The City Beautiful, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, January-June 2017
Daniel G. Baird, Clarissa Bonet, Patty Carroll, Michael and Yhelena Hall, Stevie Hanley, David Wallace Haskins, Inside the Artists Kitchen (in collaboration with Kiam Marcelo Junio), Kirsten Leenaars, Jeremy Lundquist, Art Paul, John Preus, and Sonnenzimmer
Wandering along the Lakefront bike path one afternoon, watching locals and tourists alike looking out to the horizon of Lake Michigan while trying to avoid collisions with the occasional cyclists, I ruminated on the idea that Chicago’s lakefront is a kind of playground for the city’s imagination. When Chicagoans engage with the Lake—whether on the sands of Hollywood Beach or by the fire pits on Promontory Point—the speed of communication between them is slowed and the poetic potential of thought and gesture grows. Upon entering the vast body of water—a boundless expanse stretching as far as the eye can see—one shifts into an alternative temporal flux, editing and performing muscle and memory, form and action between modes of temporality. This waxing and waning of time and thought affords Chicago its can-do spirit, inspiring it, as architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham said, to “make no little plans” for its future.
From this saltless sea a city of concrete, steel, and glass was built. After the Great Fire a particular linear form of time, space, and place was embedded into the fabric of Chicago, both to beautify the city and to improve the efficiency of commerce. Dictated by Euclidian geometry, this grid of streets, parks, and skyscrapers is a physical manifestation of the dense network of interconnecting nodes—railways and shipping lanes—from which power and trade have been projected from this city for the past 179 years. The City Beautiful traces the legacy of the 19th century’s greatest commercial republic—meat, corn, and steel—to today’s post-industrial landscape.
For it is no longer the slaughter houses of the West Loop—long since converted to condos and upscale restaurants—that power Chicago but the cultural capital generated by its creative class. Building on the City Beautiful movement—the promotion of beauty not only for its own sake, but to create civic virtue among populations—institutions such as those supported by the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation move Chicago forward as a 21st century cultural powerhouse. From the high-trafficked neighborhoods of downtown Chicago to the open expanses of the far South Side, these cultural organizations dedicate themselves to supporting Chicago’s artist communities and, in doing so, contribute to the post-industrial vitality of the City of Broad Shoulders. Chicago, no longer “Hog Butcher for the World” but a city in a moment of social movement.
Translating the static into the mobile, Chicago’s artists are recycling, rebuilding, and reworking the imagination of the city. Both physical and conceptual, this movement holds the potential for social rupture through a redistribution and reinvention of the form—of politics, of architecture, or the body. The works in The City Beautiful address the architectural and political nature of Chicago and how this superstructure informs us, both in body and spirit, as citizens of this Midwestern metropolis. Polished concrete and rebar, recycled Chicago Public Schools desks and blueprints: the production of art through the use of discarded materials and decentralized systems of support is a form of political economy, providing autonomy from the market. This economy of means incorporates both the cultural and physical detritus of capitalism and allows the artist to navigate through complicated political environments such as police brutality, demographic change, and a broken city budget.
Chicago—the birthplace of railroad capitalism—is the reality check city of America. It is in Chicago that one can take the pulse of the Nation as a city that is both urban and suburban. One can enjoy the relative peace and quiet of a residential neighborhood like Beverly—the village in the city—to the culture and energy of Chicago’s Loop. This city—through its political grit, monumental buildings, and glittering lake—reflects our image back to us. The City Beautiful utilizes stainless steel, hand-drawn memories, and scenes of Midwestern domesticity to create a feedback circuit of our reflected image. These artworks—as bright and transcendent as the Lake, and as haunting and storied as US Steel’s South Works site—reveal our immediate way of being.