Air Show

With all the hype surrounding the Art Institute’s current Degas show, it would be easy to overlook another groundbreaking exhibit at the museum. “Building for Air Travel: Architecture and Design for Commercial Aviation,” which opens this Saturday, represents the first examination of airport architecture by an art museum. According to Art Institute curator John Zukowsky, the last time the subject was seriously addressed was in 1937 at the Royal Institute of British Architects. An airport buff himself, Zukowsky says he can’t explain why the topic hasn’t been given its due, considering the important role airports and aviation play in the world today, but he does know airports inspire strong feelings. “Because traveling can be so arduous, an air terminal is a building many people love to hate,” he says.

In the two decades following the Wright brothers’ first flight, most airports were little more than rudimentary runways in open fields. By the end of the 1920s, however, airplanes had become a more widely accepted form of transportation; in 1931 the Chicago area had 25 airports and airfields, including what’s now known as Midway. The construction of air terminals has changed dramatically since World War II, as jets now carry millions around the globe. “More and more, airports are reflecting the drama of air travel,” says Zukowsky.

Airports have become more interconnected with the day-to-day life of large cities, spurring economic growth and affecting future development. That’s made their design and construction more complicated and time consuming. In some instances, new airports can take a decade or more to design and complete. According to Zukowsky, airport planning today often involves not only an architect but a city planner and an engineer.

When pressed, Zukowsky will cite examples of both good and bad airport architecture. He says the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the disjointed Los Angeles International Airport are both lousy, while O’Hare still fares well.

Architect Helmut Jahn, who was responsible for the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare, designed the exhibit’s installation. Visitors will pass under a series of curved aluminum ribs representing an aircraft under construction as they view photos, sketches, and artifacts relating more than 70 years of commercial aviation history. The exhibit also contains drawings and models for airports now in development in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok as well as the new inter-national terminal at San Francisco International Airport. And those who wonder what airplanes will be like in the future can take a look at a sketch for a new double-decker jet that’s scheduled to be built sometime after 1998. The museum is sponsoring related lectures by architects and scholars, including Reader contributor Fred Camper, who will screen and discuss films that reflect diverse airport designs next Thursday, October 24. The exhibit, which runs through January 5, will travel to San Francisco, Seattle, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and other cities.

Big Nasty

Like many others before him, actor Gene Weygandt left Chicago to find film and television work in Los Angeles. Then he got a big break: the chance to play a significant role in the world premiere of a Broadway musical. Or at least he thought it was a big break.

The show was Big, the now infamous musical based on the Tom Hanks movie of the same name about a boy who is suddenly granted his wish to become an adult–physically at least. Panned by most critics, the musical closed last weekend after running only six months on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre. The production lost more than $10 million, making it one of Broadway’s biggest musical disasters. For Weygandt, the experience was a big disappointment. In fact he left the show two months ago, in part because his father was in poor health, but also because he had little to do by the time the creative team had desperately reworked Big in a last-ditch effort to make a hit.

Weygandt was cast as a surly toy company executive and the initial love interest of lead actress Crista Moore. But as the show changed during early rehearsals and tryouts in Detroit and more rehearsals and previews in New York, Weygandt’s fairly meaty role had shrunk. He wound up uttering what he considered the “number one worst line” in the show: “We are important executives at a major American toy company.” By the time he departed Big, Weygandt was onstage for 28 minutes and had only 16 bars of music to sing. He says he clocked more time onstage only because he did double duty as a magician. “I was astoundingly bored so much of the time,” he says.

Still, in the end he was spared at least one humiliation. In the show’s final version, he was allowed to lose a hat of beer cans he was forced to sport during most of the rehearsal period. With the dazzle of Broadway now behind him, Weygandt says he looks forward to working in Chicago again. “I keep up my contacts.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of John Zukowsky by Armando Villa.