John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Behold the Sears Tower deconstructed into flaccid tubes, a Mies van der Rohe building sunk in Lake Michigan, and other incredible concepts.
Chicagoans right now have a rare opportunity to gape at some of the most schizoid, cutting-edge architectural projects that were never built in their city.
At the Expo 72 Gallery in the Loop, there is a 160-foot panorama of Chicago's skyline sprawling along the walls. Visitors who download the "Phantom City" app can point it at different places on the image to reveal more than 100 visionary masterpieces, such as the Sears Tower deconstructed into a pile of flaccid tubes and a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe building submerged in Lake Michigan like a sinking ship.
The retrospective, which runs until September 29, was organized by Alexander Eisenschmidt, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since moving to Illinois five years ago, Eisenschmidt has become intrigued with the number of historically important visionary projects in the Windy City. So he and his students began a collection of the more celebrated and challenging ones, and last year took them on the road to show at the Venice Biennale.
Some of the visionary structures are more famous than what actually got built, he argues, like alternative schemes for the Tribune Tower that would've given it gaping scars, a honeycomb facade or a top like a graduate's mortarboard. "Any of them is more well known than the tower that was built, but most known is Adolf Loos' entry, which is in the form of a Doric column," he says. "Hardly any architect knows where [the current Tribune building] is and what it means. The visionary proposals are more important."
The reasons vary for why these futuristic structures never reached fruition. Sometimes the technology didn't exist to build so high or so massive. Sometimes they were designed to remain as conceptual drawings. Cost was another big factor. Frank Lloyd Wright's 1924 visionary edifice almost went ahead, for instance – it "would've been one of biggest buildings in city," says Eisenschmidt. But the funding never materialized, and Chicago will forever be denied a National Life Insurance Building that looks like the fortified wall of a bellicose alien city.
For those who can't make it to the Loop this summer, here are a few of the grander schemes pulled from the wall panorama, beginning with Stanley Tigerman’s 1978 plan to drop an entire building in the lake:
The Art Institute of Chicago has the skinny on this proposal, called "The Titanic":
Stanley Tigerman’s conceptual collage depicts Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Crown Hall for the Illinois Institute of Technology – which houses the School of Architecture – sinking into Lake Michigan. Tigerman’s work is a critique on the state of architectural pedagogy in Chicago and its environs in the late 1970s. By this time, the Postmodern movement was becoming a viable counterpoint to Mies’s Minimalist aesthetic and was being taught at other schools of architecture in the United States.
Here is the "Beacon of Progress," a late-1800s prong of weirdness from architect Constant-Désiré Despradelle. Planned for the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the 1,500-foot-high structure (almost as tall as the Sears Tower) included 13 obelisks representing America's 13 original colonies:
A 1904 illustration from World Today Magazine shows the Beacon's gigantic scale – those black mites crawling at bottom right are people:
Another proposal from the Tigerman, the circa-1960s "Instant City" (another view):
That Loos design for the Tribune HQ shown in front of the one that exists today:
Lloyd Wright's insurance building, which dismisses exterior walls in favor of hanging copper screens:
A couple other views that Eisenschmidt sent over:
In the panorama, Chicago's visionary buildings are stacked alongside each other to create the world's most formidable urban skyline:
And photos of the exhibit itself, which includes 3-D models by Tigerman, David Brown, Studio Gang, and UrbanLab:
Images courtesy of Alexander Eisenschmidt