Chicago is young, clumsy, foolish, its architectural sins are unstable, captious and fleeting; it can pull itself down and rebuild itself in a generation, if it will: it has done and can do great things when the mood is on. . . . One must indeed be incurably optimistic even momentarily to dream such a dream.
—Louis H. Sullivan, “Kindergarten Chats,” Interstate Architect & Builder, 1901
This passage from Louis Sullivan’s poignantly titled “Kindergarten Chats” offers us not only a historical lens into past mentalities towards Chicago but it also points at a very different attitude (and the lack thereof) towards urbanization today. While early Chicago clearly functioned as a catalyst towards architectural speculation, today’s role of the city is less clear. It is no longer “young” or “clumsy” or “foolish,” and with urban maturity came more than just the disappearance of these characteristics. While the city’s power to transmit ideas and its capacity to foment radical visions is legendary, the contrast between the early city that functioned as a territory for architectural speculation and today’s city could not be more stark. Therefore, remembering Chicago’s particular urban history might refocus the perspective on the city of today and help invent new modalities to engage the city of tomorrow.
The Chicago that in the early nineteenth century existed only as a frontier village with a few settlers, had materialized by 1870 as one of the largest markets, supported by the world’s most active railroad junction, and a harbor that connected the center of the US with the rest of the Western world and beyond. Also called the “lightning city,” its population in 1890 had long passed the one million mark and it sprawled over more than 180 square miles, making it the city with the largest footprint. For contemporary observers, Chicago’s development had outpaced progress and the future had seemingly arrived in the present, making this unlikely metropolis in the midwestern plains the ideal forecaster of urbanities to come and an indicator of the fate of other cities. The sociologist Max Weber, for example, came to the city in 1904 in order to see “what modern reality is like.”1 As so many others, he had been introduced to Chicago through headlines in newspapers, announcing a city that made its river “run uphill” by reversing the flow of its polluted stream; that “pulled itself out of the mud” by raising its ground plain to be above Lake Michigan; and that “questioned gravity” through the first Ferris Wheel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.2 Widely understood as the prototypical launch pad for modernity, the ur-metropolis, and a zone in which artistic and stylistic traditions were suspended, some international visitors already cautioned: “Chicago might eventually succumb to the temptation to be refined.”3
Today, this early remark from the late nineteenth century appears suddenly like a prophecy as it foresaw the risk of the city eventually yielding to the charm of having its own history, of wanting to perfect its culture, and seeking its declarative urban and architectural forms. After all, Chicago today bears little of the restlessness and ambition to imagine new urban conditions that made it one of the earliest and most vital examples of the modern metropolis. Therefore, if anything deserves to be preserved then Chicago’s openness towards challenging projects and visionary dreams, a mentality without which the city becomes trivial and architecture irrelevant.4 What is needed today is a renewed understanding of the city as laboratory, an advanced form of visionary speculation, and a different kind of architect.
To use the city as a laboratory means to utilize it as a springboard for architectural and urban conjectures, to not simply see the city as a display of urbanization but as a test-bed and catalyst for architectures and urbanisms to come. In 1911, Chicago’s commitment to use the city as a stage for experimentation went as far as pushing it to the brink of collapse. City officials locally suspended police presence and traffic regulation in an effort to test if the city could still self-regulate.5 While the answer to this question was obvious, it does highlight an understanding of the city as a speculative terrain. It points towards a place that not simply registers but simulates and, potentially, projects new kinds of conditions. Encouraged by a mentality with very little agony over failure, Chicago became a springboard for advanced urban experimentation, which for architects presented a playground with unexpected possibilities. John Wellborn Root, of the Burnham and Root office, put it most bluntly:
Our freedom begets license, it’s true. We do shocking things, we produced works of architecture . . . irredeemably bad; we try crude experiments that result in disaster. Yet somehow in this mass of ungoverned energies lies the principle of life.6
Chicago became the perfect ground for crude architectural experiments, which for Root was based in the city’s apparent lack of an urban past. For him, a negligible urban history made not only the future seem attractive and tangible (an environment that encouraged speculation) but it also created a model city that feared no past and, therefore, no failure (ideal conditions for a city laboratory). While previously a lack of history was associated with a degree of freedom that encouraged the surpassing of established norms and conventions, today’s Chicago faces the opposite. Hyper aware of its history, notions of improvement substitute experimentation, trend analysis stands in for trend setting, and visionary speculation is replaced by problem solving. But even as many agree that the city is no longer an enabler of speculation, a nostalgic view of earlier conditions is equally unproductive. In the end, an awareness of this alternative urban history should be less about missed opportunities in the recent past than about openings in today’s immediate future. To radicalize the city of today requires a renewed boldness in engagements with the city, one that not only challenges the status quo (to counter what is here) but, more importantly, extrapolates from the existing and crafts alternative futures (to accelerate from what is here).
In this context, the importance of the speculative project is clear. Yet its position and reach are challenged. After all, notions of the “visionary” are largely dismantled. Conscious of the flaws and errors of modernist dreams, academies and the profession alike have grown weary and often resort to merely documenting the city or intentionally scaling down (mapping or urban acupuncture). But to rescue the term of the “visionary” is as much a reminder of the essential workings of architecture as well as its unique position within the city. As our modes of operation—the drawings, animations, models, and scenarios—are always an act of forecasting, the ethos of architecture is intimately linked to the “visionary.” In other words, architecture by definition anticipates something that is not yet—a projective envisioning of a world to come. This is the very project of architecture.
And, Chicago’s arsenal of influential unbuilt visions argues most vividly on its own behalf. Adolf Loos’s design for the 1922 Tribune Tower competition, for example, has undeniably outpaced the constructed winning entry in its ability to influence and deflect the discourse. Here, not the building that was constructed but the project of architecture (Loos’s drawing) shook urban culture to the core and continues to perplex. It conceived alternative possibilities by staging a Doric column in an American city; simultaneously, a re-contextualization of a scaled-up artifact and an opportunistic exploration of the form-function corollary. At first, and in light of this example, the “visionary” seems to run counter to the professionalism of architecture and urbanism; after all, it refocuses the responsibility of these disciplines from “problem solving” to “vision making.” Yet today’s “visionary” would be less associated with revolutionary utopias then with alternatives for the immediate urban future and, therefore, aiming to bring these disciplines back to the fold. To define alternative positions will be an act of recasting existing realities. The new visionary is no longer in utter difference to what exists but instead takes clues and extrapolates from it.
This will require a new species of architects—one that is able to excel beyond the two primary types of the utopian dreamer and the problem solver. Coupling these two, usually considered polar opposites, formulates a new kind of spatial inventor. What emerges is the architect as visionary pragmatist, a figure of which Chicago has seen a number of early precedents through projects that escape the utopian mold. Peter Weber’s Electric Railroad Tower of 1892, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Quadruple Block of 1901, Walter Ahlschlager’s Apparel Mart of 1928, Marion Mahony Griffin’s Plan for Chicago of 1945, Andrew Rebori’s Harbour Airport of the same year, Harry Weeses’ Island in the Lake of 1952, Stanley Tigerman’s Urban Matrix of 1967, and Bertrand Goldberg’s Floating World’s Fair of 1984 are only some of the many projects that can be seen as precursors. These do not propose an otherworldly “no-place” but instead are deeply embedded in the tendencies and logistics of the existing city. To understand the contemporary city as a condition that holds potential for architectural intelligence and experimentation, points towards an architecture of the city that is no longer against urbanization, but that uses urbanization productively to get its way.7 They extrapolate from the existing in order to find in a heightened urbanity the beginnings of a new productivity. Some imagine the densification of the grid, others explore the intensification of technology, a few speculate on the augmentation of urban patterns, and several predict the growth of the city onto the water. All manifest as accelerations of tendencies and developments that are already in motion. The latter—gaining land by slowly building Chicago’s long awaited “East Side”—is in line with built projects such as the construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition on wetlands or the development and expansion into what today amassed as Grant Park. Understanding the speculative project in this trajectory sheds light on a productive legacy that the following three portfolios participate in and continue to elaborate. Releasing these historical and contemporary projects into the cultural ether should provoke a new debate on the city as laboratory and, ideally, a change in attitude, one that challenges the status quo and once again radicalizes the city—a Chicago legacy.
A portion of this text was initially presented as an introduction to the panel on “Chicagoisms: A City to Speculate?” at the Chicago Cultural Center in November 2014. For an expanded version on this topic, see my “No Failure too Great,” in Chicagoisms, eds. Eisenschmidt and Mekinda (Zürich: Scheidegger & Spiess/Park Books, 2013), 150-167.