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Shaping the City: Chicago Gets Gold Medal for Design

(By Roger K. Lewis For The Washington Post)
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Observing the city via the Chicago River is equally memorable. Threading through the heart of downtown, the river is one of America's most extraordinary urban spaces, a veritable architectural fiord. Countless historic and modern buildings rise next to the river. Whether on a boat or riverside promenade, you can readily perceive the city's fabric of streets and blocks, in part thanks to the iconic steel-truss drawbridges spanning the river at each street.

It's easy to understand why architects are such heroes in Chicago. Recall some of the talents who produced original work there during the late 19th and the 20th century: Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Architects following in their footsteps include Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as well as Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, designers of more Chicago skyscrapers than any other firm.

A few years ago, Frank Gehry arrived on the lakefront scene with his trademark stainless steel shingles to design the curvaceously exuberant Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a band shell, in fabulous Millennium Park, along with the BP Bridge snaking its way from the park over a road and eastward toward the lake.

Celebrated architect Renzo Piano recently designed the latest addition to the Art Institute of Chicago, immediately adjacent to Millennium Park. The museum's new wing is rectilinear and rational, glass and pure white metal, elegantly composed and immaculately detailed. Its cool, controlled geometry contrasts sharply with the exploding form of Gehry's visually hot pavilion rising in the park a few hundred yards to the north.

The museum addition and Millennium Park, completed five years ago after substantial delays and huge cost overruns, reaffirm a Chicago tradition: Architecture and architects deserve to be front and center.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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