If the story of 19th century America was industrialization and the birth of the modern metropolis, then the story of Chicago’s explosive growth resounds in almost every American city. In the 1830s Chicago was a meagre outpost of some 300 residents, yet by the 1870s it boomed with a population of 300,000. This city on the prairie exemplified the urban density, manufacturing power, and rail infrastructure that reworked the U.S. into an industrial power. The Chicagoisms exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, on display through January 4, 2015, attempts to recapture some of the innovation, determination, and optimism that infused its architecture and urbanism. Is there room for 19th century Chicago in the mind of the 21st century architect or planner, or the public for that matter? Or is the Chicago of Sullivan, Burnham, and Wright just for the history books?
The exhibition is unafraid to be unconventional. Its organizers, theorist Alexander Eisenschmidt, art historian Jonathan Mekinda, and designer Matt Wizinsky, asked nine contemporary architects to each produce a single model that explores a “Chicagoism” for the 21st century. The exhibition defines its five Chicagoisms as “key historical principles that have powered the city’s distinctive evolution.” These axioms take the form of catchy aphorisms such as “Optimism Trumps Planning,” “Ambition Overcomes Nature,” and “Crisis Provokes Innovation.” The architects’ resulting models, contained in plexiglass bubbles, are shown alongside historic photographic documentation of the relevant Chicagoism. The Great Fire of 1871 and subsequent rebuilding, the invention of the steel frame skyscraper, Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, and the reversal of the Chicago River are all triumphs more than 100 years old. The nine architects, looking to these examples, produced suggestions that are as diverse as they are peculiar.