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Is Chicago architecture too enamored of its own past?

The essay collection Chicagoisms challenges the city to revive its reputation as a laboratory for daring architecture.

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When Alexander Eisenschmidt moved to Chicago in 2007, the German-born architectural theorist was disturbed by how the city talks about its buildings. Sipping a glass of rosé in the cafe at the Art Institute's Modern Wing, he describes a kind of "museum-ification." Take, for example, the time architect Rem Koolhaas proposed that his student center at IIT incorporate the Mies van der Rohe–designed Commons Building—it sparked public outrage that the new structure attacked the "purity and simplicity" of the existing architecture. "Preservationists have instilled this attitude in policy makers and politicians," Eisenschmidt says. "If we don't look out, [architecturally] we will be very quickly forgotten."

"I'm not even sure it's preservationists per se," Eisenschmidt's colleague replies, taking a sip of his own rosé. That's Jonathan Mekinda, an architectural historian and fellow assistant professor at UIC, who settled in Chicago in 2008. "I think it's broader than that and has more to do with which objects Chicago has chosen as significant. It's closed to thinking about its own history."

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Don't mistake this for some wine-fueled bitchfest between two scholars. The two men have spent the day at the museum installing an exhibition (hence the celebratory drink) called "Chicagoisms." Opening Saturday, April 5, the show riffs on ideas from a new book the pair coedited, Chicagoisms: The City as Catalyst for Architectural Speculation. Inspired by a panel Eisenschmidt and Mekinda led at the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians in 2010, the volume of essays—interspersed with insightful, near poetic reflections on well-known structures—examines Chicago's global architectural influence. But rather than rehash familiar narratives about Sullivan and Wright and the birth of the skyscraper and other familiar territory, Chicagoisms seeks to do something more complex: revive the city's reputation as a laboratory and launchpad for daring architecture. Looking both from the inside out (at how the Ferris wheel turned technology into spectacle) and outside in (Adolf Loos's radical proposal for Tribune Tower, a skyscraper-sized Doric column suggesting a newspaper column), the book presents a Chicago that captivated other cities with its willingness to take risks, test ideas, and, if need be, reverse a river's flow.

IIT McCormick Tribune Campus Centre, OMA, 2003. - © PHILIPPE RUAULT. COURTESY OF OMA.
  • © Philippe Ruault. Courtesy of OMA.
  • IIT McCormick Tribune Campus Centre, OMA, 2003.

Eisenschmidt and Mekinda agree that their perspective on Chicago's self-perception and global renown—and how the former tends to undermine the latter—is shaped by the fact that neither has lived here that long. "Coming here, I realized it's a very beautiful city, but it's also one that's very content with what it has achieved," Eisenschmidt says. "Now the discussion in terms of urbanism is, 'Shall we put more flower planters on Michigan Avenue or not?'" Echoes Mekinda, "There's too much self-satisfaction about what has already been accomplished."

Burnham Centennial Pavilion, UNStudio, 2009. - © UNSTUDIO: BEN VAN BERKEL AND CAROLINE BOS. COURTESY UNSTUDIO.
  • © UNStudio: Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos. Courtesy UNStudio.
  • Burnham Centennial Pavilion, UNStudio, 2009.

Fortunately, they found potential contributors—architects, artists, historians, critics, curators, and theorists, some long established in the city—very receptive to their approach. "They were happy [Chicagoisms] wasn't another boosterish publication," Eisenschmidt says.

Ellen Grimes, an associate professor at SAIC, is one such contributor. She believes it's critical that Chicago upend the common rear-view architectural narratives in order to take more risks in the present. "If the city can think of its legacy and possibility in a global sense," she says, "that's one way to get around a lack of imagination."

To that end, the accompanying exhibition incorporates architects' future proposals that extrapolate on more outrageous ideas—what the editor/curators call "Chicagoisms"—from the city's past. The hope is to push the conversation beyond Mies. Or at least further than flower planters.

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