"City Works: Provocations for Chicago's Urban Future" at Expo 72: review

An exhibition devoted to visionary Chicago architecture is anything but visitor friendly.

Photograph: Martha Williams
Steven Alan

Last year, five teams of architects represented Chicago at the 13th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy: David Brown, Alexander Eisenschmidt, Studio Gang Architects, Stanley Tigerman and UrbanLab. Their collaborative exhibition, “City Works: Provocations for Chicago’s Urban Future,” offered five different visions of what Chicago could be, imagining alternative ways for architecture to engage the city. Now “City Works” is back home and currently on display at Expo 72. 

Exhibitions about architecture can be difficult to pull off. Non-architects are often unused to reading conventional architectural drawings: plans, sections and elevations. So 3-D representations, such as scale models and perspective renderings, are needed to convey spatial concepts to the general public. “City Works” gets this right in providing four beautifully constructed tabletop models—slices of the city set against a backdrop of vintage renderings depicting visionary projects from Chicago’s past. The juxtaposition makes for a stunning display.

But despite the show’s seductive aesthetics, the exhibition is far from visitor friendly. Paragraphs about each project are too general in content and printed onto the floor—not easy to read when the gallery is crowded with visitors. Two of the projects, those by Urbanlab and Studio Gang, include books that visitors can leaf through, but who wants to read a book at an exhibition? A number of technical snafus also distract from the show: burned out lamps, slideshows that flash by too quickly and table legs mounted atop floor text, obscuring words. (Come on, DCASE, get your act together!)

UIC professor Alexander Eisenschmidt’s collage-like murals of unrealized visionary skyscrapers provide a visually engaging—if non-informative (again, lack of explanatory text)—historic context for the four scale models that propose current visions of Chicago’s urban future. These four proposals, or “provocations,” vary in how successfully they convey architectural ideas.

In The Available City, David Brown proposes to re-establish Chicago’s lost urban density by building on 15,000 vacant lots “through a publically accessible collective space system.” The rules governing this system—and the economics that might power it—are not clearly spelled out, so we’re left to puzzle over a colorful model where over-scaled, blocky constructs impose themselves onto the cityscape.

The word “free” in Free Water District by Urbanlab (Sarah Dunn and Martin Felsen) immediately raises a red flag. The team proposes to lure "water-intensive industries from the Sunbelt” to Chicago with the promise of "free water." The only problem is, nothing is free in our age of global climate change and increased demand for resources, not even water in the Great Lakes region. The scale model imposes a series of megastructures upon the land, somewhat reminiscent of designs by the 1960s firm Archigram, that seem to ignore Chicago’s environmental and cultural standpoints. 

Stanley Tigerman's proposal is perhaps the least functional of the four, but the one that's most metaphysical in concept. Titled Displacement of the Grid with the Cloister, the project investigates “the nature of the ‘ineffable in architecture.’" Tigerman proposes several interruptions in the city's grid, all of which are inwardly focused on courtyards or cloisters. The plan challenges the city’s original organizing framework, a system that divided the land into quadrants that were then sold and resold, giving Chicago its 19th-century reputation as a soulless town that cared only about making money. Tigerman’s proposal seeks to inject soul into the grid.

More successful is Studio Gang's project Reclaiming the Edge. Of the four projects, it is the most visually intuitive and suggests a more symbiotic relationship between Chicago's urban fabric, waterways and green spaces. The proposal presents an alternative engagement with the city's river and lake to "redesign our waterscape for collective, long-term benefit, rather than 20th-century industry." To this end, Studio Gang takes inspiration from Chicago’s original natural environments—specifically wetland and lakeshore habitats—and designs a series of green zones that organically reconnect the city to its waterways.

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