Tough times may have the unintended advantage of bolstering architectural ideas and expanding its discourse. That, at least, is what Visionary Chicago, an exhibition at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture, is aiming for. While the show is probably close to impenetrable for the casual visitor, those with a background in design are likely to find it stimulating and provocative.
UIC professor Alexander Eisenschmidt conceived the show to showcase work by students in his history and theory graduate course, “Architectural Visions of the City.” While the class covered visionary urban projects on a global scale, for this show Eisenschmidt had the students focus on Chicago. They identified nearly a hundred unexecuted projects dating from the 1871 Chicago fire to the present, and from them chose 22 to analyze in depth, placing them in a contemporary context.
Several of the selected designs would be familiar to anyone with a solid background in Chicago architectural history: Daniel Burnham’s 1908 Plan of Chicago, Adolph Loos’ entry in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition of 1922. But it’s fascinating to see more obscure examples such as Marion Mahony Griffin’s 1945 Plan of Chicago, her entry in the Chicago Herald-American’s “A Better Chicago” competition, and Hans Hollein’s 1959 Skyscraper of the Future.
Exploring and extrapolating the visions posed a considerable challenge: while some of the original projects were relatively well developed when proposed, with plans and other schematics, others—Loos’ column, for example—exist only as a single iconic image.
Although conceptually astute, the material in the show is hard to digest, in no small part because it’s installed in a non-rectilinear circulation corridor in Walter Netsch’s architecture school.
Along one wall is a long illustrated timeline of important events in world and Chicago architecture, which incorporates a sophisticated super-graphic treatment indicating where the 22 visionary projects in the show fall along the greater chronology. On the opposite wall are the individual project boards, narrow and very tall, rising probably 12 feet above the viewer’s head. Mounted on a canted surface (the underside of a suspended staircase) is a map of the city that plots the locations of the 22 projects. All in all, there’s a lot of fine detail, though much of it is difficult to see.
Eisenschmidt says he intends the work in the show as a starting point for further investigation. “It is the beginning of a research project to collect, record, compare, analyze and extrapolate these architectural dreams,” he said. So while the real estate development sector continues to languish, there’s no reason the architecture profession has to atrophy alongside it.