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AIA Illinois Finally gets the "Best of" List Right





An addictive survey of 150 great architectural places in Illinois

 -by Lynn Becker





[March 23, 2007] - After a silly season of "best of" lists that's ranged from the American Institute of Architect's lazy and inane America's Favorite Architecture to the Illinois Bureau of Tourism's beauty contest quest for the Seven Wonders of Illinois, AIA Illinois has finally gotten it right.

With 150 Great Places in Illinois, (the magic 150 number comes from the AIA's current celebration of its 150th anniversary year), they've finally come up with a compilation that AIA Illinois 150 Great Placescomes off neither as a joke nor something a PR intern tossed off between assignments. It's not grossly marbled with curiosities but truly focuses on the good stuff regardless of style, period or location.

150 Great Places succeeds in no small measure due to its superbly designed website, which consists of but a single, simple and elegant page, where the visitor can easily navigate to richly detailed information and photographs for each entry. The look andBAPS Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Temple feel is almost puritan - linear black and gray backgrounds, white type. To the left, a colorful mosaic of tiny thumbnails of all 150 places gives texture to the page, with a slideshow of full-sized photos running above it. Running your cursor over any of the thumbnails displays the name of the place depicted. Click on the thumbnail, and its photo appears and, to the right, its place along a historical timeline, and a map that can display the nearest interstates. Click on the full size photo and an overlay provides provides basic information - address, year, architect - as well as a scrollable mini-essay. Another pane provides multiple search lines that group the places by type, city and architect, or AIA chapter, if that's your cup of tea. It all works seamlessly.

150 Great Places is highly idiosyncratic, and that's putting it lightly. For Bertrand Goldberg, only Marina City is listed - no Prentice Hospital, River City or Hilliard Homes. Myron Goldsmith is among the missing, as is Stanley Tigerman, Burnham, Root, and, as far as I could tell, Adler and Sullivan (!) Sears Tower makes the cut; the Hancock does not. Movie palaces like the Rialto in Joliet and Paramount in Aurora are included, but none of the grand hallucinations in Chicago.

That may be the best thing about the list, however - how it goes beyond the usual Principia College Campus, Elsah, Illinois, Bernard Maybeck, architectsuspects. Browse through the site and if you're at least reasonably ignorant, like myself, you'll come across unexpected delights such as the Bernard Maybeck's Principia College Campus, a product of the 1930's that's about as far as you can get from Mies' IIT in both style and location - it's in Elsah, north of Belleville, Illinois. There's Max Abramovitz's Assembly Hall at UIUC, George Elmslie's Old Second National Bank in Aurora, A. B. Mullet's 1872 Cairo Custom House, the Cairo Custom House, A.B. Mullett, architectCloud State Bank in McLeansboro, and the 1937 Paul Schweikher house in Schaumburg. Nor is the survey stuck in the past. Jean-Paul Viguier's Sofitel Hotel gets a nod, as does Papadopoulos & Pradhan's stunning 2004 BAPS Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Temple in Bartlett, and Studio/Gang's Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theater in Rockford.

As you can see from this selection, the list is also highly eclectic. There's no snobbery over styles or periods, but, unlike the other "best of" lists, there's no apparent pandering, either. Excellence rather than mass popularity seems to be key.

In most cases, there is one external link to a web site with more information; in at least a few instances, alas, already broken. Another Benjt Sjostrom Starlight Theater, Rockford, Illinois, Studio/Gang, architects unfortunate quirk, at least in Safari on a Mac, is the way the photo captions often double over themselves illegibly.

Otherwise, I found the site to perform flawlessly, and the project, itself, to be the first of its kind that didn't feel like I was lowering my intelligence just by browsing through it. 150 Great Places in Illinois is a class act, and its website is an addictive pleasure. See it here.


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© Copyright 2007 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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