I Think Icon, I Think Icon,
I Think Icon.
Building iconography explained, sort of.
Crain's Chicago Business
April 5, 1993
Heaven protect freelancers from headline-writing editors. The symbolism I describe here was mostly supplied by the architects of Chicago’s great business buildings—it was beyond the people who paid for them—and one shouldn’t read too much into such doodads, but they add interest that today’s buildings lack.
The piece was edited, newspaper-style, to the AP convention calling for one- and two-sentence paragraphs. I here restored my original paragraphing.
If the great cathedrals were storybooks in stone, then Chicago's commercial buildings are billboards. They are crammed with images and messages about the buildings or the companies that occupy them or the people who built them.
Like all forms of public relations, the stories that buildings tell should be regarded with polite skepticism. For instance, if the hooded gentleman cradling a sheaf of wheat next to the clock on the Board of Trade building is indeed a Babylonian farmer, and if, as the guidebooks say, the Babylonians were ace traders, then why was this cunning capitalist caught actually holding wheat?
Ornament on commercial buildings sometimes serves the same symbolic or ritual function that it serves on a church or a city hall. The row of eight pedestal-mounted busts of America's "geniuses of distribution" at the Merchandise Mart is an example, although they look uncomfortably like the heads that generals used to mount on spikes as warnings to would-be invaders.
Usually, however, architectural tributes to business are expressed metaphorically. Especially in the last century, the icons of the ancient world—the gods and goddesses, the sacred plants, the mythical beasts—were appropriated by commercial developers eager to show themselves to be men of culture.
The problem is that allusions to ancient myths are wasted in an era when "the classics" means Led Zeppelin. To us, the Greek column does not say "temple," it says "bank," just as the gargoyle does not say "evil" but "vacation in France." Thus, we must take the Board of Trade at its word when it says that the Art Deco statue atop its building is in fact Ceres, the Greek goddess of grain, and not, say, the Hittite goddess of stock option futures.
Similarly, the two winged figures that adorn the entrance mural at the recently opened 120 N. La Salle look like a couple of very good friends out on a hang-gliding lark. They are supposed to be Daedalus and his son, Icarus. Usually, the impetuous Icarus is depicted crashing to earth after flying so close to the sun that it melted the waxen wings fashioned for him by his father. But this treatment of the story is perhaps too vividly metaphorical for a building that opened after the real estate crash.
Another problem for the would-be interpreter of building art: Much of it is so far from the sidewalk, it is hard to apprehend in detail. Carvings atop the Illinois Athletic Club purportedly depict more than 30 human figures shooting arrows, throwing the discus, etc., but they could be taking urine samples for all a passerby sans binoculars can tell.
Some architects looked for their myths closer to home. The classical gods that the designers of Chicago's postmodern skyscrapers seek to honor are the greats of Chicago's own architectural pantheon. The roof towers at 225 W. Wacker are connected by "bridges" that mimic the structures straddling the river below them. And 303 W. Madison recalls Frank Lloyd Wright in its lobby window of stained glass.
Pere Marquette's missionary work among the Indians appears often as a motif in Chicago's architectural adornments. The Marquette Building is a poem to that explorer, punctuated by tomahawk and panther heads on the doors and elevators (since remodeled) that marked the floor stops with bronze arrows. Perhaps early capitalists saw it as a parable for their relationships with the unions. Whatever their original intent, such scenes are wildly incorrect by today's political and artistic standards.
Architects were more likely to pick the exotic reference over the homely one, no matter how heroic. A tree growing in Brooklyn is no more unlikely than papyrus growing in the South Loop, but nevertheless, the upper stories of the Monadnock Building are decorated with lotus blossoms and papyrus, the symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively, in ancient times.
Usually, the main message conveyed via architectural iconography is, "Lease me.'' Ornament is chosen merely to differentiate one property from another in a crowded real estate market. Any old doodad will do, as long as it catches the eye: The upper slopes of the Wrigley Building are decorated with sculptures that Robert Bruegmann, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has likened to “demented funeral pyres,” and the main lobby of the Merchandise Mart is decorated with geometrized Mayan motifs.
Still, many fashionable architects in 1980s couldn’t resist the urge to crack little jokes with their iconography. Consider Stanley Tigerman’s isn’t-that-a-Bentley-front-end? parking garage on East Lake Street.
Such prankishness is hardly surprising. In the 1880s, John Root livened up long days at the drafting table by designing fish-shaped doorknobs and elevators for the Fisher Building. The Heckle and Jeckle-ish birds carved into the ornamental door jamb of the Rookery constitute another architectural pun, spoiled perhaps by the fact that so few Americans recognize the crow-like blackbird common in Europe as a rook.
That's the problem with architects. They're always building jokes that nobody else gets. ●