Chicago, April 2009
I went to Chicago over the Easter weekend, 2009. It was the first time I'd been there. Chicago, we discovered, cannot be seen in three and a half days - although we had already guessed as much.
My guidebook claims that Chicago got the nickname "The Windy City" because of its blowhard politicians, but these days it earns it by channeling air between a huge array of skyscrapers (which themselves stand as a lesson in the development of the form) to send howling cold winds down all the avenues within "The Loop," the centre of the city. The Loop is a bizarre combination of vibrancy, grime, and sterility. On every side you're surrounded by buildings that tower over you, which is very alienating. But this is where the city comes to do business, and to a certain extent to party. And then there's "the El," the elevated trains on their massive old ironwork over some of the streets.
The Art Institute of Chicago has a truly immense and astounding (if badly laid out) collection, including (and these were only the things that both interested me and I had time for) "La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat (which turns out to be huge, a good 2x3m), a large selection of lovely Monets, "American Gothic," and a new huge display of Karsh Portraits. Look particularly at the photos of Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway at this link. I imagine these will look quite familiar: they've become THE iconic image of each man. Seeing them in person was wonderful: he was a fantastic photographer, and the books, no matter how well printed, don't capture the richness of his prints.
Navy Pier is a monument to malls and commercialism sticking out into Lake Michigan, complete with ferris wheel. We weren't eager to go there, but in the end I pressed the case because they had a "Stained Glass Museum." I love churches, and a large part of that love stems from stained glass. The Pier is just as hideously commercial as all the guidebooks suggest, but the Stained Glass Museum is an extraordinary experience, worth battling through the Pier to see. It's not a "museum" in the classical sense, it has no doors to close it off from the mall, instead it's mostly one long hallway in a quiet section of the mall. And I do mean "long:" I think it's around 250 meters. There's a LOT of stained glass in many, many different styles. I loved it - as you'll see from the pictures.
Chicago is also the home of Frank Lloyd Wright. We went out to the Oak Park neighbourhood where he lived. Getting there was an education: the Loop is vibrant and financially viable, but there seems to be a ring of death much like there is in Detroit. Both have an active downtown (although Chicago's is much bigger), and Chicago seems to share the depressed mid-distance suburbs. But by the time you get out to Oak Park things are beautiful again, and you get a walking tour of Wright-designed houses and the Unity Temple. Wright is interesting: he makes works of art that are often called architecture, but if you leave them out in the rain they leak like a sieve.