Thursday, September 18, 2008

Join Me next Tuesday, September 23rd for Boom Towns!

Late last year, curator Greg Dreicer approached me about curating an exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. After failing to convince him, over several encounters, that this was a very bad idea, I agreed to do in less than six months what I've since learned is usually done over several years: an ambitious exhibition attempting to define the place of Chicago architects in the world today.

Well, it's Show Time! Boom Towns! Chicago Architects Design New Worlds, designed by Jason Pickleman, one of Chicago's hottest young talents, opens next Tuesday, September 23rd, with a reception at the CAF, 224 South Michigan, from 5:30 to 7:30 P.M. You're all invited, dear readers, and I'm pretty sure you'll have a good time.

I long ago lost all objectivity about this project, but I think the concept Greg and I finally arrived at was a strong one. We compare Chicago architects' signature projects - those that were clearly intended to stand out and define a certain type of building - in a series of pairings from two divergent locales and eras: the boom town of late 19th century Chicago and today's boom towns in Asia and the Middle East. In the 1890's, Chicago architects did most of their best work in their home city, and the result is one of the richest architectural legacies to be found anywhere. Today's Chicago architects must compete on a world stage, and their ambitious projects are as liable, probably more liable, to be built in Shanghai or Dubai or Hyderabad than here.

And so we have, for example, Solon Bemen's largely forgotten 1890 Grand Central Station, pictured to the left in the banner at the top of this post, paired with Murphy/Jahn's spectacular Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, shown to the right. Another coupling contrasts Daniel Burnham's plan for Manila, in America's then newly acquired territory of the Phillipines, with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's eco-plan for Chongming Island, the world's largest alluvial island, just outside of Shanghai. William LeBaron Jenney's Home Insurance building, often cited as the world's first true skyscraper, is paired with SOM's Burj Dubai, now the world's tallest building, and Ross Wimer's twisting Infinity Tower in Dubai.

Louis Sullivan's 1893 Stock Exchange Building matches up with Goettsch Partner's new stock exchange complex on Sowwah Island in Abu Dhabi. 1890's legendary Mecca Flats, on a site now occupied by Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall on the IIT campus, is contrasted with Studio/Gang's spectacular residential tower in Hyderabad, India. The company town of Pullman, on Chicago's far south side, finds its modern counterpart in a very different kind of company town, Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, where Smith+Gill Architects' hugely innovative Masdar Headquarters is a city-within-a-city that is designed to produce more energy than it consumes. And Burnham and Root's 1892 Masonic Temple, at the time of its construction the world's tallest building and including what was perhaps the world's first vertical shopping mall, is compared to Xintiandi, Ben Wood's highly influential project that uses traditional Chinese architecture to create an innovative lifestyle center that is one of the most popular attractions in Shanghai.

These are all the spectacular projects. If it turns out we sometimes fail to do them full justice, blame me, because everyone at CAF, from curator Greg Dreicer, to Mike Hollander who assembled the images (a herculean task, believe me), editor Katherine Keleman, program directors Barbara Gordon and Whitney Moeller, CAF President Lynn Osmond and the entire staff and, of course, the aforementioned Mr. Pickleman, have done an amazing job getting this exhibition into shape on an extremely tight deadline, and the participating architects have all been extremely generous with their resources and time.

I'll be writing more about this project later, including a photo-essay on Pullman as it survives today, but it's now in your hands. Join me next Tuesday evening at CAF and you get to critique my work. But, as Deborah Kerr once said, "When you talk about this in the future, and you will talk about it, please be kind. . . " It's my first time.
Boom Towns! Chicago Architects Design New Worlds opens Tuesday, September 23rd, 5:30 to 7:30 P.M., at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 South Michigan. The exhibition runs through November 21st.

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