"Skyline: Chicago" and "New Chicago Skyscrapers"
What you get for what you see
I know perfectly well that even uninformed appreciation of a building is better than indifference, and that tourism promoters have, by stimulating the former, helped save many a worthy structure. But lordy, the spiels!
Reviewed: Skyline: Chicago by Perspectives, Architecture/Design Videos, Wilmette, Illinois, 1991, and New Chicago Skyscrapers, The Chicago Athenaeum, Chicago, 1991
A souvenir postcard or ashtray used to do for external validation; today, what could make a sightseeing trip more real than to watch it again on TV back home? Architecture tour videos are becoming popular as electronic souvenirs; they also are being used to market sites to group tour operators and as alternatives for the stay-at-home tourist. Perspectives, the Wilmette, Illinois-based producer of architecture and design videos, is delighted to exploit a tourist market for its five-part series of half-hour programs called Skyline: Chicago.
Perspectives ambitions, however, are pedagogical. Produced in cooperation with the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, Skyline is meant to educate a general public about Chicago's contributions to modern architecture.
The first program in the series, "Chicago's Riverfront: Where the Present Meets the Past," was released last year; it was aired on WTTW, Chicago's public broadcasting station and has enjoyed modest sales to libraries that serve younger people who will not read a book, even books on architecture filled with pictures. The second in the series, "The Loop: Where the Skyscraper Began," is nearing release; it will feature interviews with such Chicago luminaries as Bruce Graham, Helmut Jahn, and Thomas Beeby.
"Chicago's Riverfront" provides a compact history of the river's changing role, from commercial transport to sewer to proto-amenity. The crossing at Michigan Avenue came to provide perhaps the most exciting venue for showcase buildings in the city. Nevertheless, the river was a boundary, a dead-end, until the building boom that peaked in the 1980s pushed the business district north, up to and then across its banks. Today, points out David Mosena, former planning commissioner, the river is the spine of the new business district.
Because it offers highly marketable views, the river in recent years has attracted big projects and big architects. A stellar cast of designers are interviewed in "Chicago's Riverfront"—Bertrand Goldberg, Kevin Roche, William Pedersen, Adrian Smith, and Ralph Johnson. None adds much to what we can understand about their buildings by looking at them. Roche explains that he inserted stainless steel mullions to enliven the facade of the Leo Burnett Building, Smith admits his obvious admiration for his '20s forebears, Pedersen verifies that he put a bendy facade at 333 West Wacker and didn't at 225 West Wacker because one structure sits on a bend in the river and the other doesn't.
The risk in appropriating the technology and techniques of TV is that it invites invidious comparisons. If MTV is lower Manhattan put on video, Skyline: Chicago is, well, Wilmette. The producers may come closer to realizing the potential of the medium in part two of the video, which makes use of computer graphics, partly because shooting in the crowded Loop made conventional photographic views of many buildings impossible to obtain.
The real weaknesses of Skyline's first installment do not derive from the medium, however, but from its message. While its form is that of the documentary, the content of "Chicago's Riverfront" too often slips into that of the tourist brochure. The script opens with a disputable assertion—"Chicago: birthplace of the skyscraper"—and continues with several others that would disqualify it for classroom use in school systems more respectful than Illinois's of historical accuracy. In Chicago, intones the narrator, architecture has "a powerful, almost mythical, influence on its citizens [and] on how they feel about themselves." That is certainly true of the architecture of, say, Cabrini-Green, but in a different way than it is true of the educated middle class; to them, its buildings are a bulwark against the imputations of bumpkinism that so much else in the city unfortunately confirms.
Throughout the video, the city's architecture is described not as a matter of capital flows and demand for space, but of destiny. Nothing makes plainer this tendency toward the Official Version more than the depiction of what is called "the Burnham Plan's approach to city-making for the public good." One can argue that the Burnham Plan was the worst thing to happen to the Chicago River. As Beth White, former executive director for the Friends of the Chicago River, hints, the problem with Chicago's riverfront is not that its buildings don't connect to the river, but that its streets don't, thanks to Burnham's bi-level Wacker Drive. That project forever separated the downtown from the river vertically as well as horizontally, dooming any hope of establishing a genuinely recreational riverfront there.
"Chicago's Riverfront" comes with a 44-page, pocket-sized, spiral-bound guidebook, illustrated with a foldout map and original pen-and-ink drawings by Victoria Behm, depicting 38 buildings and structures along the river from the mouth to Polk Street. Traditionalists may find it everything the video is not. It is convenient to use and describes in much more detail buildings that are described only glancingly in the video version.
The year 1991 also saw the release of "New Chicago Skyscrapers," a half-hour video produced by the Chicago Athenaeum. "Skyscrapers" is a love poem to the tall commercial building. Design, not history, provides the frame; it focuses less on setting than on the structure of five particular buildings.
Building segments were filmed by the Finnish documentarian Anssi Blomstedt, with interview segments by the Athenaeum's Christian Laine. The latter give us William Pedersen on designing at sidewalk vs. scenery scales; Helmut Jahn on the Northwestern Terminal as synthesized form; John Burgee on "building up of an image" at 190 South LaSalle Street; developer John Buck on "fitting well"; developer Richard Stein on how the AT&T Corporate Center was made to shine even in the shadow of the Sears Tower; developer Paul Beitler on the synergism between architects and developers; and Cesar Pelli on humanity's urge to "lift itself on its tiptoes and to reach for the clouds."
If "Riverfront" tends to puff, "Skyscrapers" tends to fawn. Its pace is stately, its mood almost religious; if you've seen PBS nature films about the sequoias, you'll know what it's like.
At a minimum, "Skyline: Chicago" and "New Chicago Skyscrapers" offer the same pedagogic virtues as the pornographic sex tapes popular among some married people. Just as jaded marrieds may be excited and inspired to try the real thing after watching them, so viewers of architectural videos may be inspired to start looking at the built environment with a new understanding. For both activities, the video is only the inspiration; the real enjoyment results from the experience. ●