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If Chicago sees Donald Trump as a threat, does that mean it takes its architecture too seriously?

The City of Broad Shoulders stands with its arms crossed today. Donald Trump is erecting his name along the side of Chicago's Trump Tower—excuse me, The Donald's Trump Tower—and the city is not having it. 

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin despises the sign. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel thinks it's tasteless. Hizzoner is still mum about what, if anything, he plans to do about the sign, which will spell out TRUMP in 20-foot letters spanning more than 140 feet along the façade of the building, if it is completed. Chicago is meanwhile coming around to the fact that Trump may have his way with the building, which was designed by Chicago star architect Adrian Smith.  

What might be greeted as a nuisance in many other cities has hit Chicago as an almost spiritual insult. Laying out the case against the sign for the Trib, one architectural historian summoned both Chicago planner Daniel Burnham ("Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood") and father-of-the-skyscraper Louis Sullivan ("It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line"). 

Never bring a knife to a gun fight, I suppose. But the high tenor of the conversation makes me wonder: Does Chicago take its architecture just a tad too seriously?

"[The Donald Trump sign] is just like Donald Trump. He dies his hair orange and does gross things," says Stanley Tigerman, the dean of Chicago architecture. "Except for Adrian’s building. It’s the only good thing he’s done in his life, but it won’t get him into heaven."

Gary Cameron/Reuters

So Chicago does take its architecture too seriously, or so it appears when the Donald is involved. At other times, though, it almost seems like the city might be mortal, even pedestrian, when it comes to using design to shape its civic identity. Earlier this month, Mayor Emanuel introduced an RFP to turn Chicago into a "City of Lights" at night by draping the city's buildings and infrastructure in, well, lights. Kamin, a Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic, describes the plan as a "frenemy" deal: "The tourist city is both friend and enemy of the real city."

"I’ve got a problem with that, too," Tigerman says, referring to Mayor Emanuel's plan. "The city doesn't particularly need or demand it."

Perhaps it's just the fact that it's Rahm taking on the Donald. I'd watch that fight over a Chicago dog. Yet the outrage did not feel so palpable when the mayor backed the demolition of the Prentice Women's Hospital, a decision that can't be undone. That building was a major Chicago landmark, razed by Northwestern University to make way for a new biomedical research building. (Not that there were no hurt feelings involved: Northwestern blacklisted architects who opposed the demolition.)

If Chicago, as a city, is willing to throw down over five letters, where was it when the Prentice came down? Would things have gone differently had Donald Trump been driving the wrecking ball?

"The demolition of Prentice hospital is not Brutalism’s—or even Modernism’s—Penn Station Moment," critic Alexandra Lange wrote for Architect. (Disclosure: I was senior editor there at the time.) "Unfortunately, it is going to take the sacrifice of another postwar landmark to create the kind of broad-based, politically connected, media-savvy preservation movement to support Modernism each time it is threatened."

"It was a tragic loss," Tigerman says. As for what these debacles say about Chicago, he goes on to argue that the defining quality of Chicago architecture—and maybe a defining characteristic of Chicago in general—is that the city "rises as a phoenix out of the ashes of the fire."

He is referring, of course, to the 1871 fire that destroyed and created Chicago, happening, as it did, at the time when both steel skeleton frame construction and the gearless elevator arrived. But he also says that it has been constantly rebuilding itself since the Great Chicago Fire. Architects Jeanne Gang and John Ronan carry on the tradition of the First Chicago School and the Second Chicago School after that. And there are "12 or 13 architects" waiting to replace them, Tigerman adds. 

Aqua Tower, designed by Studio Gang.
The Poetry Foundation, designed by John Ronan Architects.

"It’s the most modern city on the planet, because of that fire," he says. "Chicago is a perpetually young, perpetually modern city. With great optimism, despite the crime issue. People are stung by the beauty of it."

In other words, Chicago has survived worse than demolition, and Chicago will endure The Donald. In any case, it could be worse.

"Look at the crap that goes up in New York. Just think about it for while. What happened at Freedom Tower," Tigerman says. "New York talks a good game, but Chicago builds one."

 

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