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CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN: 1923-1993

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through August 29

You don't have to be an insider to appreciate "Chicago Architecture and Design: 1923-1993," but it helps. The exhibition, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, is meant to illustrate the "reconfiguration of an American metropolis," but it's composed of such a dizzying array of drawings, models, and objects that even someone with a good grasp of the history and development of architecture in Chicago in the 20th century will find it difficult to digest.

The installation itself is a little perplexing. Regenstein Hall has been divided into eight temporary tunnel-like galleries, each devoted to a different theme: Planning/Urban Fragments, Transportation, Institution/Government, Commerce/Business, Industry, Shopping, Houses and Housing, and Recreation. In each the work is presented in chronological order--the organizers refer to them as "tunnels in time." The arrangement is quite effective when the galleries are viewed individually, but because the traffic pattern requires the visitor to navigate them in zig-zag fashion, half the tunnels are entered in 1993 and the other half in 1923; the resulting inconsistency tends to be confusing.

The exhibit was organized by John Zukowsky, curator of the Art Institute's Department of Architecture, and his staff. But much of the attention has focused on the man who designed the installation, architect Stanley Tigerman, who also figures prominently in the show. Of the 657 items in the exhibition catalog, 19 are credited to him in one way or another. Only the firm of Murphy/Jahn, with 23, has more. Tigerman beat out, among others, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, for much of the era the world's largest architecture firm, and Holabird & Root, which actively practiced throughout the 70-year period the show covers.

According to Zukowsky it's mere "happenstance" that Tigerman's work is featured so extensively. Certainly Tigerman plays an important role in the school's architecture department: he's one of the founders of the Architecture Society, the department's benefactor organization, and he's an active participant in department affairs. He also designed its stylish offices. But the abundance of his work in the show more probably indicates the department's awareness of Tigerman's remarkable influence on both colleagues and clients, disproportionate though it may be to the size and scope of his portfolio. While "Chicago Architecture and Design: 1923-1993" has been conceived as illustrating the reconfiguration of this metropolis, it also reflects the nature of an architectural community Tigerman helped create.

About 3,000 registered architects reside in the metropolitan area, but the Chicago architectural community has always been, and remains today, a rather clubby group, dominated by a small cadre of personalities from a limited number of firms and academic institutions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the catalog essay "Chicago Architects: Genealogy and Exegesis," in which Tigerman and a team of architectural historians trace the development of Chicago architecture by arraying firms in successive generations, showing events very like marriages, divorces, births, and deaths on a family tree.

In 1979 Tigerman and some of his colleagues founded the Chicago Architectural Club, which was modeled on and named after the salonlike association of Chicago architects active in the years before World War I. The original Chicago Architectural Club met regularly, published and held exhibitions, and symbolized a sort of golden era for the profession. Stanley and friends thought it would be great fun to herald the arrival of a new golden era--the 1980s, which were indeed halcyon days for architects--by reviving this cozy bastion of elitism. If you were to compare the lists of members in the Architectural Club publications of the 1980s with the names of those in the catalog's genealogy currently practicing and with those whose work appears in the show, the result would be pretty much what you'd expect.

Tigerman is a talented designer and conceptualist, but even his best-known projects are perceived as quirky and personal rather than trailblazing or artistic. Many attest to his cleverness: the Anticruelty Society's shelter on LaSalle, whose facade resembles a puppy face; the mannerist Hard Rock Cafe on Ontario; and the Lake Street parking garage with a Rolls Royce-grille facade. But they're notable more because they validate whimsy and humor in building design than because they've been widely influential. And despite his tenure as director of the architecture program at the University of Illinois-Chicago (recently--and rather abruptly--terminated) and his splashy but occasionally incomprehensible publications from Rizzoli, no one would call Tigerman a noted scholar.

Helmut Jahn may cut a more dashing figure in his Italian suits and wide-brimmed fedoras, Walter Netsch may have been more politically connected, and Carter Manny may have hobnobbed with more of society's swells. But in the last two decades Tigerman has emerged as one of the most--if not the single most--visible and vocal members of the Chicago architectural community. By sheer force of personality and a gift for self-promotion that rivals Burnham's and Wright's, he has evolved from enfant terrible to eminence grise in surprisingly few steps.

Tigerman didn't design this exhibition entirely by himself, however. According to press materials he "planned the overall exhibition layout" and delegated design of the time tunnels to eight "young Chicago architects." ("Young" is a relative term here, but none has reached his or her 50th birthday.) Many of them have been members of the Chicago Architectural Club, most are included in Tigerman's genealogy, and all except Maria Whiteman (who is a landscape architect) have work in the exhibition.

Most of the tunnel designs are more lighthearted than is typical of art-museum installations, which makes for a rather dazzling presence. Most are also marvelously inventive and so a lot of fun. I was particularly impressed with the kinetic quality of the Recreation tunnel (by Darcy Bonner of Himmel/Bonner Architects): it features puzzling but engaging bicycle-inspired elements and swinging wooden sails suspended from the ceiling. I also liked the Transportation exhibit (by Steven Wierzbowski of Florian-Wierzbowski Architecture), even though the effect of its most distinguishing feature--an expressionistic overhead sweep of red laminate to suggest a highway overpass--is severely compromised by an enormous photograph of an air traffic controller's radar screen that bisects it. Because other such oversize photos appear throughout the exhibit (an ominous image of Mayor Richard M. Daley glowers over the Government/Institutions tunnel), I can only assume that Tigerman is responsible for them and for the inopportune placement of this one.

It would be difficult to find fault with the range of objects chosen. Nits could be picked--it's unclear why the Standard Oil Building isn't included, for example, and why the rather banal Visitor's Center at the Morton Arboretum is featured when the glorious Education Center at the Chicago Horticultural Society's Botanic Garden isn't. But though there may be some cliquishness in the way architects were chosen, the nearly 700 objects on display offer a stunning, almost exhaustive view of how the city developed.

That's no mean feat, because the years covered by the exhibition are not a particularly cohesive period: this show picks up where the Art Institute's brilliant 1988 retrospective of Chicago architecture left off (also curated by Zukowsky and designed by Tigerman). The earlier exhibit drew from an almost magical period in the city's development, 1872-1922. In that era no other place in the world could lay claim to richer, more significant architectural development: the first skyscrapers, the Columbian Exposition, the 1909 Plan of Chicago. This was the heyday of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was a half century in which Chicago was the undisputed architecture capital of the world, neatly framed by the 1871 Chicago Fire, which provided the impetus for the city's modern development, and the 1922 Tribune Tower competition, a seminal event in the development of tall building design.

The period covered by this exhibit is much more amorphous. Enormous economic, technological, political, and social upheavals have made for a city that's larger, higher, faster, denser, and more deeply troubled than anyone could have predicted in 1922. No easy bookends distinguish the period, nor can it boast the unchallenged brilliance in leadership of the earlier time. The exhibition's organizers were faced with a much greater challenge: choosing materials that would accurately represent numerous trends and movements in design. That difficult task has been admirably accomplished.

Nevertheless, the show may present a problem for those who don't know much about the city or its architecture. A disturbingly large number of pieces seem distanced from the viewer, both spatially and intellectually. For one thing, the show jams a lot of pieces into a rather small space. This does evoke the ever-increasing claustrophobic qualities of the city--its verticality and density--but several of the pieces are simply hung too high for the viewer to see.

A more serious problem, and one that seems directly tied to the show's insider orientation, is the inaccessibility of some of the materials chosen. Working drawings, blueprints, and other, more technical materials represent a sizable percentage of the work displayed, posing a serious barrier to the average viewer's appreciation. The Houses and Housing tunnel, for example, features an axonometric drawing of the Krueck and Sexton-designed Nadler apartment. As a rule, axonometrics give a better sense of space than a floor plan or an elevation because they combine the two in a way that suggests three dimensions. But here even the axonometric cannot begin to convey the spectacular effect of this interior, though a photograph (or a number of them) might have. Ronald Krueck's dynamic work is mesmerizing for its masterful manipulation of space, use of reflective materials, and remarkable attention to such details as hardware and stair risers. Viewers who are already familiar with Krueck's work, who may have been to some of the sites or seen them in professional magazines, need only look at the drawing to conjure them up again. But anyone who hasn't visited these projects, or who doesn't generally have Progressive Architecture or Interiors lying around the house, will get no more than a vague feeling for Krueck's complex layering of space, and no feeling at all for his refraction of light and brilliant palette of stone, glass, and metal surfaces. (A stainless steel chair designed for the project, exhibited in a case beside the drawing, helps, but not enough.) For the novice, representations so technical will be perplexing and, ultimately, pointless.

It's initially difficult to understand why the Tang Industries headquarters building in Elk Grove Village, credited to the Miami-based firm Arquitectonica, was even included: the elevation drawing makes it look like a completely undistinguished suburban warehouse. One may be tempted to look at its inclusion as a political move, because Dana Terp, Arquitectonica's Chicago representative, is a fairly typical insider: among other things he's served on the board of the Architecture Society and was an active member of the Chicago Architectural Club. But photographs of the building--included in the catalog but not exhibited at the show--reveal the structure's significance. The oddly juxtaposed asymmetrical forms and lustrous materials of the entrance represent what is probably the metropolitan area's most eloquent example of Deconstructivism, the newest theoretical trend in architecture.

Other technical materials may also erect roadblocks to the uninitiated. Consider a 1981 perspective drawing of the Caterpillar Training Center in Peoria. Nothing about this rough sketch of the overall site plan marks it as a project of any distinction. Yet a look at the attribution indicates that the organizers most likely chose this piece for its symbolic and genealogical value. It's credited to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, with James R. DeStefano as designer and David Hansen as delineator, and in fact the drawing represents a heroic period in SOM's history, a time when it was the world's most powerful architecture firm. Its inclusion also implies something about the firm's fall from greatness: DeStefano was one of many SOM studio heads who either defected or were forced out and who founded their own successful enterprises, and Hansen is now one of the design principals at Perkins & Will--another old Chicago firm now larger than SOM. There is, of course, no text explaining this to the viewer, who merely sees a rough sketch of several kidney-shaped buildings on yellow paper.

Other examples of insiderness are pieces depicting projects everyone in the city probably knows well but most likely won't be able to recognize here. Window wall elevations and elevator sections of the Sears Tower are nearly unrecognizable as representations of the world's tallest building. A pencil sketch completed by Mies van der Rohe in the late 1940s has enormous historic value because it may have been his first schematic conception for the pioneering project that became 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive. But without some accompanying materials--a small photograph of the completed buildings, perhaps--the untrained viewer sees only a rough sketch of two perpendicular slabs.

Luckily, the majority of the materials in the show are much easier for the layman to grasp: they can stand on their own as works of art regardless of whether the viewer is familiar with the completed projects or not. The gorgeous presentation drawings range from the legendary Hugh Ferriss's image of the Merchandise Mart and Paul Philippe Cret's splendid work for the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exhibition to Ralph Johnson's dramatic drawings of his own projects for Perkins & Will and the ubiquitous Gilbert Gorski's prismacolor tours de force, done for just about everybody else. The Commerce/Business tunnel features some outstanding models, including a smashing cutaway of 190 S. LaSalle Street's lobby; and photos of models illustrate the variety of design concepts entertained for the much vilified State of Illinois Center. The Recreation section features entertaining models of Comiskey Park, both the 1907 and 1991 versions.

Other notable entries include a wildly colored audio cabinet for a Gothic-inspired apartment by Tanys Langdon, and Jordan Mozer's interiors for the restaurant Vivere, which are intended to be whimsical but verge on the nightmarish. Viewers can hardly help but be amused by blueprints for the original "McDonald's System" restaurants: mostly because the old "red and whites" have become such a camp icon, their rendition in the serious blueprint format seems almost a joke. Intriguingly, they're included not with examples of Commerce or Recreation but in the Transportation tunnel, in recognition of their genesis as drive-ins. Of historical interest are a fine maquette of the 1930 statue of Ceres atop the Board of Trade Building, Edward Durrell Stone's rough sketches (on Blackstone Hotel stationery) for the first McCormick Place, and several kitschy Motorola radios from the 1930s and 1940s.

The variety of objects here, some of which stand on their own and some of which don't, calls into question what architectural exhibits should be. Zukowsky says that this show isn't about great works of art--it's intended to make the viewer go out and take another look at the city, to see it differently. Ideally, of course, Zukowsky would like each visitor to have fully read the catalog before viewing the exhibition, which would probably solve the problem of insufficient background, but let's get serious: most people just aren't that dedicated.

Which is a shame for other reasons as well: the catalog itself is a real work of art. And whereas it's somewhat unclear who assembled the exhibit, it's perfectly clear that Zukowsky orchestrated this worthwhile addition to any library. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of perhaps three or four museums in the United States that have a department of architecture, and in his 12 years as its director, Zukowsky has consistently mounted exhibitions that illuminate what is perhaps the city's most valuable legacy. Nearly all the shows have been accompanied by impressive catalogs, and this one is no exception: Zukowsky has once again gone far beyond the limits of the exhibit itself to analyze and explore the subject. The 17 essays here, supplemented by 634 illustrations, investigate a variety of design fields and their impact on land use, planning, and transportation, both locally and internationally.

Nor are all of Tigerman's contributions, however egocentric and self-serving, unwelcome. Some even make the show a lot more enjoyable. Near the front of the exhibit are books on podiums filled with entertaining entries from visitors on their "Most Favorite Architect," "Least Favorite Architect," and "Comments on the Exhibition." Zukowsky says these were Tigerman's idea: they may be an attempt to give the show a populist air, to make it into a sort of beauty contest, because despite the cliques of the architecture community Tigerman has taken the public stance of attempting to bring an appreciation of architecture to the masses. Soliciting viewers' comments makes the whole thing seem a lot less user-hostile, and despite Tigerman's elitist bent he would probably like to see more people talking and thinking about architecture because that would bring more attention to him and his coterie. I imagine he'd be thrilled if later editions of the catalog somehow reproduced viewers' comments for posterity, though many are critical of the show for reasons ranging from poor signage to annoyance with the ambient sound effects (which I thought rather clever). Some of the remarks are insightful and perceptive; others are downright hilarious, often unintentionally.

Entries in the "Most" book run the gamut from turn-of-the-century California architects Greene & Greene to contemporary international designers like Norman Foster, Carlo Scarpa, and Fumihiko Maki. (Most of them probably never even visited Chicago, but nobody said your favorite had to be a Chicago architect represented in this show, I guess.) The "Least" book is equally wide-ranging, but there are three names that pop up repeatedly: Mies van der Rohe (the now-fallen king of Modernism), Helmut Jahn (haunted by the specter of the State of Illinois Center), and yes, Stanley Tigerman. Although his recent ouster as director at UIC may indicate that his stature in the community has begun to crumble, this grass-roots snipery is the only way you'd know it from this exhibit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Van Inwegen Photo, courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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