Review: It Is What It Is: Guide to Chicago’s Twenty-First-Century Architecture

Guide to Chicago’s Twenty-First-Century Architecture
Chicago Architecture Center and John Hill
University of Illinois Press

As packed with tacky tourist traps as any city, Chicago has one irreproachable draw: its architecture. After torching itself in 1871, the city snapped back in just a few years, raising glorious structures that beautified the skyline and inspired architects worldwide. Then it spent the next century, and part of this one, knocking most of them down.

Tarnished silver lining in mind, the martyrdom of edifices like the Garrick Theater, the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, Midway Gardens, and others sparked a drive for preservation. Assorted masterpieces remain, making for splendid Open House Chicago weekends and keeping the Loop well-attended by neck-craning tourists. If you aren’t up for booking one of the “official” tours, or hanging out with the kooky hipster guide du jour, take your pick of several guidebooks. From the AIA Guide to Chicago to Chicago’s Famous Buildings to others, there are plenty of tomes for a self-propelled passeggiata of the city’s prettiest buildings. Do it fast, because City Hall and the business community’s mania for flattening historical works is insatiable.

That theme is softly whispered throughout Guide to Chicago’s Twenty-First-Century Architecture. The book celebrates Chicago’s shiniest buildings while, at least to this reviewer’s antiquarian eye, downplaying the old grubby city. The approach isn’t just a matter of adhering to the new. It recalls a civic cheerleading chant echoed by the last three mayors and Chicago’s affluent folk, driven to develop a “new Chicago” and an “international city.” Steadily leveled these last 21 years, the old town’s remains are slowly sealed under a layer of glass and steel. A new wave of styles asserts dominance over the skyline and neighborhoods, and the Guide to Chicago’s Twenty-First-Century Architecture is here to say that’s just swell. The book has a charge to show civic pride in big, bright, anonymous buildings that don’t care about humans. To invoke a thought-terminating cliché, it is what it is; a philosophical theme that winds throughout.

Fair’s fair. The guidebook has clearly been put together by those who care about (love is too strong a word) contemporary architecture. As the back cover propounds, it is an “easy-to-use guide” to “two hundred architecturally significant buildings and spaces in the city and  suburbs.” No matter how much one loves the old stock, to suggest Chicago stop growing is absurd. That’s what cities do. Casting traditionalism aside for the nonce, the stingiest preservationist can find a few undeniably interesting buildings here. The sprawling collection of branded odds, ends, and solder slag that is Millennium Park also features Frank Gehry’s gloriously bonkers Jay Pritzker Pavilion—a collection of sound waves brought to metallic life. Local fan faves Studio Gang developed the delightfully wavy Aqua building, showing that the future is indeed here. Juan Moreno JGMA’s Northeastern Illinois University El Centro Campus with its “two-color aluminum fins [to] provide a shifting impression” looks quite Jetsonian. And behold the Esperanza Health Center, in all its Creamsicle-colored rhomboid glory. Unlovely and serrated, at least they’re unique, creative, and even a bit daring. Despite their looniness, these structures give a sense of someone, some person creating something new and breaking free from the boring glass boxes filling the other pages.

Despite these happy few, the Guide’s heralding of the city’s gleaming international future is a numbing read. The book lacks poetry. Considering the subject, what words could these buildings inspire? Less a history book than corporate brochure, the plaudits within probably echo the original pitch meetings. Money talks, and currently it demands grey boxes and deconstructed chandeliers. The Guide tries very hard to suggest there is worth, beyond their monetary value, in the buildings, but the only stories here are measured in floors. When you read older guidebooks you get the historical backgrounds of the people behind the buildings, along with hymns and sonnets about facades, cornices, pilasters, and soffits. Not so much here. Their minimalist blankness makes the descriptions brief and too similar. They review materials, describe walls and layouts (clerestories are omnipresent), and mention how a problem that doesn’t sound like an actual problem was solved. If you’re impressed with how an architect disguised yet another downtown parking garage, this is the book for you.

Buzzwords abound. Green gets quite the workout, canonizing any building with solar panels, a roof garden, and low-emission stain on its single reclaimed wood wall. Adding a few flower pots doth not a Greta Thunberg make though. Damage control is in play for institutions that have done much to irrevocably alter the urban landscape. The writing performs advanced yoga in passages like:

“Although the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) carries a history of displacement, this new recreational facility commendably replaced a parking lot and tennis courts—which once replaced 19th-century homes.”


“More recently, UIC has developed both sides of Halsted Street as retail, commercial, residences, and parking in a neo-traditional garb (the area was home to the popular Maxwell Street Market that was relocated east of the expressway).”

Which is like saying you smashed Stonehenge to gravel, but it still exists because you dumped some of the rubble a few blocks over.

The Guide’s story of Bronzeville’s demolished Mecca Flats, a wonderful building with a rich history, an awesome interior courtyard with balconies, and its own song besides, is a convoluted retelling.

“Calling someplace a ‘slum’ was often a misnomer used by those in power eager to clear the land for new constructions, but it was an accurate label here, since the city segregated the black population through restricted housing covenants and landlords demanded higher rents, for substandard housing.”

Calling a place a slum was a slimy tactic used as an excuse to smash historical buildings and develop an area…but not here, even though the city did just that. My.

“…in 1941, the newly minted IIT…obtained the buildings as part of Mies van Der Rohe’s plan for a modern campus on land cleared in the name of urban renewal. It took a little while as opponents fought to save it, but the Mecca came down in 1952, and the land is now occupied by S.R. Crown Hall, one of Mies’ masterpieces.”

Yes, that’s one version. Replace the word “opponents” with “tenants and preservationists” attempting to save a building that once housed visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition, and it sounds a hair different. S.R. Crown Hall’s displacement of the Mecca is a perfect encapsulation for much of the Guide. An elegant, neglected 19th century lady leveled and replaced with a building that’s the equivalent of a Joy Division song sans bass, guitar, drums, vocals, or melody.

But it is what it is. Chicago bastions of medicine and learning continue to displace neighborhoods, the latest being the Obama Presidential Center. Not shown here since, well, it doesn’t exist yet, but undoubtedly listed as a future node of innovative synergistic bridge-building what-have-you after nabbing Jackson Park for ten bucks and 99 years. Another genial juggernaut to enrich the neighborhood as it prices out those who live there. The theme is becoming an atonal symphony.

A few howlers turn up as the Guide’s corporate speak boosts the notion that humans enjoy living in weird rectangles with tetherball court-sized parks. We’re told the USB-port-looking windows and balconies of the Independence Apartments and Branch Library—showcasing those curious and popular pastel-colored quadrilaterals—are “…meant to individualize the apartments, giving their residents a source of personal pride.” Not since 1984’s Winston Smith discovered the tiny space in his apartment, just out of sight of the Big Brother spy screen, has a resident been so gleeful, I’m sure.

Another knee slapper: Because Mayor Daley Jr. often affixed his name to “green” initiatives, the book informs us he was nicknamed “Mayor Daisy.” A nickname that appears nonexistent, or the work of a PR firm. Perhaps it was a private sobriquet at the parties the rest of us don’t attend.

But that’s all just filler. The chapter introductions are disquieting. Chicago was once a very interesting and gritty place, the prologue admits, with many ethnicities and building styles that occupied the neighborhoods…but don’t now. Because. Chicago history is not erased here so much as left a residual graphite smudge. Gentrification is mentioned, but treated as something that just happens, like a prairie burn brought on by lightning. Generations of ethnic groups came to this great city, established themselves, and now you can buy craft brews there. No, really.

“The traditionally immigrant and Hispanic populations are giving way to gentrification, as the west side neighborhood bordering Bucktown on the east is now home to residential developments as well as microbreweries and urban farms.”

Several sections didn’t sit right, even after repeated readings. The gaslight burns high and low:

“As sociologists such as Sharon Zukin have explored at length, artists in search of affordable rent and large spaces have inadvertently paved the way for gentrification, much to the chagrin of local residents and the artists who are eventually priced out of the process.”

1. Artists move in because it’s affordable.


3. Because they do they’re eventually priced out.


One more buzzword: “Linear park.” These days, one of Chicago’s bigger selling points is the 606 Trail, the darling of Chicagoans who worry about what New York thinks. Illustratively, a good chunk of the 606 entry makes it clear it’s so much better then that uppity Highline in New York. That’s weird enough, but the book’s preoccupation with linear parks inspires some odd thoughts. Referred to as an “emerald necklace” of old and new parks, there’s an even more evocative description calling the 606 “a conduit for moving people.” Linear parks, it sounds like, aren’t about hanging out. They’re about keeping moving rather than tossing a ball, barbecuing, or setting a spell. You can walk on them, run on them, and even bike on them (unlike that snotty Highline). Just keep moving. Keep moving and get out of the way.

As mentioned, suggesting that Chicago should cease to build is ridiculous. It wouldn’t be Chicago without reinvention and growth. But even though the city’s biggest and richest boosters proclaim our architectural heritage, we’ve lost a good chunk of the older city in the last 20 years. This burst of new development has obliterated miles of old, multi-use buildings, city-blocks, homes, and vernacular architecture. To bring up a familiar name, we lost three long-preserved Louis Sullivan buildings in 2006, when each curiously burnt to a crisp. It is what it is


Photo credit Dan Kelly

We talked of self-propelled architecture tours at the beginning, but really, who is the intended audience for this book? As a guidebook it’s for tourists, but who would bother? Bluntly, it’s hard to care about any of the buildings in here. Many don’t have names, just addresses (probably making it easier when the properties trade hands) that would generate the familiarity and affection something like, say, the Auditorium, the Rookery, or the Monadnock would. It’s impossible to fall in love with something that doesn’t love you back or that looks like every other building. But perhaps this isn’t a guide. Instead, it’s a signal that Chicago’s not for putting down roots any more.

A final buzzword in the book: “the new normal”; something the forces of change drag out to say it’s unreasonable to expect consistency and reliability or have any actual say about one’s surroundings. A while back when “Building a New Chicago” signs started popping up around town, this reviewer’s wife suggested it was being built for “new Chicagoans.” It’s evident who these folks were, and are, and how the city has been set up like an amusement park for them. Structures housing upscale shopping, open-space offices, expensive schools, and the like are abundantly present. Affordable multi-family dwellings are not, even as old, affordable, and easily saved buildings and homes are knocked down.

And yet.

One imagines the shock 20 years hence when today’s “New Chicagoans” get the boot in the name of even newer Chicagoans, and a more “internationaler” city. Then again, they probably won’t be shocked, if they’re even still here. The goal seems clear: indoctrinating people with the idea of never settling, expecting nothing, moving along, and shedding the idea that one has a say about the structures in one’s community. The linear park is the “new normal.” Enjoy the scenery, briefly, but keep moving, out of the way of progress. It is what it is, and it will crush anything in its path with a big, bright, glass and steel smile.

Guide to Chicago’s Twenty-First-Century Architecture is available  at bookstores and through the publisher’s website.

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.

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