's trading room, designed in 1893-94 by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. The Stock Exchange was demolished in 1972, but the Art Institute preserved the room and has re-created it in a wing of the museum.

Sullivan's artistry is astonishing, but I couldn't help feeling that the re-created room was a bit of a let-down. The trading floor must have been a hectic and disheveled place in its heyday. Now it felt sterile and lifeless.

Of course, it's better to have a facsimile of a famed building than nothing at all. But in my wanderings around downtown Chicago, I found better, though less pristine, examples of Sullivan's work. For example, the Carson Pirie Scott department store, with its facade of wrought iron. I touched the ironwork at street level; it was slightly scratched and dented by decades of hasty shoppers.

There's a parallel with Modernist homes today. Without the revival of interest in this architecture (see lead story, right), these houses might sink into disuse and neglect. Many would be torn down. Such houses, lived in, are better testaments to Modernism than photographs and fragments in some museum of the future.

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