Installation view of Chicagoisms.

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.

MVRDV’s model of a dense urban pig farm, to be housed in skyscrapers, is a rehash of their Pig City proposal from 2001, but appropriate to Chicago’s innovative spirit and historic focus on livestock. Port A+U’s massive expansion of the Chicago lakefront, undertaken to raise revenues for a city in fiscal crisis, may best exemplify the blunt, unconventional, and almost comically ambitious ideas that saved Chicago more than once. Dogma’s “After Hilberseimer” bid to reconfigure work/living balance though new planning strategies and Urban Lab’s “Great Lakes Aqueduct” both suffer from the small space for project description that the exhibition’s concise format permits. While many of the other models fall back to a Koolhaasian reliance on the grid to accommodate their play of forms, the question still lingers unresolved in the exhibition’s air: what does Chicago mean for architects and planners today?

Chicagoisms ignores many of the global parallels it could draw: Chicago’s skyscraper innovation and technical spectacle are alive and well in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Chinese and African cities are urbanizing at rates similar to what Chicago once experienced. How are they dealing with challenges that Chicago faced and how are they solving the 21st problems that Chicago has not encountered? The exhibition even admits that Chicago doesn’t have the “restless ambition to imagine urban conditions,” so why not orient its lessons to those elsewhere, who might need the imagination to match their ambition?