View Full Version : "Boston vs Chicago" (Chicago Tribune)

07-19-2013, 10:51 AM
Boston vs. Chicago; This Time in Architecture
Blair Kamin
July 19, 2013


Now that I'm viewing Chicago through the lens of Boston, you see, Chicago simultaneously appears familiar and strange. The buildings look taller. The streets seem straighter and wider. The sky seems huge, like a big patch of blue over an Iowa cornfield. Yet new towers blot out sky where, less than a year ago, there was nothing but air.

After the recession froze its skyline in place, downtown Chicago, at least, has welcomed back construction cranes, befitting its relative youth.

While Boston is nearing its 400th birthday in 2030, Chicago is only 180 years old; a mere 142 if you believe the urban clock really began ticking after the Great Fire of 1871. With much of the city yet to achieve its final forms, the architectural and urban planning stakes are high, especially with Mayor Rahm Emanuel pursuing such dubious moves as blighting our expressways with digital billboards.

I'll get to the billboards in a future column, but, for now, let me take you to Boston and the essence of what I discovered there: The self-styled "Hub of the Universe," despite a reputation for architectural stodginess, is a place of vivid juxtapositions between the old and the new, indisputable design accomplishment and broad urban influence.

Completed in 1798 its dome wasn't gilded with 23.5 karat gold leaf until 1874 Charles Bulfinch's classically trimmed Massachusetts State House set a standard that would be followed by the U.S. Capitol and scores of imitators.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Henry Hobson Richardson's muscular Romanesque buildings disciplined the picturesque riot of Victorian architecture and paved the way for the masterworks of the Boston-born Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. In roughly the same years, Frederick Law Olmsted's lush "Emerald Necklace" pioneered the concept of an interconnected chain of urban parks, after Olmsted was unable to realize the idea in New York.

In the late 1930s, Walter Gropius brought clean-lined Bauhaus modernism to Harvard, just as fellow German emigre Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was doing the same at what is now called the Illinois Institute of Technology. In the 1970s, Benjamin Thompson's recycling of the historic Quincy Market set the pattern for revitalizing moribund urban spaces, including Chicago's Navy Pier, with its innovative, but formulaic, concept of the "festival marketplace."

As if to underscore that Boston's impact is as fresh as the latest tweet, the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday was expected to approve a proposal that, for better and for worse, will transform Wrigley Field into a Midwestern cousin of Boston's intimate, yet ad-plastered, Fenway Park.

It is an impressive litany, though Boston is not without awful mistakes, like the moonscape plaza outside its widely despised but powerfully sculpted City Hall, or the massive cost overruns associated with the Big Dig that transformed the Central Artery elevated highway into an easy-to-traverse tunnel. The banal public space atop the tunnel, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, is also a disappointment.

If Boston is the cradle of liberty, it is also, in many respects, a cradle that nurtured essential aspects of Chicago's cityscape, from its powerfully hewn office blocks to its stress-relieving lakefront parks.

Like those parks, which were created by dumping soil and debris into Lake Michigan, much of Boston's land mass is man-made. Marshes and bays were filled, dramatically expanding the original city peninsula, which was only joined to the mainland by a narrow "neck." Marquee neighborhoods like the Back Bay, scene of April's Boston Marathon bombing, rise on fill.

Despite these and other similarities (a long-dominant Irish-Catholic political class, star-crossed baseball teams and bitter racial tensions), Boston and Chicago have sharp differences.

Boston's tallest building, the elegant, glass-sheathed John Hancock Tower, rises just 790 feet. In Chicago, where the 1,451-foot Willis Tower reigns supreme, that barely gets you noticed.

With a few notable exceptions, like the campanile of the old Custom House, the skyline of downtown Boston fails to produce the jaw-dropping drama of Chicago's skyline, which is accentuated because towers here can be seen from Grant Park's Versailles-inspired forecourt or from the swath of open space cut by the Chicago River. The river, in particular, offers the perfect tableau for such skyscrapers as the twin corncobs of Marina City. Put them in the forest of the Loop and they'd pack far less visual punch.

But bigness can be a vice rather than a virtue.

Compared with Boston's narrow medieval lanes, Chicago's street grid is an emblem of modernity, facilitating (at least in theory) the easy movement of people and goods. From a jetliner's window, the grid appears transcendent, its orange net stretching endlessly across the flatlands. Yet at street level, its relentless march through park-poor neighborhoods begets a cityscape of spirit-robbing toughness. In a 2013 survey of big-city U.S. park systems, the Trust for Public Land ranked Boston third (in a tie with Sacramento, Calif., and San Francisco), based on such factors as the share of a city's area devoted to parks. Chicago ranked 16th, despite the buzz generated by the "606," the ZIP code-inspired renaming of the planned Bloomingdale Trail.

As the survey suggests, Boston compensates for its lack of bigness with smaller, granular pleasures that lend the city an appealing human scale. The Esplanade, a leafy path along the Boston side of the Charles River, offers the kind of continuous public space that planners here dream of along the Chicago River. Like Boston Common and the Public Garden, it serves up a reminder that public spaces in American cities often strive to introduce the softening presence of nature, unlike such hard-edged European plazas as Siena, Italy's Piazza del Campo.

It would be easy, then, to assert that Boston is about creating vibrant urban places and Chicago is about creating distinctive architectural objects.

Yet the needless, look-at-me exhibitionism of Diller Scofidio + Renfro's cantilevered Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, which opened on the edge of Boston Harbor in 2006, doesn't fit that mold. Nor do such worthy landmarks as Richardson's Trinity Church; McKim, Mead & White's Beaux-Arts Boston Public Library; or Gropius' own house in the Boston suburb of Lincoln, built in 1938 with a rare mix of comfortable domesticity and cutting-edge modernity.

What can be said with authority is that Boston and Chicago both possess that elusive quality known as "urban character," and that the two cities have much to learn from each other.

Boston teaches fundamental lessons about the subtle accretion of layers of history and how contrasting scales and styles lend cities an enlivening jolt. Doing big things right is an essential part of ever-boisterous Chicago's DNA, as is the drive to transform the latest building technologies into art.

Despite their differences, both cities continue to reinvent themselves as they aspire to achieve a distinctly American "middle landscape" that blends rural serenity with urban vitality.

It's great to be back to assess the Chicago end of that story.

Now, about those digital billboards, Mr. Mayor


Twitter @BlairKamin

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07-30-2013, 04:10 PM
Great article. Too bad we didn't have Blair chiming in on Boston architecture during his fellowship year at Harvard.