Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chicago, c. 1955

Shortly after the brief Golden Age of post war Chicago, the city along with most comparable American cities, experienced a slow decline that arguably began in the middle 1950's.

The period saw a boom in suburban development spurred by the construction of the Interstate Highway System during the Eisenhower administration. The scorched earth policy of construction of urban expressways decimated neighborhoods and created no-man's lands in the form of crime infested underpasses throughout the city. Urban public transportation systems were dismantled. The car was king and cities that were not designed from the outset for four wheel traffic suffered. Racial tension increased as neighborhoods shifted population rapidly because of fear of the different and unknown. The American Dream at the time was a house in the suburbs. If you could afford to get out, the city was no longer the place to live.

This was also a time that a new architecture took hold. After twenty years of no major commissions, architects, designers, and the public alike were thinking to the future and who could blame them? The past saw depression and war of unimaginable magnitude. This new architecture cast aside "old fashioned" ornament of stone and terra cotta. Steel and glass were the media of the future. New buildings would have none of the stuff to remind us of the past.

From 1949 to 1951, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built his first project in Chicago, the twin apartment towers at 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive. In 1955 Skidmore Owings and Merrill built the estimable Inland Steel Building in the Loop. These buildings created a tidal wave in the design community and the city would would never look the same. Whatever you called it, International Style or Modernism, this new architecture would become the paradigm of the bulk of construction for the next thirty years.

With all these gleaming new buildings around, those that survived the turn of a century, the Roaring Twenties, The Great Depression and two World Wars, were looking tired, grimy, and just plain old. There was little attention paid to them and when they started disappearing, few seemed to care.

We just assembled a show at the Art Institute that centers on three photographers who bucked the trend and did care, specifically about the work of the architect Louis Sullivan. The show is called "Looking After Louis Sullivan" and it features along with Sullivan drawings and fragments, photographs of Aaron Siskind, John Szarkowski and Richard Nickel that document and celebrate the Master's work.

Blair Kamin's review of the exhibit can be found here.

Sullivan's legacy has done nothing but gain momentum in the last fifty years. Unfortunately, fate has not been so kind to his work which continues to disappear at an alarming rate. Only three major works remain in the Loop, the Gage Building, the Auditorium Building (a detail of which is pictured on the masthead of this blog) on Michigan Avenue, and the former Carson Pirie Scott store on State Street. The demolition of two masterpieces, the Garrick Theater in 1961 and the Stock Exchange Building in 1972 were tremendous blows to preservation efforts in the city but the enormity their loss was a call to action and ultimately strengthened, for a while anyway, landmarks laws in Chicago. What the wrecking ball could not accomplish, fire has, recently claiming two important Sullivan works, the Wirt Dexter Building in the South Loop, and the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville, a landmark not only for its architecture but for its pivotal role in the history of Gospel music.

Over the years historians have debated Sullivan's impact on Modern Architecture. Sullivan wrote that his interest was to create a new American architecture born out of nature and the ideals of Democracy. It was he who coined the term "form ever follows function", the axiom behind Modern architecture. Sullivan despised Daniel Burnham's penchant for Neo-classicism. He eschewed the use of columns, pediments and all the trappings of any style that harkened to the past. "I am going to insist that the banker wear a toga..." Sullivan facetiously commented on the trend of building banks that looked like Roman temples.

His buildings and the work of his fellow Chicago School architects soared to new heights, and their design expressed the structure of the steel skeletons that supported them.

What separated Sullivan from the Moderns was his use of ornament. Ornament to Sullivan was not something to be tacked on for decoration but was a fundamental element of the design. Quoting the show's co-curator, Allison Fisher; "Each project followed an organic design process in which ornament emerged from the building materials and structure, just as flowers appear on a plant."

Interestingly, Mies, the Grand Pubah of Modern Architecture was roundly criticized for his use of ornament in the form of non-functional "I" beam mullions which seem to contradict to his dictum of "Less is more". He said of them: "To me structure is something like logic. It is the best way to do things and express them"

Sullivan said essentially the same thing only more eloquently.

Not surprisingly, Siskind, Szarkowski and Nickel all focus on Sullivan's ornament. Of the works represented in the exhibition, I lean toward Szarkowski's as his pictures fully embrace the buildings in the midst of life in the city, often with his wry sense of humor. One photograph shows a nature inspired detail from the Auditorium with a bit of real nature thrown in in the form of a bird's skeleton resting on the ledge.

My favorite photograph of the lot is Szarkowski's picture of an elevator operator guiding his vehicle behind one of Sullivan's elaborate elevator screens. An actual screen from the destroyed building is on display adjacent to the photograph.

Richard Nickel was an early student of Aaron Siskind's at Chicago's Institute of Design where the two together with other students and faculty worked on a project documenting the work of Louis Sullivan. From that point on, Nickel devoted his life to the preservation and documentation of the work of the Chicago School of Architecture.

A wonderful compendium of his work can be found in the book "Richard Nickel's Chicago, Photographs of a Lost City" by Michael Williams and my friend Rich Cahan. The book contains dozens of gloriously reproduced images of Nickel's, many of which had never been printed. Posthumously created work can be problematic as the intentions of the artist are often misrepresented. But in this case we have a splendid document of the Chicago that was ignored for so long by so many, clearly something very close to Richard Nickel's heart.

The most touching and heartbreaking two sections of the book are in depth studies documenting the demolition of the Garrick and the Stock Exchange Buildings, the latter of which cost Nickel his life. In a painful series of pictures, we see the magnificent proscenium arch of the Garrick as the rest of the building slips away. Even in the final picture with the wrecker's bulldozer planted squarely on what once was the stage, the arch retains its power and dignity. Another heartbreaking series shows the glorious facade of the Old Stock Exchange as it is slowly covered up by scaffolding, a magnificent structure in its own right, a glistening silver blanket ironically swaddling the building as it spells its doom.

Richard Nickel's work as portrayed in the book is an elegy for Chicago. In contrast to the 1948 travelogue "Chicago the Beautiful", the city Nickel photographed is barely recognizable today. His is a city of brick and mortar, of stone and terracotta, of ancient billboards, water tanks and smokestacks. What little steel there is to be seen, is found on buildings that are either in the state of construction or destruction. Sometimes it's difficult to tell which is which.

There is great trepidation in Nickel's photographs of the construction of the new towers encroaching on his beloved city. Here is a quote of Nickel's from the book:

"From one of the most distinguished cities architecturally we are rapidly moving toward anonymity, or, what is worse, a city of contrasts: the superficial glitter of the new mixed with the slum of the old."

Nearly forty years after Richard Nickel's death, it's worth re-examining his quote. The superficial glitter has worn off and the buildings that were new in Nickel's time, are now middle aged. Some of them today are considered masterpieces. It would be hard to imagine Chicago without Mies van der Rohe, without the Inland Steel Building, without the John Hancock Building.

Like them or not, and I think only time will be the judge, the same can be said for Millennium Park, the Aqua Building, Trump Tower and the Modern Wing of the Art Institute.

A city that stands still, resistant of change becomes a museum piece or worse, it dies.

As for the "slum of the old", I'd say that we have Richard Nickel and countless others to thank for tirelessly striving to not only preserve the legacy but preserve the great buildings of the Chicago School. They are our treasures, and as each one is restored and brought back to its original glory, we see them in a new, magnificent light.

Unfortunately as these things usually go, it took death and destruction to make us see the light.

1 comment:

william said...

It has been some time since I visited website with such high quality information about regarding . Thank you so much for providing such helpful information