Lynn Becker’s “Stop the Blandness!” (January 17) raises, seemingly half inadvertently, fundamental questions with respect to both the causes and the possible solutions of Chicago’s increasing glut of nondescript blob architecture. “Would anybody be moving back to the city if the only view out their window were of buildings like their own? No–people come back to be able to look out their window and see that defining skyline.” The key variables here are (1) what people is he talking about? (2) how much knowledge and interest do they have in architecture? (3) what demands are they prepared to make in service of their knowledge and interest? and (4) what can be done to broaden the class of interested stakeholders, their knowledge and interest, and their potential for enlightened architectural activism?
Becker’s model sets up the Pritzkers and other wealthy and enlightened patrons as latter-day Medicis to stimulate the development of at least a handful of great buildings. The danger of a model so contingent on the continued upwelling of refined taste and amour de soi in the moneyed class is that circumstances may reduce it to little more than a cargo cult. The obvious alternative, of course, would look to the many rather than the few. But how many Chicago residents–even those wealthy enough to move “back” into pricey downtown condos, whom one suspects have on average higher levels of education and more access to coffee-table books and seminars–know or care that much about architectural specifics? Could it be that the majority of this group, although they surely have some sense of the gestalt of the skyline, are more interested in convenience or prestige and couldn’t name more than a handful of Chicago’s great buildings, much less articulate any detailed information about their social or technological history? And do we suppose that hordes of twentysomethings migrate to Lakeview because of their affinity for the aesthetics of the balloon frame? What about the thousands upon thousands of residents who don’t have the luxury of choosing where they live at all?
Questions of knowledge and interest implicate questions of education. What is the state of architectural education in Chicago–not in professional schools of architecture but more broadly in primary, middle, and high schools? My children attend a gifted public grammar school program, and their exposure to architecture appears random and catch-as-catch-can. I suspect that the same or worse is the case in most other schools. Leave aside the intrinsic wasted opportunity for imparting knowledge with arguably great intrinsic value. Couldn’t a well-designed integrated curriculum centered on architecture (including aspects relevant to, say, history, social studies, and physics or engineering) effectively generate broad interest in the city’s buildings (past, present, and future)? For instance, my bet would be that if taught effectively, kids in neighborhoods with lots of simultaneous demolition and construction (such as the near north side), many of whom are in desperate need of something to connect them to the broader urban community, would be quite intrigued to learn about the many facets of building and unbuilding. The issues are intrinsically interesting (see, for example, Forrest Wilson’s What It Feels Like to Be a Building, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation but now sadly out of print, or the endless works of David Macaulay), and Chicago’s architectural heritage furnishes an additional unique local dimension. (Synergies between education, preservation, and community development would presumably translate into synergies in potential funding as well.) People with basic education in architecture are more likely to take an interest in it and to voice their interest politically. The less such broad interest exists, the greater is the vacuum to be occupied by the totalitarianism of greed.
Do our connoisseurs of great new architecture and our embattled preservationists talk to our educators? What efforts have been made to lobby for interest in an architecture-based curriculum? (One sees guided tours looking upward in the Loop all the time, but the participants usually appear to be from Europe and presumably don’t vote here.) There may be more short-term satisfaction in lectures which preach to the converted or in cocktail parties with domestic dukes and doges, but if the insular culture of erudite aficionados cannot deign to share its arcana with the hoi polloi, then in some sense it deserves what it gets.
Andrew S. Mine