[Architecture tour videos]

What you get for what you see

Inland Architect  

May/June 1992

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. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with important interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state

(Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated