Office of the chief architect: A look at Daley's architectural legacy

September 8, 2010


(photo by Lee Bey)

No Chicago mayor has left a mark on the city’s built environment as broad or as indelible as that of Mayor Richard M.  Daley.

During his 21 years in office, Daley controversially reshaped Soldier Field, built Millennium Park and demolished entire communities of bleak public housing that were erected a generation earlier under his father, Richard J. Daley. He oversaw a decade-long building boom that put up gleaming new office and residential buildings downtown and around its borders. In the neighborhoods, his administration reached in to  restore neglected architectural jewels such as the 63rd Street Beach House and the Garfield Park Conservatory, and created initiatives like the Historic Chicago Bungalow program.

We got new libraries. Median planters. Reborn boulevards. New police stations. A sustainable building agenda. And an unprecedented wave of new schools, many of which are architectural landmarks of the future, in my view.

But it wasn’t always that way. Certainly not in Daley’s inaugural years. In his first term, he unsuccessfully tried to build Lake Calumet Airport on the city’s Southeast Side. At the same time, his administration green-lighted more duds than did the Hershey candy company, Exhibit A being the bland circa 1993 concrete residential high-rise towers in River North–the one with the historicist elements stuck on like contact paper. Indeed, his administration’s eye for city design seemed so questionable that the local architecture community–and the public at large–openly speculated whether his architectural vision was imperiling Chicago’s legacy of great buildings.

By 1995 or so, a shift…

Daley traveled more, primarily as a result of Chicago’s Sister Cities program. He saw world cities such as Hamburg and Paris. Aides would take notes and photos of what he saw during those trips.

“We went to Hamburg in the mid 1990s and people thought it was just a vacation,” a former senior mayoral aide told me in an interview yesterday. “He’d be the first one up, we’d hit the streets. We’d see the [River Elbe], the schools, [examine] how they built their schools, what materials they used.  He’d look at the streetscaping. I took so many notes and photos.”

On his return to City Hall, the larger staff would be briefed and would be urged to see what could be adapted here. A London trip inspired the wrought-iron fencing (although he mandated so much of it, I referred to it as overwrought iron when I was Sun-Times architecture critic).  The median planters came from trips to Paris and New York.  And on and on. “His eye evolved,” the aide said.

It had.  At the Sun-Times, I often criticized Daley for the faux antique streetlamps, his dislike of modernism (and the death grudge he had–and still has–against McCormick Place’s flat-roofed Lakeside Center building). But by the end of my time at the Sun-Times in 2001 and during the three years that followed in which I was Daley’s deputy chief of staff for urban planning, I noticed zoomier, contemporary designs from overseas had begun to catch his eye. Exotic stadia and green skyscrapers from Europe, he seemed especially fond of.

In 2002, someone gave him a book of Santiago Calatrava‘s work and he was enamored. Months later I arranged for them to meet privately in Daley’s office. Despite having never met, the two of them conversed like old friends. The mayor pestered me make contact with Norman Foster just to let him know he admired Foster’s work. I got Foster on the phone–I’m guessing this was in 2003–and the world-famed architect was flattered the Man on Five knew his work. Foster sent a ton of books and other material to me to give to the mayor. I did.

That spire on Trump Tower came from a mayoral trip to Europe during my time in City Hall. I cannot remember the city Daley visited, but when I met with him after his return, he talked excitedly about the spires and other ornamental topped buildings he saw and asked me flat out:  “Where is a building we can put a spire on?” Trump Tower was the only major building in town that was under design and tall enough to take a spire without it looking that a dunce cap or a cowlick.  We didn’t know, then, that SOM had considered a spire for the tower–long before the mayor’s trip–but it was nixed by Donald Trump. The rest is history.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, it seemed as if every downtown building taller than a light pole came to City Hall wanting concrete barriers, or some other way to restrict public access. I remember one building owner wanted a bus stop removed out of fear, I can only suppose, the terrorist would not only take a CTA bus, but would forgo his destructive plans entirely for want of a bus stop outside of the skyscraper he’d targeted.  Daley reminded us that barriers would mainly sit on public rights-of-way which gave the city power to negotiate the look, feel and propriety of the security enhancements. With the exception of the unfortunate forest of bollards around the federal buildings, downtown looks and feels as open post-9/11 as it did before the attacks.

Daley’s architectural and planning vision could get blurry. Personally, I didn’t like seeing the architectural losses at Michael Reese Hospital, for instance. And there are other things.

But is the city on the whole significantly more walkable, livable, sustainable and beautiful now than before? Yes. And the mayor deserves to take some bows over it as he exits the stage in seven months.

There is more work to be done, however. Now let’s see what the next mayor does.