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On Exhibit: 57 ways to improve Chicago

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An illustrated feature in each issue of Spy, called "New, Improved New York," posits some change, usually involving some in-joke, that will make Gotham a better place. In one issue, for example, the editors suggest holding a Thanksgiving-night parade featuring gigantic balloons not of Mickey Mouse or Superman or even of Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtles but of what Spy calls "overinflated" New York personalities, like perennial Spy targets Liz Smith and Donald Trump.

I kept thinking about "New, Improved New York" as I walked through "Alternative Visions: Chicago." Currently on view at the Public Library Cultural Center, it's described as "an exhibition of theoretical projects to alter the look of the city," and it shows not simply parallel themes but a shared sensibility. Although many of the 57 projects, which include models, drawings, collages, and constructions, are deadly earnest, others strive for amusing, ironic effects.

Humor and irony are more-than-acceptable approaches--even Spy has assured us that irony is the operative attitude of the moment. But some of the projects exhibited in "Alternative Visions" are so "inside" as to be indecipherable. Like the editors of Spy, their creators are winking at us, but when you need a text to explain the joke--and usually these don't have a text--it's not so funny.

The show's organizers (a number of groups, including the Young Architects Committee of the AIA Chicago Chapter, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Chicago Bar Association's Young Lawyers Section) put out a call to architects under 35 for "a building, planning concept, ornamental detail or landscaping idea which portrays an anticipated or unforeseen change in Chicago's condition, whether it be economic, political, social, technological or ecological." Hypothetical exhibitions aren't unique. What distinguishes this one is the fact that the public has been invited to vote for its favorite entry. The winner will receive a cash prize of $3,000.

A few of the projects seem calculated to capture that prize by appealing shamelessly to the masses--it's difficult, for instance, to resist David Jennerjahn's surreal notion, a monument to the Cubs in the form of a C-shaped island due east of Belmont Harbor. But others seem to have been conceived in almost total disregard of the public; they're good examples of the architectural profession talking to itself. Architects don't seem to realize that the public doesnt generally understand--or want to understand--deconstructivism, for example.

Paul Stephen Pettigrew has devised a complex, sophisticated exercise dealing with abstract notions of decreasing proportions and, concretely, how they might apply to the city's park system. He acknowledges that his "archillectual intervention into D.H. Burnham's timeless plan for Chicago" may be inaccessible to most of the public, but he's not really concerned about that. "I want people to be challenged," he says, "and when you make something challenging, there's a risk people won't take the time to understand it."

Gilbert Gorski's drawing, Baths of Schaumburg, an apocalyptic vision inspired by impending water shortages, reveals several layers of inside jokes. Most art-history students should recognize the rendering as a parody of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, but perhaps only a handful of observers will pick out the faces of some of the city's leading architectural lights on the classically posed figures: Frank Lloyd Wright scrubs his back in the center, while in the foreground Stanley Tigerman, as an apostle, wields a T square instead of a sickle.

The show certainly covers the expected, things like new marinas, redesigned public housing, improved transit systems, and so on; these are so numbingly sincere that they seem like nothing so much as recycled school projects. The more inventive entries include several that are wholly conceptual. Robin Randall's suggestive Island in the Lake consists of a pair of hands and a poem; Eric Davis's mirrored construction damns the architectural establishment for not helping the homeless. Others are most interesting for their display of technique: Neil J. Sheehan's Sky Streets--Chicago, Timothy J. Jachna's The City Reassembled, and Thomas Rajkovich's World's Columbian Exposition Centennial, Grant Park are all exquisitely drafted. And some, like Chun Cham's proposed light sculpture at the North Avenue beach, reflect a genuine visionary lyricism.

But my vote goes to Nathan Kipnis, who says that when the Bears finally get a new stadium, the real estate they vacate on McFetridge Drive should be converted to "Soldier Fields," a luxury town-home community. This project is presented with just the right degree of acerbic wit. And who can't relate to it? It's an idea whose time may come after all.

You can cast your ballot through Monday, May 8, and there will be a panel discussion Monday, May 15, 5:30 to 7 at Preston Bradley Hall. The exhibit will be up until the end of May at the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Free. Call 346-3278 for details.

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