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Chicago Architecture in 2020

How the next generation of architects can lead the way 

There are so many young architects who are thinking and experimenting in Chicago,” says Martha Thorne, executive director of the foundation that gives the Pritzker Architecture Prize. These young architects—most in their 40s—reach back to tradition. Many seem fearlessly innovative. Take Jeanne Gang and her Starlight Theatre in Rockford. It opens to the sky like a tulip, a design original beyond the imagination of anyone but Gang.

“Chicago’s a city with an amazing past—which is easily projected into the future,” says Joseph Rosa, the John H. Bryan Curatorial Chair of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago. He says that many young architects come here for our rich history, but also for our reasonable economics. “Other cities are so overpriced that they really can’t be that progressive.” He is referring to New York and Los Angeles, of course. According to this theory, Chicago flies freely, creatively, beneath the radar of hype, attention, and astronomical rents.

Naturally, new architecture requires more than freedom. It needs ideas, and one of the big ideas here and everywhere is sustainable architecture—or “green design.” Smith + Gill Architects, which recently broke off from that Chicago institution Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, may soon lead the world in zero-energy skyscrapers. On a smaller scale, Brininstool + Lynch blends photovoltaics, green roofs, and geothermal systems into houses that are, Brad Lynch said, “also a pleasure to the eye.”

 

"Recent modern architecture looks nothing like the postwar modernism that made Chicago the center of the
'International style.'"

Pleasure to the eye is something that has always driven architects, even though modernists, with their stark glass boxes, often clashed with conventional ideas of beauty. In fact, pleasure to the eye is more than ever a key criterion for young designers. They talk about “context,” a word continually used to describe how good a house looks in a Lincoln Park neighborhood, how suitable a school seems in the Little Village barrio.

This focus on context—on existing architecture, which is infinite in its variety—naturally leads to diversity. For that reason, recent modern architecture often looks nothing like the postwar modernism that made Chicago the center of the “International style.” Still, the objectives of form and function, and that aversion to architectural fireworks, have withstood time. “It’s the same DNA,” said Clifford Pearson, of Architectural Record. Chicago shifts and adapts, but deep down it doesn’t change.

Can the new generation attain the stature of some of Chicago’s past titans? That depends, of course, on how visionary they become. It also depends on who follows them. If history is a guide, successors 20, 30, and 40 years from now will reject this present work, lambaste its creators, and then, upon reflection, proudly pick up their torch.  

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