My Size Chicago

(Contract magazine is proud to announce our first blog installation from one of three guest design student bloggers. Lisa Brackus, Brittany Hahn, and La Keisha Leek regularly will be writing and sharing their design experiences at TalkContract for the next year. Check back often to see what's the buzz among the next generation of designers, and be sure to share with them your feedback and design advice by commenting below.)

049 If I told you that I got up close and personal with Chicago in Chicago, you might ask me how I liked the city’s live performance of “Does Anyone Really Know What Time it is?” When I think about it, I actually would know what time it was; but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m talking about my recent visit to the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s (CAF) Chicago Model City, a “my size” exhibit of downtown Chicago who’s story lies in the now, then, and future of the planning and development of the city.  Six months, 4000 hours, and over 1,000 buildings later the Model City is the largest model produced by Columbian Model and Exhibit Works.

 Atop the 320-sq.-ft. mass are LED lights provided by Lights with Architects. As the sun sets and rises, according to the earth’s rotation around it, the model’s lights similarly parallel the path of the sun changing every 15 minutes, with white light representing day and blue for night. Get this: the entire model is run off of two household receptacles.

033 For a city that was nearly destroyed in its entirety during the great fire of 1871, Chicago has become a public telescope, focusing on some of the world’s most special architectural treasures—and all by chance! As told in the exhibit’s tour, Chicago was never meant to be a major city.  Not being a native but currently a student here, I was curious to find out what changed everything.

After the fire wiped out the central business district, it was speed rather than innovation that rebuilt the city almost identical to how it stood before. Interesting. (I made a personal note that the Mies, Frankie, and Sullivan buildings that I’d been familiar with didn’t come until at least a generation later.) 

In the years to come the grid would change a couple times—shifting street names and addresses, and the downtown L rail system would be implemented to get folks from here to there at a quicker pace—before architect Daniel Burnham, proposed his city plan for Chicago. It was accepted in 1909. This is the same cityscape that we see today, with a few additions…

Nestled near the east side of the model, I saw a shining little bean! One of my personal favorite developments to the city is Millennium Park. Ten years ago it was a parking garage: but since its face lift in 2004, the park has been one of the center pieces of the new Chicago culture, hosting art shows, concerts in the Jay Pritzker Pavillion, designed by Frank Gehry.

What an experience! I left CAF wondering what city planners considered the fate of their designs as they sit down and develop their ideas. Do they consider that centuries later what they’ve created will still have such an impact?

Share your comments and weigh in below. Or e-mail your questions/feedback.

— La Keisha N. Leek, Contract magazine guest student blogger

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