Inspired by its black mayor and a British curator, Chicago is reviving the political narratives that shaped its cityscape
Crown Hall, at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, is an icon of modern architecture. Designed by Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1956, it is a crystalline glass box framed in slender black steel, symmetrical, raised above the ground, reached by a central ceremonial flight of steps. It is the acme of the pure disciplined abstract style that Mies brought from Germany to the United States. When the reaction to such architecture arrived in the 1970s, the American-born, London-based Charles Jencks, the man who first attached the label postmodern to architecture, singled out Crown Hall both for its lack of familiar decorative language and for the absurdity of making a school of architecture (which is what it is) look like a temple.
Unmentioned in this stylistic debate is Mecca Flats, the building that Crown Hall replaced. This was a courtyarded apartment building, originally a hotel, that had become a centre of African American life in Chicago, the inspiration for a blues song by Jimmy Blythe and a long poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. It was demolished in the name of urban renewal, after a decade-long fight to save it. A Negro slum, Harpers magazine called it. You watch, said one of the residents as it was being demolished, a lot of people who lived here, they gonna die from grief.
The Mecca Flats story is emblematic of the power struggles, often racially driven, that have shaped Chicago. The intention of Yesomi Umolu, the artistic director of this years Chicago Architecture Biennial, is to represent the myriad of stories, like that of the Mecca, that make a city.
Chicago has several claims to architectural and urbanistic fame as the birthplace of the skyscraper, for fertilising the talents of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright as well as Mies, and as the launchpad of the City Beautiful movement, which aimed to counter urban squalor with parks and monuments. Under the title And other such stories Umolus biennial aims to bring out the social and political forces behind these great works.
While Chicago has always been a site of radical imagination in relation to architecture, as she says, there isnt architectural form without history and narrative. It is for her the quintessential American city. It was built on land taken from Native Americans, and its gridded street plan reflects the patterns of the land surveys that were part of that appropriation. It grew rich on produce from the prairies. If it welcomed African Americans migrating from the southern states, it also segregated their neighbourhoods and obstructed their access to the home-ownership that was held up to white people as an ideal of American citizenship. Redlining was practised there, the process by which banking and other services would be denied to districts populated by minorities. You cannot not talk about Chicago through the lens of segregation, says Umolu.