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The Chicago Effect

Boundless innovators, entrepreneurial clients, and burly politicians: Yes, it's possible to go from lackluster to laudable in less than a decade.

It seems like just yesterday, the year 2000 to be exact, that architects and the people who love them filled the Art Institute’s Rubloff Auditorium to lament the state of Chicago architecture. The symposium—called “Where in the World Is Chicago?”—discussed our “mediocrity,” our “malaise.” Too many ugly buildings, said the critics. Chicago, most concluded, had lost its edge.

Then a few years passed, and talk shifted 180 degrees. The same people rhapsodized about the new Millennium Park. Critics put their stamp of approval on other Chicago projects, too. “Bold modernism is back,” Architectural Record reported in a 2004 issue on Chicago. “A remarkable revival is under way.”

It wasn’t just Frank Gehry and his marvelous band shell. There was the new Soldier Field, flawed on the outside but a brilliant place to watch a game. New buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology broke the mold, too, on an old campus by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who broke a few molds himself.

So what has changed since the gloomy prophecies were voiced at the Art Institute? Perhaps not as much as the march from “malaise” to “revival” would suggest. Yes, Chicago has shaken the persistent hangover of postmodernism and the Harold Washington Library Center and of lesser attempts to blend lavish pediments and towers into otherwise ordinary buildings.

But what haven’t gone away are the architects who stayed the course set years ago. In 1997, John Vinci built the Arts Club on Ontario Street, a brilliant updating of mid-20th-century modernism. Vinci illustrated, among other things, that refined architecture tranquilizes noisy, cacophonous streets. Even Helmut Jahn is back. His studio actually never left, but in the 1990s, he was working mostly abroad, berating Chicago for timidity. (He suggested that his “exile” was for an act of  “civil disobedience,” the James R. Thompson Center, 1984.) Now, since the turn of the new century, he has been sketching, innovating, and building in and around Chicago.

“Chicago has always had an intense architectural culture,” says Clifford Pearson, a New York–based editor of Architectural Record. “This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, with high-profile buildings attracting new talent, and more high-profile work.”

Pearson is right: greatness bequeaths greatness, and Chicago’s hereditary lines are the noblest in the world. A direct line runs from Daniel Burnham to Helmut Jahn. Dirk Lohan of Lohan Anderson is grandson to Mies. With some effort you can connect George Fred Keck, who designed the groundbreaking House of Tomorrow at the 1933 world’s fair, to one of the most promising young architects of the moment, Jeanne Gang.

But at least as powerful as the teachers and students are the immutable conditions of Chicago itself. We have powerful politics, which count when you are trying to build an ambitious building. We have a public that knows about architecture. Most important, Chicago harbors a preternatural distrust of “style,” a word that, in architecture, refers to a set of formal characteristics that can be imitated and later discarded. Here, passing fashions are a distant second to the pure pleasure of a well-built building.

So the heyday of Chicago architecture is back. Eager to cheer it on, Chicago magazine has selected ten masterpieces that illustrate why we are, once again, a global epicenter of architecture. As a companion project, Chicago commissioned a survey from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (for results, see What the Pros Said).

Collectively, these ten buildings provide a glimpse of the “Chicago effect,” or the creative power long in residence here. And they exhibit a need—a moral conviction, even—that form ever follows function and that the best architecture is that which draws the straightest line (or the cleanest curve) between what a building does and how it looks.

What do you think? Pick—and pan—recent additions to our skyline. Results will appear in a future issue of the magazine.

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