On bigness and failure: Chicago as the skyscraper city

June 22, 2012

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This summer, the intersection of Adams and State Streets in the Loop has been taken over by Color Jam, an art installation by artist Jessica Stockholder. Described as a piece that "saturates building façades, sidewalks, and crosswalks in bold colors in Chicago’s largest art installation," it uses intersected painted lines that criss-cross the street and run up the buildings.

But dance critic Zachary Whittenburg feels it's just the latest in grand gestures but even grander failures for the city. The project "went from killer concept to faded glory in just a matter of weeks," he says. Read an excerpt below or listen above.

As a fifth-grader growing up in a mountain town in Colorado, I hung on the wall above my bed the centerfold from National Geographic’s February ’89 issue. The foldout blueprint lined up notable examples from the first century of the skyscraper.

If Chicago had any money, it’d make today’s Shanghai look like Sheboygan.

Nine out of the 22 towers are here in Chicago. And although a photo of Manhattan’s Chrysler Building filled the spread which opened the related article, its first sentence was something Louis Sullivan wrote in 1896: “Every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation.”

So I was pretty excited to move here, as an adult, and to hear about the Museum of Contemporary Art’s summer exhibition, “Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity,” which opens June 30. I still love tall buildings and I still regularly court grave injury or death by walking around crowded cities I’ve never been to while looking up.

Chicago’s stranglehold on the title of Skyscraper Central has loosened. But the City of Big Shoulders and Swinging Dicks hasn’t lost either of what the article’s author, William S. Ellis, named as two prerequisites for erecting one of these suckers: “A colossal ego and financing almost inventive enough to warrant a patent.”

If Chicago had any money, it’d make today’s Shanghai look like Sheboygan. But all the creativity in the world can’t make today’s numbers add up. And we’re seeing, with increasing frequency, how that thwarts big egos. Their grand ambitions, inherited from the likes of Sullivan and Daniel Burnham, are meeting scant resources with entertaining results.

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