Finding ‘ugly’ architectures in Chicago!
This podcast will take you to explore two ‘ugly’ buildings in Chicago and you are not required to absorb tons of knowledge, just have fun!
Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2022. I’m your host, Li Jing, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Law School. Today we will be exploring the topic of finding ‘ugly’ architectures in Chicago.
No matter whether you have been to Chicago, based on the study by Rayfield from Northern Illinois University, you must have heard that Chicago is a city reborn from ashes[i] and splendid architecture constructed after the great Chicago fire. Structures like the Aqua Tower, the Art Institute of Chicago and Willis Tower and architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Renzo Piano are all great symbols of Chicago architecture’s history. However, Chicago has not only such masterpieces but also lots of unique buildings, which may seem strange or weird and be overlooked by you or any traveling journals or not aesthetically please everyone. They also constitute the diversity of Chicago architecture culture. So, today I will select two famous buildings Chicagoans think are ugly or seems unique, unharmonious with surroundings, and let you know why such buildings look the way they do, what they are used for, what we can learn from such design and legends behind them. Without further do, let’s get started.
The first controvertible ugly building I would say is House of Blues. House of Blues is located at Dearborn Street. Once your taxi driver drops you off on Dearborn, you have to search and hunt out where is the House of Blues entrance. In such a curriculum, people may feel like the House of Blues is not trying to welcome and encourage people to come into the space. Furthermore, when you look at its facades, the way the facades are organized or maintained can kind of look like the concrete was really lumpy. So according to the timeout website, the House of Blues has been deemed the ugliest building among Chicagoans.[ii] However, the unique saddle-shaped building was designed by Bertrand Goldberg in the 1960s and it’s part of the iconic Marina City[iii]. As Goldberg said, “Marina City was never a contemporary building style in my mind. It was a development, a technological… and aesthetic wringing out of a concept with a considerable amount of reason for its existence”. According to the Bertrand Goldberg works official website, the building was initially designed for a live theater but was ultimately constructed as a studio for television. Based on the introduction from the houses of blues, the large arches of steel beams were covered with a smaller scale triangular-shaped structural grid shaped like a saddle; this was then sprayed with concrete, and clad in lead sheathing for sound isolation. After several years, this building was converted into a theater for the House of Blues. The interior of House of Blues is modeled after the Estavovski Opera House in Prague. It combines 11 centuries of artifacts with present-day treasures to create one of the most sumptuous environments in Chicago.[iv]
The second building I would mention is 55 West Wacker, which was designed by Charles Francis Murphy, the designer of O’Hare International Airport as well. According to the preview Chicago website, Chicagoans consider that 55 West Wacker is an otherwise impressive stretch of riverfront architecture marred by this 15-story molded concrete tic-tac-toe board adorned with tacky fonts.[v] Well, 55 West Wacker is a brutalist-style building. According to the introduction by Mike McMains, a senior tour guide of the Chicago architecture center, Brutalism is not a particularly beloved style of design, but the term is not derivative of the word brutal. It’s a derivative of the French phrase based on brute meaning rock concrete. And it’s very experimental using that fluid concrete to turn it into a muscular architecture. It’s a little building between its taller neighbors, but it looks very proud of its stature.
In the end, I hope my podcast will give you a new perspective to admire the architecture and trigger your interest in exploring the Chicago buildings. While walking along Michigan Avenue, oak park, or Hyde Park, even a tiny and ordinary building may have its own story behind it. Go! Finding Chicago! Finding architectures!