Robert Hughes in Chicago

The brilliant art critic, who died yesterday at the age of 74, took on the immense legacy of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in a 2003 documentary that’s an engaging, thoughtfully critical look at Chicago architecture in the master’s wake.

One of the infuriating things about living in Chicago, if you read and write a lot, is sitting through the same four or five stock cultural references in order to read anything written or produced about our fair city. This morning, watching PBS’s otherwise fine overview of the Infrastructure Trust, it was the Shoulders of the City of Big Shoulders starting to sag, or something.

There’s a better way. Take, for example, the first minute of this.

That’s the late Robert Hughes, who died yesterday at 74. It’s muscular writing, about a muscular landscape, that doesn’t fall into the heinous traps of stockyards or shoulders. And it’s a really good documentary, Visions of Space, about Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Albert Speer, and Antonio Gaudi.

Chicagoans in particular should check it out, because his exploration of Mies van der Rohe’s work is wonderful. In the documentary, he takes you inside not just the great architect’s Lake Shore Drive masterpiece, but also the place he actually lived, and the contrast is extraordinary, even moving: the former, a severe, almost sacred space; the latter, a comfortably European abode like something out of a Robert Musil novel. (There’s also a good explanation of why Lake Point Tower, the Miesian edifice overlooking Navy Pier, looks so much like his work.) The documentary explains a lot about why the city looks the way it does, and why the occasional person like myself finds his legacy occasionally frustrating.

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