JetModern: Chicago, Vol. I

Posted on: September 22nd, 2009 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

Portland had the problem of trying to widen how it read its architectural history through newer buildings. Chicago is a city in which you can’t read the history of the place but through such structures.

Calder sculpture at Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago.

Alexander Calder sculpture at Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago.

Such a commitment to architecture, and, in particular, modern architecture is not new in Chicago, according to Vince Michael, Director of the Historic Preservation Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In fact, he said, preservation in Chicago was almost exclusively focused on modernist architecture until the 1970s. In 1989, even, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (Landmarks Illinois) had drawn up a proposed list of modernist structures to be preserved in Chicago. With so many great names of modernism having practiced in Chicago (Mies Van Der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Bertrand Goldberg, SOM, Harry Weese, among countless others), this city does have a solid modernist heritage and is largely defined by that legacy.

Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Given this tradition, how is preservation of mid-century resources done differently in Chicago? It’s not all that different, actually. Having this conversation with a professor, though, did suggest an interesting issue. Michael suggested that there is a generation gap and that, while today’s architectural historians and preservationists “get” the why of preservation, the general public still hasn’t. Keeping in mind, of course, that this is still Chicago, a city of modernism. According to Michael, even here, there are some “curvy” modern structures—like Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital—that people have a hard time swallowing.

In general, though, widening the acceptance of mid-century built heritage to more than a single form requires two steps I’ve heard before. “People need to have associations,” Michael said. Any way that you can help connect a structure to a person brings that element of cultural history as expressed through the built environment to his or her attention. Fostering those connections through programming and interactions with a specific built space coupled with activities that bring sensible discussions about preservation to forefront are key to gaining acceptance. There are, of course, “good buildings” and “bad buildings.” Those that catch your eye and hold your interest, as Michael put it, are the good ones. But they are good not because they are Brutalist, Georgian, or Gothic. Engaging communities with structures is not about getting acceptance of a style, but a building as an expression of that style.

What are some successful strategies for community engagement that have worked here?

Carr Memorial Chapel, Illinois Institute of Technology (1952); this is Mies' only religious structure.

Carr Memorial Chapel, Illinois Institute of Technology (1952); this is Mies' only religious structure.

To answer this question, I spoke with Eiliesh Tuffy, Director of Preservation Programs at Landmarks Illinois. In general, she said that Landmarks Illinois has had some success in targeting city and urban planners as, from a regulatory standing, they make the local decisions. More than this, though, for mid-century modern programs and buildings, she echoed Vince Michael’s observation that a generation gap exists. Landmarks Illinois is working to balance the interests of its members which are sometimes divided between the “traditional” modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright with other architects and more recent buildings. Further, advocacy and education programs for these newer buildings reach a younger and broader audience through the use of social media. Do different structures have different constituencies?

Next stop: Houston (almost).

Seth Tinkham is self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.

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Modern Architecture

One Response

  1. Landmarks Illinois

    October 1, 2009

    Glad you could visit, Seth. Keep up the good work. For those interested in our ongoing architectural survey of suburban resources from the Recent Past, they can see what we’ve been finding by visiting our on-line database:

    Happy trails!