Chicago's Lakefront with Geoffrey Baer

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I stole the title of this post. It's a term used by Chicago's Grant Park Conservancy as they talk about the built environment that surrounds Chicago's front yard. As I set out to make a TV show about Chicago's lakefront I was surprised how often I kept coming back to the subject of architecture. Sure the parks play a starring role. But the buildings are the best supporting actors. (Or worst, depending on your point of view).

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Jackson Park was Daniel Burnham's showcase for neo-classical design and the public went wild for it. Louis Sullivan, a proponent of a more modern style, groused that it set architecture back 50 years.

The Century of Progress Fair of 1933 showcased modern architecture, but Sullivan's former apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright was not impressed. He wrote, "There is nothing in the fair except wholesale imitation." Today the austere modernist McCormick Place stands on the site of the 1933 World's Fair, much to the dismay of Lakefront advocates.

Montgomery Ward fought his fiercest battle to prevent any buildings from being erected on the lakefront and he was despised for it. Oddly, he found himself opposed to the wishes of that other great lakefront champion Daniel Burnham. According the the Burnham Plan of 1909, the Field Museum was supposed to go where Buckingham Fountain is today. If you want to see what it would have looked like, check out Virtual Burnham, an initiative of Professor Davis Schneiderman at Lake Forest College to visualize built and unbuilt elements of the Burnham Plan.

The Supreme Court eventually sided with Ward and the museum ended up on former Illinois Central Railroad land to the south. It's a rather conventional (if monumental) Greek temple. I think the other two buildings in the Museum Campus are more architecturally interesting.

The Shedd Aquarium looks at first glance like another neo-classical homage. But look closer. Everywhere possible (outside and in) the architects Graham, Anderson, Probst and White encrusted the building with ornamental sea creatures and other aquatic references. The light fixtures have bronze octopi lounging on top of them and the pinnacle of the building's dome is Poseidon's trident (with an anti-collision warning light left over from the days when low-flying aircraft frequently passed by on final approach to Meigs Field).

Adler Planetarium is a true art deco gem. Architect Ernst Grunsfeld (whose son Tony is a noted modern architect) created a sublime eight-sided jewel. It's ornamented with wonderful zodiac bas relief sculptures by Alfonso Ianelli, a Park Ridge resident and collaborator of Frank Lloyd Wright's.

The question of whether the Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park is art or architecture is worthy of a post of its own. So I'll leave that and other discussion of Parkitecture for later...



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