If the stories in this newspaper are at all an indication of what is happening in Midwest architecture (I certainly hope they are) than this year is looking to be transformative for firms of all sizes. As the economy recovers, cranes continue to rise above the skylines, and architects are beginning to see the fruits of their labor in physical form for what feels like the first time in a long time. As many offices, and cities for that matter, move out of the survival mode the recession enforced, they are able to not just build, but to explore what else they can do with architecture.
The most apparent sign of the changing building climate always seems to be towers. As nervous economists count cranes to try and predict economic turns, city officials laud the development as the much-needed growth that has been stunted for three-quarters of a decade. In Milwaukee, a cluster of towers and new civic spaces are changing the way the city looks and works. It is undeniable that downtown Milwaukee needs a shot in the arm, and those that are able and interested are betting on these new developments to do just that.
Yet for Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, a new project coming together in the Chicago suburbs is bucking the perception that it is just a supertall building practice. The project is a church that maintains many of the signature forms and curves of an AS+GG building—there is little doubt that it will make visitors look up, but for very different reasons than usual.
Other, smaller firms are looking to teach some old buildings new tricks. JGMA and bKL are updating one of Chicago’s oldest housing projects. This plan is in stark contrast to the usual wrecking ball fate of most public housing in the city. Kansas City–based el dorado, on the other hand, saved a centuries-old structure with a new art space in a decidedly unexpected location. On a larger scale, Wheeler Kearns is breaking new ground converting a food plant in to an urban art space and museum.
From an academic perspective, 50 Chicago firms are taking a speculative look across the entire city for an upcoming exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Alternative practice BairBalliet is taking a similar look at Detroit as part of the upcoming Venice Biennale. Among those projects, the Vernacular Building Forums and accompanying book, Out of the Loop: Vernacular Architecture Forum Chicago, as well as a new survey of the oft-forgotten 20th century architect Benjamin Marshall, it is clear that our understanding of the city is continuing to evolve.
I would be remiss though if I didn’t mention the passing of Dame Zaha Hadid. With both of her finished U.S. projects being in the Midwest—the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Arts in Cincinnati and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in East Lansing, Michigan—she too was interested in exploring what architecture could be in the Midwest. On her last visit to Chicago five months ago, she spoke about her hope to build in the Midwest again, if only for the light, which she found so beautiful.
We don’t live in the same world we did before 2008, and it would seem that both architects and clients are realizing what this means for our field. No longer bound to taking every opportunity just to survive, practices are looking at diverse opportunities as the basis for practice. And though it is still difficult to predict what the next year will bring, I think it is fair to say that we can count on seeing interesting new projects in some unexpected places.