MAS Context Fall Talks 2023

Tracing / Traces: Architecture and the Archive 2023

October 21, 2023 at 11:30AM

On Saturday, October 21, 2023, MAS Context organized the seventh edition of our Tracing / Traces event when readers had the chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at selected items from the Ryerson & Burnham Art and Architecture Archives located at the Art Institute of Chicago.


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From left to right: Stuart Cohen, Alberto Ortega Trejo, Jennifer Park, Catherine Baker, and Jonathan Solomon, MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

Five architects and designers selected items of the collection and discussed them in relationship to their practice, the discipline, and/or society. Nathaniel Parks, Tigerman McCurry Director of the Art Institute of Chicago Archives, provided a brief introduction to the archives.

Participants included:

Catherine Baker Nowhere Collaborative
Stuart CohenStuart Cohen and Julie Hacker Architects
Alberto Ortega Trejo Artist, Curator, and Architectural Researcher
Jennifer ParkParkFowler Plus
Jonathan SolomonPreservation Futures

The Ryerson & Burnham Art and Architecture Archives’ collections are notably strong in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century American architecture, with particular depth in midwestern architecture. Architects such as Edward Bennett, Daniel Burnham, Bruce Goff, Bertrand Goldberg, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright are represented in a broad range of papers. Major architectural events, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, The Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933–1934 in Chicago, and the World’s Fair of 1939 in New York, are also represented in an individual archive.

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Jonathan Solomon, MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

Jonathan Solomon

Thank you Iker for this special opportunity and Nathaniel and JT for your patient and expert support. As a matter of fact, my first job at the Art Institute of Chicago (in 1997, well before I became a member of the faculty here), was as an intern in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, doing intake work for Mary Woolever and her team on the Bruce Goff Archive. This involved sorting and reading a massive quantity of correspondence as well as making small pencil marks on the backs of photographs and such. It was both a professional and a personal pleasure to return to this same space in a different time.

The impetus for this trip into the archives was some work that my business partner Elizabeth Blasius and I were hired to do through our office Preservation Futures relating to the Century and Consumers Buildings. The 1915 Century Building by Holabird and Roche and the 1913 Consumers Building by Jensen Mundie & Jensen (pictured here in a photograph from the archive) are terracotta-clad steel-frame skyscrapers on the west side of State Street between Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard. The buildings have stood empty for the past seventeen years under the ownership of the General Service Administration, which acquired them through the power of eminent domain between 2005–2007 in response to unspecified security concerns from the adjacent Dirksen Federal Building following the attacks of September 11, 2001. In 2022, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin earmarked $52 million in the federal budget for the buildings’ demolition. In 2023, in response to widespread support for the buildings, they were declared a Chicago Landmark, a designation whose already scant legal protections have no jurisdiction over federally owned properties.

Currently, the fates of the Century and Consumers Buildings remain unwritten. They exist, it seems, but certainly not in the form that they did nor, we can be rather sure in the form that they will.

Exploring the Burnham archives in search of materials related to the history of the Century and Consumers Buildings, I found very little. This material is kept elsewhere apparently. But as often happens in archives, libraries, and other buildings that make it their business to collect and hold on to bits and pieces of the past, you go in looking for one thing and you come out having found something else.

What I found were photographs of the Chicago block bounded by Dearborn Street, Jackson Boulevard, Clark Street, and Adams Street during or around the year 1965.

For a brief period of time in the 1960s, both the Chicago Federal Building that Henry Ives Cobb designed in 1905 and the Dirksen Federal Building, designed by Mies Van Rohe and built posthumously as part of the Federal Center complex, stood across from one another on Dearborn Street, neither in a state of completion. By 1970, the Federal Building was demolished and in 1974, the Mies-designed Kluczynski Federal Building and Loop Station Post Office were completed.

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Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

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Perspective view of dome under construction, Chicago, 1902. Historic Architecture and Landscape Image Collection, c.1865-1973 (bulk 1890-1945). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

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Northwest view of the Federal Building, Chicago, 1905–1916. Historic Architecture and Landscape Image Collection, c.1865-1973 (bulk 1890-1945). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

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View from the southwest across the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks; Board of Trade (far left); Grand Central Station tower (far left center; demolished); Federal Building dome (left center; demolished); building under construction (right center); 301 W. Taylor St. Steam Plant (far right), Chicago, c. 1965. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

If this was a potent moment in Chicago’s postwar transformations, it was also the moment that architectural preservation, as a profession, was being born.

While preservation with a small p, we might say, is an ancient and ongoing human practice from fermenting foods, to telling and retelling stories, to building and repairing tools, shelters, and more, Big-P Preservation, Architectural Preservation as a profession that is practiced today in the United States, is relatively new. Its origins are in a series of laws passed in the 1960s, such as the National Historic Preservation Act, or NHPA, of 1966.

Among the criteria that NHPA refers to as “integrity”—how “original” is the building’s exterior and interior. If a building has low integrity, it cannot be considered historic. Integrity to what? NHPA requires preservationists to determine a “Period of Significance” that the property has integrity to.

In order to be listed or funded, a historic structure must be defined as significant within a certain period. When it is restored, it is restored to that period. Altogether, this encourages narrow, individuated, and elitist histories and discourages the telling of multiple, intersectional, and vernacular histories. It privileges resolved ends and linear development over overlapping and even contradicting stories. It perpetuates a fiction of the whole—complete and persistent—building over its constituent pieces.

We tend to think of buildings as being there or not, built or demolished, “saved” or “lost.” In fact, buildings are in constant states of movement and change. Construction and demolition are only points on a continuity that includes design, use, damage, repair, augmentation, adaptation, change, research, restoration, fragmentation, redistribution, reuse, spoliation, and memory.

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Stuart Cohen, MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

Stuart Cohen

Today I have chosen two sets of related selections from the archives and from the Art Institute’s collection. One set related to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and one related to the working process of one of Chicago’s early twentieth-century residential architects.

For my first selection, I want to look at a remarkable sketch by John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham’s partner and the architect of the Monadnock building. The sketch was made the year before Root died and it is for a building for the World’s Fair. I want to compare it to Henry Ives Cobb’s Fisheries Building, which was one of the most popular buildings at the Fair.

In February of 1890, the US House of Representatives passed the bill awarding the World’s Columbian Exposition to the city of Chicago. In 1889, a year before his appointment as a consultant, Burnham was already advising the committee on grounds and buildings and Root was preparing sketches for three possible Chicago sites. In August of 1890, Olmstead visited six possible sites for the fair. At the end of that month he was officially appointed consulting landscape architect and Root was appointed consulting architect for the fair. Root’s sketches included a great water basin surrounded by exhibition halls, perhaps his most significant contribution to the fair. On September 3, 1890, Burnham & Root were officially elected consulting architects and Burnham was made chief of Construction. Root, who had begun making sketches for the fair building, died of pneumonia during the winter of 1891 at the age of forty-one. The sketches he left indicate a very different direction for the fair buildings and we need to ask if Root’s fair would have been an exuberant collection of Romanesque building similar to his sketch for a building bridging a canal done in 1890. A drawing which is in the Art Institute’s collection.

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Sketch by John Wellborn Root of building spanning water canal for World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, c.1890. Department of Architecture and Design (1988.241.1). Courtesy, The Art Institute of Chicago.

With Root’s death Burnham turned to his friend Charles McKim of McKim Mead & White for design leadership. McKim along with the other participating architects from around the country determined that all the buildings around the Court of Honor should be Classical Beaux Arts buildings. This was the architectural direction that would characterize the fair. The only fair building in the manor of Root’s sketch was Henry Ives Cobb’s Fisheries Building.

Cobb is remembered today as the architect of the original buildings at the University of Chicago. At the time of the World’s Fair his uncle John Chandler, a congressman from Boston, was chairman of the World’s Fair committee. In January of 1891 Cobb was appointed to the board of architects for the fair and received the commission for the Fisheries building It was one of the fair’s major exhibition buildings. The fisheries building was also one of the most popular exhibits at the fair. It was dedicated to displaying aquatic life and to the sport and commerce of fishing.

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World’s Columbian Exposition, Fisheries Building, Jackson Park, Chicago, 1892. World’s Columbian Exposition Photographs by C. D. Arnold, 1891–1894. Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

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World’s Columbian Exposition, Fisheries Building, Jackson Park, Chicago, 1893. Historic Architecture and Landscape Image Collection, c. 1865–1973 (bulk 1890–1945). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Joined to the central hall by a curving arcade the “Angling Pavilion” displayed fishing equipment, rods, reals, and tackle. The Eastern Pavilion contained huge aquarium tanks surrounded by a curving arcade. The tanks displayed what was described as an unprecedented diversity of aquatic life. The tanks were top-lit by skylights and the water level was above the heads of the visitors who moved around the perimeter. Sadly, the archives collection only has exterior photos. An interior photo showing the aquarium tanks and the arcade surrounding them appeared in Harper’s Weekly on September 9, 1893. Surrounding the tanks and the exhibition spaces, the columns supporting the ranges of Romanesque arches were decorated with shells, starfish, sea horses, crabs, lobsters, lizards, and octopi.

The Book of the Fair announced that the building “has proved a delight and is studied by thousands who have never been within sight of the ocean.” The noted architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler wrote that the Fisheries Building “represented the most elaborate and successful application ever made of marine motives in architectural decoration.“

The building’s joyful exuberance fulfills John Root’s otherwise unrealized vision for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Given the decision to make the central buildings of the fair classical and their impact on the “City Beautiful” movement and the subsequent design of Civic buildings across the country, we can only wonder what might have been had Root lived to have a real design impact on the fair.

For my next selections I want to look at sketchbooks by Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw.

Today large numbers of people have personal communication devices which incorporate the ability to take photographs and video. Prior to the appearance in the 1920s of small handheld camera that used 35 mm film, the way people recorded what they saw and wanted to remember was by making drawings. Not only was the natural world observed and recorded in drawings, but scientists, engineers, and architects noted down their ideas as drawings in sketchbooks. Extraordinary examples have survived. The sketch books of Leonardo da Vinci come to mind, and among my favorites are the beautifully drawn observations sketches made by Charles Darwin. While Darwin is not remembered today for his ability to draw, he lived at a time when most well educated people were taught to draw.

At a time when drawing is disappearing as a primary skill set for architects, I want to look at the sketch books kept by a celebrated early twentieth-century Chicago residential architect, Howard Van Doren Shaw. I’ve selected several of Shaw’s sketch books from the archives collection and I want to contrast them with travel sketches made by Shaw’s older contemporary Stanford White. Since our collection doesn’t own any of White’s drawings, I want to use a volume of sketches published by White’s son Lawrence which is in the library’s collection.

If we look at the plates in the Stanford White publication, they range from very quick impressionistic sketches to quickly drawn but carefully rendered images. They reveal White’s early love of picturesque buildings and townscapes. They also suggest that White probably carried with him a good-sized pad or bound sketch book when he traveled. From these sketches we also get an idea of what kind of buildings informed his design decisions.

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Sketchbooks by Howard Van Doren Shaw. Howard van Doren Shaw (1869-1926) Collection, 1875-2019. MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

For those who don’t know who Shaw was, he was the architect of Lake Forest’s Market Square. He was Chicago’s best-known residential architect in his day, better known than Frank Lloyd Wright. Shaw was an AIA Gold medal winner, a national award conferred on the most respected members of the architectural profession. He was also a trustee of the Art Institute and when Daniel Burnham gave the Art Institute a gift of $50,000 to buy books for its new library, it was Shaw who was entrusted to make the selections that formed the basis of one of the world greatest art and architecture libraries.

Shaw’s sketchbooks were often as small as a smartphone, they fit in Shaw’s pocket and went everywhere with him- on his European travels as well as to local construction sites. Shaw went to Europe in 1900, 1908, 1913, 1920, and 1924. He drew both construction and decorative details of buildings that impressed him. He also drew floor plans of buildings he visited, often with dimensions, notes and centerlines indicating the plan’s spatial organization. When he drew a building’s exteriors, they were rarely picturesque or rendered representations like those by Stanford White. He drew frontal elevations to record the composition of a façade. His later sketch books sometimes had photos clipped from magazines, mostly interior views of spaces that interested him. This is how we know what contemporary work he admired. These little sketchbooks were also places he recorded his thoughts about ongoing commissions when he was not at his drawing table.

After his death, his family donated these sketchbooks to the Art Institute providing us with an insights into the work of this talented architect. All of Shaw sketches were microfilmed years ago. In 2015, when I wrote Inventing the New American House: Howard Van Doren Shaw, Architect published by Monacelli, I spent many delightful hours paging through what was an index to Shaw’s creative mind.

Thank you. It has been a pleasure to share these objects, my interest in them, and my reasons for selecting them.

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Alberto Ortega Trejo, MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

Alberto Ortega Trejo

It is a pleasure to be here with two former teachers, now colleagues, Jonathan and Iker. I chose to show probably one of the most photographed houses in architectural modernity, the Edith Farnsworth House, specifically because I currently have a project there. I curated an exhibition titled The Last of Animal Builders. Because of that, Mies van der Rohe is kind of relevant to my work. While this house was getting built, something else was happening, something that gave birth to my exhibition at the Edith Farnsworth House.

Between 1948 and 1952, almost during the same timeline of the construction of the Edith Farnsworth House, Chicago based architectural critic and historian Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, the second wife of László Moholy-Nagy, traveled to the Americas in order to visit indigenous settlement across the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. These travels were a way to write a critique on modern architecture. Specifically, they were a research trip to find a response to her feeling of alienation towards the real estate boom that the Bauhaus legacy was enabling in American cities, but also because she was always in the shadow of the men of the Bauhaus. She was an architectural historian that only started her career once László and her father Martin Pietzsch, both architects, died.

One of the things that got me interested in these travels is that she visited my hometown in the center of Mexico (the Mezquital Valley region), a site that through close examination, I realized was crucial to her work. During those trips she started to develop her critique on modern architecture by labeling it inhuman, in stark contrast to what she understood as the inherent closeness to nature that native buildings have. However, something that she didn’t understand, or that she completely set aside, is that most of the regions that she visited, documented, and romanticized as examples of human building ingenuity, were either mining towns or former slavery settlements. She was not realizing the totality of the political economy producing the spaces she was engaging with. Seeing the poverty of industrial exploitation sites as sites where people communed with nature in a better way.

That idea, that somehow there is an innate talent for building in humans, led her to believe that there was some sort of evolutionary justification for modernity. After the book of these travels, titled Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture, she wrote another book which is her most relevant work, Matrix of Man, a book where she basically makes a claim that architecture is the artificial matrix in which humans refine their biological development.

After her trips, she also started another book, one that she never finished and she never published, that was tentatively titled PRAGMA, which was a similar reading on architecture through evolutionary biology, but now focusing on structures and shells instead of the form of cities as she did with Matrix of Man. In this manuscript at the beginning of a really peculiar chapter titled “Defenseless Breeders” (us, humans who reproduce and need to produce architecture as a shell to survive), she describes the main difference and connection between animal structures and human structures. She says something like this, “In animal structures, structure and space are one. Structure is not the means to span a functional void, but structure is the functional void.” Spiderwebs, nests, beehives. A secondary factor is that there are no alternatives to this structural solution. (She is basically describing the open plan of modern architecture.) Therefore, this makes Mies van der Rohe and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill the last of animal builders.

She sees a startling continuity between the biological evolution of humanity in close relation to the technological developments of the time, and willingly or unwillingly, claiming modernity as a logical stage of evolution.

When I was invited to curate the show at the Edith Farnsworth House, and I tried to make a project that used these questions as a source of reflection on that particular sentiment. What if Mies was actually one of the last of animal builders? What does that mean? With the projects that are currently part of the exhibition, by means of different types of interventions by artists and designers, we try to address the complicated threshold that we as humans, as architects, define in order to create sovereignty for our species.

One of the main works that articulate this exhibition is a work by Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz. At some point you might have seen one of his projects from the series called paraSITE, which is a shelter originally designed to shelter people without a home, by extracting hot air from buildings, going into inflatable shelters. But the critical question for me, and why I am including that strange organism at structural core of the Edith Farnsworth House is because, by trying to address a political relationship in the built environment, by using the metaphor of a parasitical relation, the critique poised by the artist still naturalizes a state of precarity. This dilemma is what the exhibition tries to reflect on. Where the human and the animal blends, when they become one thing or the other.

The Edith Farnsworth House is a historic place. Touching it is really hard. You cannot intervene with anything. Everything is kind of suspended in the house, so, I am quite proud on having been able to connect the paraSITE on to it. Now, other things that I am showing here today are photographs of the original site before the house was inserted. Then, something that I think is quite fun to look at is that in 1948, three years before the house was completed, there was already a flooding. The house was just a structure, it was just a skeleton. As you might know, the house is constantly threatened by flooding, so they already knew, even then, that something was kind of wrong.

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Edith Farnsworth House model (top) and site before house (bottom). Edward A. Duckett (b.1920) Collection, 1931-1978. MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © Iker Gil.

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Edith Farnsworth House flooded under construction (top). Edward A. Duckett (b.1920) Collection, 1931-1978.; Bougainvillea (bottom). Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) Collection, 1907-2018. MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

Another thing that I selected today is this bougainvillea that was sent to him by the director of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in India. This pressed flower that Mies received is just an excuse to talk about his botanical obsession. The origin of the design and the grid of Mies can be traced to botanical experiments. He was obsessed with an Austro-Hungarian botanist called Raoul Francé, who conducted experiments on plants and other kinds of microorganisms in order to try to understand how organisms seek and achieve what he labeled as an optimum state, an ultimate structural solution. Fun, right? One of the most annotated items in Mies van der Rohe’s personal library were the books of Raoul Francé (mentioned to me by Spyros Papapetros, who had the privilege of study van der Rohe’s personal library). Mies obsession with and the influence Francé’s work in his thinking was such even to the point that when he was thinking and selling the design of the Barcelona Chair, he described it as being in tangent with the structure of plant growth.

The botanical experiments conducted by Francé were quite simple: encase plants, foliage, and microbial organisms in metal grids with light restriction, encased in black boxes with perforations where he would constantly move the light entry into the box to see the kinds of odd shapes that the plants would try to make of themselves in order for the organism’s shape to adapt to those tiny structures. In some sense, the architecture of Mies van der Rohe is the same idea of trying, by the means of restriction, by the means of the grid, a reticular restriction, the human would also be able achieve an optimum form. And to me, it is in this realm of experimentation and criticism, where we can reflect on the dilemma on how humanity can be defined and transformed by architecture.

I am bringing images that you might have seen, but I wanted to tell you a story that maybe you haven’t heard, a slightly different way to look at Mies van der Rohe’s architecture through the eyes of another illustrious Chicagoan like Sibyl Moholy-Nagy.

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Catherine Baker, MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

Catherine Baker

Being unfamiliar with the archives I started a somewhat random search online. My professional interests and experience center around housing and planning. Prior to founding Nowhere Collaborative, I worked and was a partner at Landon Bone Baker Architects, a Chicago architecture firm focused on affordable housing. So, when I came across this document, The Slum... Is Rehabilitation Possible?, I was floored because I had never seen this before—even after having worked on the redesign of several public housing projects including the Robert Taylor Homes.

If you live or work in Chicago, you have probably heard the term “slum clearance” as an impetus for the removal of existing buildings and the development of modern public housing. I was aware of this term and policy, but I had never seen an original document that justified this policy. As I reviewed the document, I was amazed at how earnestly and thoroughly the architects approached the study. As an architect who has a master’s degree in the social sciences, it was of particular interest to me that, in addition to the architects on the team, a sociologist developed and administered the questionnaires.

The study was commissioned by the Chicago Housing Authority and focused on a neighborhood between 35th Street and 37th Street, from Vernon Avenue to Rhodes Avenue. The researchers reviewed various neighborhoods and apparently selected this location because it ideally defined a “slum,” meaning it contained enough dilapidated houses and not too many vacant lots.

70% of the houses in the study area were stone or brick. These weren’t cheaply made shacks of wood construction. The buildings were originally single-family houses and townhouses that had been converted to multi-family units. The density was extreme—two and a half times the original density. The study—with detailed charts, diagrams, and photos—found that lack of maintenance contributed to the decline of the building stock and a lack of sunlight due to the townhouse configuration created unhealthy living conditions. The questionnaires also documented that every person surveyed was African American except for one woman.

In hindsight, we understand that much of these “slum” conditions were caused by redlining and racist land use policies. But this study did not address policies or causes, only existing conditions.

The ultimate conclusion of the study was that, yes, you could rehabilitate these buildings (the architects even provided examples of new unit plans), but that it wasn’t financially feasible for individual private owners to rehabilitate the buildings at current market loan rates. Since government institutions could access lower financing rates, the government could replace the housing with new construction and offer more rental units at a lower leasing rate. We see that this study—used to justify and promote public housing—was based on an unequal financing model. We also start to see how generational wealth is being destroyed in this neighborhood by promoting public housing over private African American ownership.

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The Slum... Is Rehabilitation Possible?, Chicago, 1946. Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer Papers, c.1885–1995 (bulk 1938–1967). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

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The Slum... Is Rehabilitation Possible?, Chicago, 1946. Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer Papers, c.1885–1995 (bulk 1938–1967). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

An exciting aspect about researching an archive or being in a library is seeing what is on the shelf next to your item. Cataloged adjacent to this study was this letter dated 1949 from Faith Rich, the Chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Housing Committee. The letter is addressed to Ludwig Hilberseimer, an architect, professor at IIT, and member of the South Side Planning Board, and it clearly recognizes that implementation of the CHA study will destroy the neighborhood. The NAACP asks Hilberseimer to join them as they desire to create a new plan for the neighborhood. Unfortunately, my research and the trail for a new plan ends with this letter. Hilberseimer is known for Chicago plans that were kind of abstract, and pretty modern. But I don’t know what happened. Where are the plans? What happened?

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Letter from NAACP President - Chicago Branch and NAACP Chairman - Housing Committee to Ludwig Hilberseimer. Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer Papers, c.1885–1995 (bulk 1938–1967). MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © Iker Gil.

I am not a historian, and I probably work backwards sometimes. So instead of diving deeper into the archive to find a possible missing link, I went forward to see what actually happened on the site. Yes, the housing was torn down per the CHA plan and if you go to the site now, you will see modern high-rises and townhouses designed by John Moutossamy, a prominent Black Chicago architect who also designed the Johnson Publishing Company headquarters. The buildings are now Section 8 rental units and in 2021 these buildings were cited for maintenance issues.

Development and land use in Chicago is often a story with many layers. This compartmentalized study of existing physical housing conditions, without a corresponding review of current policies, may have led to a citywide justification for “slum clearance.” But at the same time, this also allowed for new housing to be designed by a Black architect. It’s complicated as they say.

I am grateful for this opportunity to explore the archives. Hopefully this experience will encourage me and others to ask more questions about what our goals and obligations are as architects as we study and design for communities.

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Jennifer Park, MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

Jennifer Park

I do love being in an archive. The task was to find items that are personally connected to me, so it was an opportunity to think about what is happening now and what is happening now in our city, Chicago.

About a year ago, one of my mentors and business partner, Brad Lynch, passed away. In the following year, there was tons of reflection for me. We were thinking about transitioning the practice and there was a lot of thinking about what to keep and what not to keep. We were thinking about the values we were going to retain and what we were going to start afresh on. We had our own archive in the basement, if you want to call it an archive, which we had to deal with as well.

At the time, we were probably all asking similar questions post-COVID, “What do we keep? What do we not keep? Do I want to work here? Do I want to work in the office?” I think that has transitioned into evaluating our cities, especially in downtown areas. There are a lot of conversations right now about the transformation of the Loop and Lasalle Street. But we are also questioning housing and initiatives such as INVEST South/West from the City of Chicago. Looking at these archives and looking at the past is a great way to learn lessons.

I started with this illustration of Chicago from 1933. I think it is interesting because the person who was creating the map was able to put on one side historical elements of the growth of Chicago, or from their point of view what was special, and then also pick out special points of interest in Chicago at the time. Besides the beautiful articulation of all the imagery, what is curious is that on both sides, on the historic side and on the points of interest side, there is a depiction of LaSalle Street. I think it is a marker to say that there was a desire to define Chicago at the beginning of the nineteenth century as a place of commerce. It is the center point in the Midwest, where all the railway lines came in, and we were going to define ourselves that way. You can see the cathedrals of commerce and the depictions of the buildings that had gone up around the Chicago River using gothic style. This illustration is establishing our understanding of the city as a significant player in commerce.

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“Map of Chicago for the Year 1933.” Portraying some of its history and indicating the approximate location of points of historical interest: also a few of the present day institutions and civic improvements, 1932. McNally and Quinn Records, 1880–1977 (bulk 1925–1965). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

LaSalle Street is that definition. Lasalle Street is known for the banks. In fact, as I was looking very particularly at LaSalle Street, those buildings are still there. They might not be banks anymore, but those large buildings are all still there. The idea of commerce has been embedded in those buildings. We are now at the point when we are starting to question some of that perception. Some of the buildings have been demolished; one in particular, the Chicago Stock Exchange, was demolished in the 1970s and it created quite an uproar. It had a life of only 78 years, and it was designed by Adler and Sullivan. Above the stock exchange floor, it had commercial office spaces. These images are from the Richard Nickel Collection, and one significant side point is that Richard Nickel died while photographing this demolition. There were so many beautiful images to select from. I was drawn to the ones that people were in. There is one of the protests against its demolition, and I also selected other featuring details of the demolition, as well as this one, which is from the first day that they opened the stock exchange.

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Chicago Stock Exchange Building, Trading room, 2nd floor, c. 1894. Building demolished 1971-1972. Richard Nickel. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

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Close-up of protesters on the sidewalk in front of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building entrance archway. 30 N. LaSalle St. at SW corner of N. LaSalle St. and W. Washington St. Richard Nickel, 1971. Building demolished 1971-1972. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

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Chicago Stock Exchange Building, Demolition view. 30 N. LaSalle St. at SW corner of N. LaSalle St. and W. Washington St. Building demolished 1971-1972. Richard Nickel. Richard Nickel Archive, 1850-2011 (bulk 1945-1972). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

What I would say about this was: one, there is a question of preservation and what determined the demolition. There has been some preservation of the building. There is the preserved arch that we are probably all familiar with, that is installed outside the Art Institute as well as the trading floor, that was rebuilt by John Vinci. It is my understanding that they were only going to preserve parts of the exterior, but John Vinci convinced them that their trading floor was as significant as well and the trading floor is also recreated within the Art Institute. What replaced the original building was criticized by people too as it was a much more mundane office building, but of course it had its modern amenities and it had more usable space. Ultimately, it came down to the viability of the financial model.

I would hope that we are at a point where we are thinking about that a little bit differently. I think preservation for us now is not just adaptive reuse but the sustainability of it. This idea of changing the program of our buildings in the Loop links back to the idea of the image of the Loop and the image of commerce. To me, that was an interesting tangent that I think shows that perhaps we in a critical point to be open to other questions, broader questions, that might just move past from thinking of the financial model of the Loop.

This begins another conversation of how to make the change happen, how do we get beyond the conversation and move policy, change our neo-liberalist mindset embedded in the planning of our central business district or in our Loop. How are we going to go back to post-COVID life? Nobody is going back into the offices in any significant manner right now. There is a lot of vacancy and available office space. I found this article called, “Decentralization, what are they doing to our city?,” a pamphlet by the Urban Land Institute published around 1942. There were several interesting points. They list sixteen causes for why people are leaving the central business district. It is not just focused on Chicago; they sourced information from 221 other cities. I’ll just share with you some because I think some of them are relevant to our current situation.

They were worried about vacancy too; they were saying that “skyscrapers have not and do not pay. A fifth of their space is vacant.” People were seeking cheaper spaces and moving to outlying areas. They were worried of blight. You will see that the word appears multiple times in this document and another pamphlet that Catherine and I both selected, The Slums. I think we have become savvier about our choice of words these days. They said, “High buildings are believed by many to be the cause of blight. Excessively high land values are cited as a cause of blight in central districts as well.” Another thing they said was that zoning was bad, or that the zoning in central business district was bad, and by “bad” there was some talk that the zoning was uncontrolled. Anything or everything was acceptable, so no one was in control; therefore, there were too many multiple dwelling units and not enough for businesses. There were also mentioning that codes were old-fashioned; they were too restrictive. “They were really created from racketeering and collusion.” And of course, it also says they were an important cause of blight. There was danger in the streets, and I’m sure that led to blight. They also said that “neighborhood life was being destroyed in the big city.” Apparently, “families do not really ‘live’ in the cities.” Families ceased to feel at home and would prefer to be part of a community group of normal and natural human scale.

My favorite is number 15, where they describe the central business district as being “a jumble of indescribably bad architecture. They lack control, they lack harmony, and instead, are a nightmare of ugliness and drabness.” Apparently, the urban dwellers who were becoming middle-aged have some aesthetic training and therefore are very sensitive to the ugliness and drab. I think it is interesting thing to ponder as we are rethinking the value of the Loop ourselves.

Some of the questions that we are thinking about in terms of revitalizing the Loop are leading to ideas for adding more dwellings. Because the Loop is so homogeneous, we are now realizing that it is not sustainable or livable. That led me to think about housing and livability. The conversation around the 1940s and 1950s was a lot about urban renewal and the housing crisis. Catherine already talked about what we found out in the Slums document, so I won’t go into that in more detail. That document was an analysis of some of the dilapidated areas that preceded the Federal Housing Act of 1949, in which the federal government was offering subsidies to cities to help the housing crisis and how we were going to renew our cities. Chicago was one of the first cities to take advantage of the aid. Subsequent to that, the City of Chicago put out this blue book called Chicago Can Build. The way I read that was that it was like Chicago’s manifesto to the city of what we were going to do. A lot of it is pretty harsh. Like Catherine said, it was about declaring areas as slums. Again, a very particular terminology: a lot of slums, a lot of ghettos, and areas of blight. Ultimately, these two documents are talking about the financial benefit and the beautification of our cities.

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Decentralization. What Is It Doing to Our Cities?, Chicago, 1942. Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer Papers, c.1885–1995 (bulk 1938–1967). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

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Chicago Can Build, Chicago. Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer Papers, c.1885–1995 (bulk 1938–1967). Courtesy of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

While that sounds fine, it is also very superficial. I think that we have become a little bit more well-rounded, or we have opened our eyes about what really makes cities and communities sustainable and livable. We have realized that we need to get out of just the financial gains from things, and just this idea that “any building will do. It is better than the old one.” Right now, we are having conversations about the 15-minute city, which is about access; everybody needs to have equitable access to all the services. Being able to make it better for not just a small portion of people, but a diverse portion. That is everything from single people, to families, to people with diverse backgrounds. These are all very important, and I guess it does show that we have really opened up the conversation. Being able to define ourselves as being more than numbers and more than ideas of blight.

My summary is that we have not solved the housing crisis. We are still in a very difficult position in our city these days. We have amplified our crisis by our current migrant crisis as well, so we are at a critical point. They were at a critical point in the 1940s and 1950s; we are at a critical point now. They did make a lot of change. There were a lot of housing initiatives, which led a lot of high-rise development, and it led to a different financial model for affordability. Now, we have to think about the same thing. I hope that we are not just following the path of clearing away areas in order to build. I hope that we are more sensitive to the individual, human approach, and not just the financial approach. We should be thinking about what we can do in a very different way, not just effectively reusing buildings for residential use. That is part of it, but I also think we need to change the image of what that downtown is altogether. We need to redefine the uses, the culture, and the values that we have, and that might require some inventive preservation, it also might require some very selective demolition, and I think it also will require a lot of smart buildings.

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MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

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MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

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MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

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MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

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MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.

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MAS Context Tracing / Traces, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2023. © David Schalliol.


Thank you very much to Nathaniel Parks, JT de la Torre, Dave Hofer, and Jessica Smith from the Art Institute of Chicago for their support ahead of and during this event.