Sarah Vowell on Chicago Architecture, Buildings as Friends, and How No One is as Uptight as Frank Lloyd Wright
We talked to Sarah Vowell—author, This American Life alumna, and recipient of an M.A. in art history from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—for this week’s Chicago Guide newsletter. Here, more from our conversation with Vowell, who’ll be reading from her new book on the history of Hawaii, Unfamiliar Fishes, tonight at 7 p.m. at the Unity Temple in Oak Park. Admission is free.
“I’m pretty excited about the fact that I’ll be reading at the Unity Temple because I’m such a big Frank Lloyd Wright head in general. I love his work in concrete, and that church is a landmark in the use of reinforced concrete. There’s something magical about how he can make a concrete building have so much warmth, especially a public space. Concrete architecture, in general, is sort of the bane of the American aesthetic, but I feel like any form of architecture can be used for good or ill. It might be difficult to pay attention to what I’m supposed to be doing and not just gawk around the room.
“I have been to see the church before. It’s what I do for fun: Go see buildings. I like architecture because it’s so nonverbal. (Tell you in words how architecture is nonverbal? That’s a trick question.) I just went to Central America to see some Mayan ruins, and in the summer, I’m going to Kenya. I organized that trip so I could stop in Istanbul on the way there and see the Hagia Sophia, and I’m stopping in Paris on the way back to see Versailles. Architecture is an art form you can be inside of. That sounds so male, but it surrounds you. I’m a very internal person—I’m in my own head so much—that there’s something about being surrounded. I especially like interiors, maybe even more than exteriors.
“When I lived in Chicago, I made friends with a lot of the buildings. My favorite, just in terms of the personal relationship I had with it, was the Carson Pirie Scott building. It was right by the El entrance I used when I was going to the School of the Art Institute, so I would get off the train every morning and see this building that was in my art history textbook when I was going to college in Montana. I felt so grand to have it in my life. I taught freshman art history [at SAIC], and my favorite class was when I was teaching Chicago School architecture. I could turn off the slide projector and say: ‘Put on your coat. We’re going to go look outside.’ I just love Louis Sullivan. He’s so lyrical and logical.
“I lived in two neighborhoods in Chicago. The first was that depressing neighborhood directly north of Logan Square. When I lived there, it was a little rundown. The local bar was being used by drug dealers. All the elderly residents of the neighborhood got sick of that, so they went and sat and drank in the bar every night. It made the drug dealers pretty uncomfortable.
“Then I lived in Edgewater, and I could see lake. Like with a lot of buildings in Chicago, I had a relationship to the lake. It was so moody. But it’s sort of the democratic ideal on weekends there, especially up that far [north]. There’s gay volleyball, black families barbecuing, Mexican families picnicking, all jumbled together. It’s not like the New York waterfront, which is built up quite a bit. My first day in New York, I was taking a walk along the Hudson, and it was pretty crummy. Kind of icky looking. I remember thinking, Mayor Daley would never have let this go this long.
“Now I live near Union Square. I can see the Flatiron Building out my window, designed by Chicago’s own Daniel Burnham. Frank Lloyd Wright thought Daniel Burnham was a Greco-Roman hack, but if you’re not as uptight as Frank Lloyd Wright was—and no one is—you can have places in your heart for different styles of architecture. I spent a lot of time in Hawaii over the last three years, and people would say to me, ‘You must be so happy to be away from New York in the winter.’ But the wallpaper on my phone was a photo of the Flatiron Building in the snow, and I would gaze at it longingly.”