Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chicago: City of Light? Mayor Rahm Sees Luminous Future for his Town's Architecture

Image: City of Chicago
Mayor Rahm Emanuel says Chicago needs another 9 million people - at least if they go back home after they give us their money.  Yesterday he gave a speech on the importance of tourism to the city and its economy, and touted the boost in visitors from 40 million when he took office to 46 million a year today.  Now he wants to pump it to 55 million by 2020, projecting it will translate into 30,000 new jobs.

Efforts begin with stretching this year's Chinese New Year celebrations from January 31 through February 14 and from Chinatown and the Loop to throughout the city.   The expectation is that once word gets around, large numbers of citizens on the Chinese mainland will be rushing to the nearest airport - if they can find it in the smog - to get the next flight to Chicago to see those amazing New Year's festivities they've heard so much about.  As one legendary Chicago performer would say, “It could happen!”
Image: City of Chicago
The second part of Rahm's initiative kicks in later this month with the launching of “an international competition to light the city at night.  The competition will seek entries from artists, architects, planners and designers from around the world.  It will begin with the river and extend throughout the city and activate Chicago at night, allowing tourists more opportunities to enjoy the city and presenting another reason for people to visit Chicago."
I love competitions as much as the next guy, but I can't help wondering why Emanuel doesn't just pick up the phone and call in Chicago's extraordinary lighting designers.  It's not like our city is somehow bereft of striking architectural lighting.  Somewhere along the way, Rahm must have noticed the way the floodlit Wrigley Building has anchored Michigan Avenue for the better part of a century, or how the tops of such landmarks as the Hancock Center, 900 North Michigan, the Wrigley clock tower and now even the Hotel Intercontinental shine with nocturnal color that actually changes in hue throughout the year.
Images courtesy David Davies Design Studio
There's no shortage of local talent.  Perhaps the most spectacular lighting transformation of any Chicago building was John David Mooney's transformation of Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building - with David Davies as production manager - deploying 5,000 floodlights to make each of 7,200 windows an individual pixel in an enormous dynamic canvas of geometric color.  Chicago theatrical lighting design firm Schuler Shook has also had a hand in creating striking exterior illumination, including that for the original Chicago Water Tower.  Architect Helmut Jahn has worked with lighting designer Yann KersalĂ© to create color-shifting illuminations for his Deutsche Post building in Germany.

Rather than private buildings, however, Rahm seems to be placing an emphasis on lighting public infrastructure, which falls within the sweet spot of another Chicago designer, Tracey Dear, who rescued the grubby decrepitude of the pavilion designed by Zaha Hadid for the Burnham Plan Centennial with beautiful nighttime lighting.
Dear's debut project was actually a colorful illumination of 11 bridges across over a mile of the Chicago river. Imagine the procession of those lit bridges showing up in one of those aerial shots that have become the hallmark of Sunday/Monday night football broadcasts.
Luftwerk, Luminous Field, at Cloud Gate
Then there's Luftwerk, whose show SHIFT just closed at the Cultural Center,  and whose 2012 installation Luminous Field, transformed Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park in mesmerizing patterns of color.

In yesterday's press release, Emanuel united his two initiatives under “the Elevated Chicago” banner, and his use of the world “Elevated” leads me to something I've been proposing - to absolute silence - for years.  Wabash Avenue has traditionally been considered the problem child of the Loop because of its falling beneath the shadow of the Loop L.  Most recently, the Chicago Loop Alliance, in partnership with Civic Artworks - has been soliciting ideas for their campaign, How Would you improve Wabash Avenue?
To me, the primary answer has always been obvious.  Stop trying to ignore the L and start looking at it.   Ultimately, the Loop L is not just historic infrastructure - it's the largest piece of sculpture in Chicago.  Take the time to look at the pillars, girders, trusses and struts, and you'll find amazing, intriguing and - yes - beautiful webs of form.  It's like an enormous Richard Serra, with delicacy and detail added in.
This isn't just a tourist thing.  It's about countering the drear cold darkness of winter in the city, and bringing out the best in its architecture and infrastructure even at night.  Yes, Chicago - it's schools and government institutions - need bread, desperately, but no city survives without the circuses that give the heightened sense of life that makes people want to live there.
During the day, it's pretty easy to see the L's potential but right now at night, it's lost in the shadows, a great, unending blob of darkness that casts Wabash down into the gloom.
Let Mooney or Dear or KersalĂ© loose on it.  Let them light it up in all its exquisite detail, and - I guarantee you - Wabash at night will become one of Chicago's premier attractions, drawing tourists to its glow like bugs to a zapper.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your thoughts regarding Wabash Ave, and there are long dormant opportunities like this all over Chicago. There are three relatively inexpensive items that can transform the image of a place – signs, lighting and overall color (paint is cheap compared to other big ticket urban design strategies).

The Loop L could be a wonder – keep banging that drum!

Pete said...

The thing I love most about Wabash (my favorite downtown street) is its relative lack of redevelopment - there are probably more 19th Century buildings on that street than in the rest of the Loop combined. There is a vibrant, urban grit to the street that is gone from most of the rest of downtown and its forest of soulless, sanitized office buildings. Repaint the L girders and restore the stations, sure, but "improve" the street too much and soon we'll see a lot more senseless teardowns done to make way for even more condo towers.

Anonymous said...

What would actually top it off, Is maybe reviving the illuminated Channel 7 transmitter. THAT was SUCH a wonderful sensation during the mid-late 10960's.

Jon C. said...

I don't think the mayor is saying "Screw submissions from local firms"... I think he's simply asking for international submissions so that we can get outside of our own provincial (and oftentimes overdone/lame) mindset when it comes to recent architectural projects.

Aside from maybe one or two proposals, Chicago is clearly lagging behind other global cities when it comes to innovative modern structures proposed/built in the last five years (yes, I realize the crash had a devastating effect).

We need outside input to bring us up to speed. That's not to say a local firm can't get it done, but the proof is in the putting. Collaborative thought, even if it's done via competitive bidding, is a powerful thing. Let it run it's course and see what happens.

Unknown said...

How about lighting the water intake cribs in the lake with some iconic sculptural or just imaginative illuminations.

GJL2K said...

Better idea. Let's light up the city's million potholes, so not only will there opportunities for lighting architects to really be challenged, but tourists will be amazed at the sheer number of potholes and also at the way we spend our money on stupid things.

jade said...

Now he wants to pump it to 55 million by 2020, projecting it will translate into 30,000 new jobs. banners Chicago