Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Houston is creeping on Chicago's population, pennants, and now, public art. But Chicago has at least one thing Houston still lacks.
In the battle between Houston and Chicago over which is better, Dallas lost. Dallas lost by a lot.
“Dallas is a Cheesecake Factory with a sidearm,” tweeted Charlie J. Johnson, the homepage editor for the Chicago Tribune, casually ethering a city of 1.3 million. While a story in The Dallas Morning News was the proximate cause for the city’s unfortunate destruction, Dallas was merely collateral damage in a broader conflict with Houston. A fight over art.
Kim Janssen, another Tribune staffer, fired the first shot. After Houston installed a monumental public sculpture by Anish Kapoor, Janssen called Houston a “cultureless abyss.” The new sculpture looks an awful lot like Chicago’s famous Bean, also a sculpture by Kapoor, hence the complaint. Janssen describes Houston as “unoriginal” and “fourth place.”
Chicago was ticked.
“Is Chicago feeling defensive?” asked Lisa Gray from the Houston Chronicle.
Chicago got that much colder.
“Nobody except Houston wants a leftover, second-rate bean,” Janssen fired back.
Then the Morning News and Texas Monthly weighed in, the former to claim that Houston is really Dallas’s son; the latter to say that both beantowns suffer massive inferiority complexes. Chicago was not impressed. “The entire Texas media owes me royalty checks,” tweeted a defiant Janssen.
Houston’s new sculpture—which is really the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s new sculpture—is titled Cloud Column (2006). It could be called Bean II, since it looks just like Chicago’s picture-postcard sculpture, Cloud Gate (2006). The Texas version stands on one end, making for a slightly less elegant Instagram than Chicago’s parabolic pinto; the piece now graces the museum’s Glassell School of Art, which opens in May. Cloud Column (Houston’s Bean) is in fact a precursor to Cloud Gate (Chicago’s Bean), according to the museum—an argument that Chicago is not trying to hear.
Houston's own bean! pic.twitter.com/A8Uh0XIk7E— Davis Land (@davis_land) March 26, 2018
“[Y]our bean is wack,” wrote a thoroughly disgusted Janssen in an email to Gray.
The frustration Chicago feels over Houston’s high-brow effrontery taps into a much deeper vein of dismay, as Janssen freely admitted in the Tribune’s exchange with the Chronicle. “Our state is broke, and people are leaving,” he wrote. “Our landlord wants us out of the Tribune Tower by May. Yeah, we're defensive.”
And while he snubs Houston (“a giant Texas suburb masquerading as a city”), that particular insult might not stick. In terms of its population, Houston is indeed in fourth place—and quickly gaining on Chicago. Houston picked up nearly 100,000 residents in 2017, while Chicago lost more than 13,000. The figures raise the prospect that Chicago’s real problem isn’t art at all. Rather, it’s the fact that Houston is now a legit contender for the title of Third Coast.
After all, the Bean is hardly the only big shiny metal object that Kapoor’s ever plopped down somewhere in the name of public art. (And in fact, he has criticized Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for not doing more to prevent copycats from re-creating his work in China.) Kapoor installed Sky Mirror in New York (albeit temporarily) the same year Cloud Gate opened in Chicago. Cleveland’s C-Curve (2007) burned the grass in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s sculpture garden without burning down the internet. There’s an even bigger saddle-shaped mirror sculpture by Kapoor, Turning the World Upside Down (2010), on permanent display in Jerusalem. With all due respect to Chicago, as far as classic cities go, Jerusalem has the edge by at least a few millennia.
All those artworks are of a piece—an investigation into form, light, and space that Kapoor has been conducting for 20 years. The work neither begins nor ends with Cloud Gate, as singular as this gleaming garbanzo may feel to Chicago. Each of these works is a variation on a theme; in contemporary art, repetition is often the rule. It’s no harm to Kansas City’s beloved Shuttlecocks (1994) that Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen also made Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985–88) for Minneapolis. Robert Indiana’s ubiquitous Love (1970), which first debuted on a postage stamp, has been reproduced so often that Love is hardly likable now. (Incidentally, museum-goers would be well served by sculpture gardens with more diversity and regional flair.)
Houston and Chicago have more in common than just the Bean, according to a new toy designed by Jed Kolko and Josh Katz and published by The New York Times on Tuesday. Chicago is Houston’s Midwestern “twin,” according to the tool, because both cities share a love of IT consultants (“2.4x normal”), tax analysts, and civil designers. Fair enough. But given the actual, identical qualities that these cities have in common—World Series victories within the last 2 years and a stainless-steel legume—the only thing that Chicagoans and Houstonians can agree on is that they’re nothing alike.
Maybe this episode can serve as a note of caution about drawing too much from a match between places based on spreadsheets alone. Even the data comparison itself runs rough around the edges; as one data analyst observed, the tool compares “Pittsburgh, PA” with “Philadelphia–Camden–Wilmington, PA–NJ–DE–MD.” (Don’t even get Pittsburgh folks started about likening them to Philadelphians.) Anyone who’s been knows that Houston’s closest cousin is in fact Los Angeles: Both are collections of suburbs in search of a city (and both are admirably diverse). Meanwhile, Chicago has only has one peer, New York—whose skyline is a close runner-up to Chicago’s.
Things could be worse for Chicago. When London came calling in the run-up to the Summer Olympics in 2012, asking Kapoor to deliver a major public marker for the city, the artist might have outshined all his previous public works. In a sense, the ArcelorMittal Orbit did exactly that: It’s a jaw-dropping puzzle, a towering hunk of junk. So Chicago still holds the bean prize—one thing Houston can’t take away.
Houston isn’t being humble about taking a swipe at Chicago’s contemporary cannellini, its civic swagger, its thing. Nobody in Chicago would care so much if Houston weren’t also beating the city in population gains (and in the American League). Still, Chicago’s got something that Houston can’t quite match: an effortlessly urban, tourist-trapping, selfie-honeypot of a public square in Millennium Park. That will forever be the difference between Chicago’s Bean and Houston’s site-specific post-minimalist sculpture-garden bauble.