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Young? Chicago?





A new exhibition at the Art Institute ponders what it means to be a contemporary architect or designer in Chicago. (Originally published, in somewhat different form, in the Chicago Reader, December 15, 2006.)

 -by Lynn Becker








Like reflections in a funhouse mirror, both words making up the title of the new show at the Art Institute double back as almost mocking questions:  What’s Young?  What’s Chicago?

Young Chicago is the calling card for the ideas of a new regime.  When it came time to replace the Art Institute’s longtime curator of architecture John Zukowsky, the museum brought in Joseph Rosa from San Francisco MOMA with an expanded mission and a new title:  Curator of Architecture and Design.  

Museums worldwide have been attracting new audiences with exhibitions like the Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture at SFMOMAGuggenheim’s The Art of the Motorcycle and the fashions of Jackie O in Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, which barnstormed from New York to Boston, to Chicago’s own Field Museum.  At SFMOMA, Rosa curated such fusion exhibitions as Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture, which ranged from Jaguar automobiles to haute couture from Versace to the architecture of Herzon and de Meuron.

Rosa’s Young Chicago has similar ambitions.  It offers up a sweet sixteen of examples that cut acrossNick Cave Soundsuit the disciplines of design: architectural, industrial, graphic and fashion, ranging from one of Nick Cave’s fantastical Soundsuits, (“static sculptures for exhibition,” in the words of the catalogue, “as well as ritualistic costumes for performance”), to JNL Design's Jason Pickleman’s menus for Avec on West Randolph, to architect Clare Lyster’s Jason Pickleman JNL Design Avecproposals to spur redevelopment – including agricultural -  in Chicago’s Lawndale community.  Yet somehow it all winds up feeling almost weirdly disconnected and a bit sparse.

If nothing else, Young Chicago will give Baby Boomers no small measure of comfort, reinventing “young” with a highly permissive spin. Most of the featured designers are 40+, many are in their 50’s, and furniture designer Holly Hunt is pushing – well, I’m not a total cad.  And forget about stuffing everybody under a big “young at heart” tent.  While at 40, many architects are just getting their first major commissions, others, like Peter Pfanner, the wiz who headed up the design team that resurrected Motorola’s sagging fortunes with the RAZR and PEBL cell phones, on exhibit here, can only be considered seasoned veterans.

More interesting is the “Chicago” factor.  No fudging by Rosa here – everyone in the show currently works in Chicago.  And yet . . .

At least at this point, architect Ross Wimer of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, whoseInfinity Tower, Dubai, Ross Wimer, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, architects beautifully tapering and twisting 73-story Infinity Tower in Dubai is in the show, is more of a colonizer than a native. He was groomed by the New York office’s David Childs - the architect who edged Daniel Libeskind out of the design of Freedom Center -  and only recently moved to Chicago, where he emerged as the winner in a power play that saw long-time lead designer Adrian Smith and a bevy of his colleagues bolt SOM to set up their own firm.  Architect Paul Preissner founded his firm, Qua’Virarch, in L.A. and relocated to Chicago only in 2004.  He’s represented in the show by a series of digital renderings of the sinuously amorphous Gyeonggi-do Jeongok Prehistory Museum museum Gyeonggi-do Jeongok Prehistory Museum, Paul Preissner, architectin Korea (think Frank Gehry in concrete and glass instead of titanium.)

So, does the “Chicago” in Young Chicago represent anything more than an accident of geography?  “While its architectural fabric can easily personify a city,” argues Rosa, “the disciplines of industrial design, graphic design, and fashion . . . are not associated with a particular region or region . . . “

Yet this is a fairly recent development.  The rise of cities – and their cultures – have historically been heavily formed by location.  In Chicago, it was the lake, and, eventually, access to the Mississippi River.  It was the closeness to the vast resources of Midwest lumber, livestock and grain, and a central placement that would make the city the primary rail gateway to the emerging west. Out of this, a very distinct Chicago culture emerged – committed to bigness, of course, but also to showing the world we were not just as good, but better, than New York or St. Louis, practical and unsentimental where our older rivals were self-important and indirect.   There was a great deal of socializing and cross-pollination between disciplines – painters, architects, musicians and novelists, including Henry Fuller, whose novel The Cliff Dwellers was centered on one of the city’s iconic turn-of-century skyscrapers.

As Rosa himself documents, the dynamic was still alive in the 1930’s, when three exiles from Germany united Chicago culture under the principals of the Bauhaus: architect Mies van der Rohe reinventing the city’s architecture at IIT, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy creating what would eventually become the Institute of Design, and Herbert Bayer redefining graphic design as a consultant to the Container Corporation of America. But after World War II that unity slowly came apart. Moholy-Nagy died in 1946, Mies was eased out at IIT, and the CCA was eventually sucked up by Mobil Oil.

Today, the impulse of supply chain capitalism is to change everything it touches into a global commodity.  And Chicago played no small role in that development. It was our own Board of Trade which in 1857 created a revolutionary system of standardized grades that allowed grain to be traded and transported, not piecemeal in the sacks of individual farmers, but combined in bulk, in increasingly huge quantities of thousand of bushels. The paper representing those commodities could be traded anywhere in the world. The process, not the place, became what mattered.

The design firm IDEO is a direct descendent of that dynamic.  It’s like a franchise, represented in Young Chicago by its Evanston office, one of four in the U.S.  Its stock and trade is the commodification of ideas: take a problem, throw together a bunch of people to Humatrope Reconstitution Device, IDEObrainstorm it back to first principles and use the research to come up with new and improved designs.  Today it’s a hospital; tomorrow it might be a shopping cart.  In Young Chicago, IDEO is represented by a kidney transporter, IPOD speakers and, for Eli Lily, a “Humatrope Reconstitution Device,” in cool blue with the visual intricacy of a time bomb, which mixes drugs and prepares syringes for parents home-treating children with growth hormone deficiencies. Process, not place.  What was created in Evanston could just as easily been created in Boston, San Francisco, or perhaps even Shanghai.

Still, when you throw a bunch of things together, no matter how disparate, the mind instinctually seeks to discover relationships between them.  Rosa isn’t there yet – Young Chicago has almost a Cliff Notes feel, as if Rosa created it as a kind of a quick-start guide for getting a handle on his new terrain – but for the first time in a long time, he’s gotten the different teams all in the same room, and that’s not a bad start.


Young Chicago is on display in Gallery 227 of the Art Institute of Chicago Young Chicago, Joseph Rosa, editor, Yale University Pressthrough April 29, 2007. It also includes work by architects UrbanLab, 3D Design Studio, Avram Lothan of Destefano+Partners, and John Ronan, as well as designers Jordan Mozer, Studio Blue, Four Fold, and Cat Chow. The exhibition's catalogue, published by Yale University Press, is generously illustrated and affordably priced at $16.95. It can be purchased on-line through the Art Institute store.


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© Copyright 2007 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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