City of Steel: Why destruction looks so stunning in Chicago

The promise of metal and steel and glass can only last so far.

June 24, 2013

Why does Chicago lend itself so perfectly to films of destruction? I thought about this while watching my former office and the surrounding buildings get destroyed in Man of Steel, the latest interpretation of the Superman story.

Parts of the city filled in for Metropolis.

Filming for the epic took place two summers ago and my former coworkers and I spent countless lunch breaks trying to catch glimpses of the film’s stars (to little success).

The filming process reminded me of the summer of Transformers 3. One time my parents and I drove home from a lunch near my sister’s apartment only to find large swaths of Wacker Drive covered in broken “boulders.” My mother screamed. “What is happening?” she asked. “They’re filming that new Transformers movie,” I replied with a questioning tone. “Oh. Yeah,” she said.

There are cheaper cities and shooting locations, but inherent in the local courtship of Hollywood filmmakers is the notion that Chicago is a destructible city. This is not just about the city as a source of destruction and despair. It is true that Chicago represents a thousand things. One of the current narratives is that of promise stunted. It would make sense then for an epic battle to happen in a city of rows and rows of beautiful architecture. The promise of metal and steel and glass can only last so far.

But that reading only grazes the surface of the visual and cultural appeal of Chicago. At its core, Chicago is a city of greatness and its architecture is perhaps the best representation of that. To destroy greatness is a sight to behold on the screen. It is disturbing and powerful. To save greatness, which is what happens at the end of these films, is to show the promise of what once was and what could be the future. Choosing Chicago makes sense. This is our reality. The buildings say this. But deep down, the people feel this, too. 

I don’t know if most people have a favorite building in the city in which they live, but I do. The Carbide & Carbon building is my favorite and has been my favorite since I was a freshman in college. The Monadnock building is a close second. I created numerous projects around the importance and simplicity of the Chicago bungalow. Other people photograph the ins and outs of their social life for Instagram, but I am most tempted to film the buildings around me. I don’t post them all to my account, but my phone and cameras attest to this love.

The greatness can be found during the day as the gleaming sun bounces off of glass windows, making the space feel wider, almost impenetrable. At night, the architecture begins to feel manageable. At night, the lights illuminate. The scene is familiar and comforting. This is what it means to be surrounded by greatness, just so.

At an event I attended last weekend, I introduced myself to an author.

“You’re from Chicago?” he asked. “You know, I’ve never felt so physically small as when I was there.”

At a brunch in my apartment with close friends, we discussed the beauty of Chicago.

“You forget, you know?” one of my friends said.

My friend Joe recently welcomed an old friend to the city. They spent time walking downtown. It was there, away from the day-to-day, that he was reminded of all that surrounds him.

“That church is so beautiful,” he began. “And the Hancock is so stunning … I’m so used to the daily grind, keeping your head down to notice.”

I could only nod in agreement. It is something we forget, but something all Chicagoans want to claim, eagerly.

Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt's essays for WBEZ's Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.