In Search of a New Era for Ambitious Chicago Architecture

An exhibit highlighting the city's rich history of architectural innovation also hopes to encourage big new ideas. 

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Art Institute of Chicago

From skyscrapers to Ferris wheels, Chicago architecture buffs are always eager to remind the world that the origins of their favorite structures often trace back to the Windy City. In a new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, that history, as well as a call for more innovation, is on display.

Titled Chicagoisms, the exhibit accompanies a recently released book of the same name by locally based architectural theorist Alexander Eisenschmidt and art historian Jonathan Mekinda. Chicagoisms organizes the city's infrastructure-related highlights into five 'isms,' things like the 1893 World's Fair ("Vision Shapes History"), building megastructures like the Merchandise Mart ("Optimism Trumps Planning"), reversing the flow of the Chicago River ("Ambition Overcomes Nature"), debuting the Ferris wheel ("Technology Makes Spectacle") and the astonishing rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ("Crisis Provokes Innovation").

But not every idea that comes out of Chicago is worth celebrating. The curators readily admit that, giving space to known failures like its Circle Interchange and some of the city's early forays into public housing. 

Like the book, the AIC exhibit hopes to encourage a new era of big ideas, even if that means the occasional failure. The exhibit's walls state that the Chicago of today hardly represents the "restlessness and ambition to imagine new urban conditions." To help fix that, Eisenschmidt and Mekinda asked contemporary architects and designers to come up with new ways to interpret the five 'isms.' Those can be seen through 3-D architectural models juxtaposed against historic photographs. 

Each vision (things like vertical pig farms and a 10,500-mile-long aqueduct) is accompanied with a manifesto by its creators. Many appear playful and overreaching but who knows, perhaps one or more of the ideas on display will one day become the architectural equivalent of saying "da Bears":

“Chicagoisms” runs through January 4, 2015 inside the Kurokawa Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago.

All images courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago. 

H/T FastCo Design

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