If you’re looking for a comprehensive history from the late 1800s until today, of how Chicago gave the world “modern living” and a built environment for it, this book is not that. Rather, this collection of essays grew out of a Second City-style anxiety. In 2009, New York was mounting an exhibition on the design school, the Bauhaus, and some in Chicago worried that the equally important modern work being carried out in the Windy City would get short shrift.
Accordingly, those Chicagoans conceived a series of exhibitions, shaped by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Mies van der Rohe Society at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT); they have followed those exhibitions with this book. Isn’t that modern: to be fueled by anxiety?
The editors put forth three premises: that Chicago is dedicated to the modern, that “the Windy City continues to drive the world,” and that the rest of the world should pay more attention. Let’s see if they prove their case.
A Venn diagram of these 300 pages shows the essays divided into research on historical figures, and contemporary creation. The important overlap occurs where today’s Chicago artists, critics, and scholars interpret the city’s legacies.
Mary Jane Jacob, right away, in the first essay, names a trinity of giants. Jacob, who is executive director of exhibitions and exhibition studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, connects social reformer Jane Addams, educator John Dewey, and artist László Moholy-Nagy. Each came here separately, as the 20th century dawned. (I write this from a the 1895 Reliance Building on State Street, the world’s first skyscraper, whose facade is comprised of large-plate glass, a harbinger of modern transparencies and reflections.)
The goals of that eminent trio, as they looked at working-class citizens and immigrants, Jacob writes, was to make the world a more just, educated, and cultured place. Each developed an experimental institution—which extended into the city—to test ideas. Jane Addams started Hull House, for social services; John Dewey incubated democracy in the Chicago Laboratory School; and Moholy-Nagy spoke of maximizing the multiple intelligences of the students at the New Bauhaus (now the Institute of Design at IIT) that he started in Chicago in 1937.
James Prinz / Jill Frank
Surprises abound. For example, around 1900 John Dewey met and was influenced by the Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, who was busy translating great Buddhist texts, in LaSalle, Illinois!
Chicago played an incontrovertible role developing modernity, even before Ludwig Mies van der Rohe set up shop here in 1938.
City leaders also courted the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, to lead an “industrial art school” and only later telegrammed Moholy that: “Marshall Field offers family mansion Prairie Avenue. Stables to be converted into workshops. Doctor Gropius suggests your name as director. Are you interested?”
Moholy tried to adapt to the U.S. capitalist system but “no immediately salable products [were] turned out by any of the workshops.”
When the boys started shipping off to World War II, and Moholy’s funders told him that the school was no longer viable, he declared it essential to the war effort and launched an “Industrial Camouflage Course with Certificate.” According to one magazine reporter, Moholy-Nagy’s methods were so sophisticated that “his team could make even the Merchandise Mart, ‘the world’s largest building,’ look like a forest from the air.”
“Just a few dabs of paint, that’s all it will take….” Moholy told the reporter. Thank goodness the Axis bombers never reached my fair city.
Kathleen James-Chakraborty, professor of art history at University College Dublin, adds important analyses to what we thought we knew of the still-continuing synergies between Chicago and Berlin.
Amy Beste, associate administrative director at the School of the Art Institute, offers a terrific revelatory essay on a little-known small design firm whose films were seen by millions. In the 1950s and 60s, these films played a key role in bringing the ethos of the European avant-garde to U.S. advertising. Have you heard of Goldsholl Design Associates, headed by Morton Goldsholl, with assistance from his wife Millie? Millie Goldsholl noted, in the 1960s, that, “In [assembling a film], the filmmaker gives wings to the parts…cleaving them from their place in space and time…releasing them into a designer’s stratosphere there to be juggled, taken, rejected, extended, clipped, super-imposed, and recomposed. A new ‘relativity’ is shaped….”
We read the singular story of Buckminster Fuller’s fruitful Chicago years; and that of Keck & Keck’s “House of Tomorrow,” called “America’s First Glass House” in a pamphlet for the 1933–34 Century of Progress Exhibition. The brother-architects followed that with the even more radical “Crystal House” of 1934. Neither structure had load-bearing walls; and as early as 1940, Keck & Keck integrated passive solar collectors into houses.
Michael J. Golec, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, writes engagingly of Hungarian émigré School of Design Instructor György Kepes and his book Language of Vision—which advocates organizing design so it will enter the eye most rapidly, easily, and accurately. Golec closes with, “Kepes proved modern worlds and modern minds are built from letterpress.”
Wonderful vintage and contemporary images pepper the book, although most have been seen elsewhere.
I suspect that the essays on contemporary Chicago-based artists will be less compelling reads to a general audience.
Altogether, we see the enormous impact Chicago had on the world, at least until the 1969 death of Mies van der Rohe, whose work is examined, although not enough.
Yes, the book kindles interest in today’s Chicago. No, the contemporary ideas do not equal the quality and importance of the work of Chicago’s early modernists. But they are a tough act to follow.
To end then, we quote Moholy-Nagy, from Chicago Makes Modern. He wrote his wife, “There’s something incomplete about this city and its people that fascinates me…It seems to urge one on to completion. Everything still seems possible.”
I look out of the Reliance Building lobby, on a pre-spring day on State Street. Out there, people of all backgrounds hurry by, bent forward against the elements that hit you in the face in this creative, modern American metropolis. Most peek only fleetingly through the glass lobby windows.
But we’re united by the tall towers above, some still rising, the new ones mostly of taut glass. And at ground level, as I travel through the city, I see an equal number of broken-glass-filled empty lots on which, here in Chicago, everything still seems possible.