By Nick Cecchi
A move to the South Side of Chicago inevitably draws suggestions that one view the more well-known examples of extant architecture. Altruistic friends and relatives might mention Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, the University of Chicago Mansueto Library, or even the Oriental Institute if they are particularly well-versed in architecture. Dutifully, many students will see these places only to realize the excitement projected onto these buildings resolves itself in the inevitable bathetic pallor of expectations unmet.
This isn’t to say these buildings are not worth seeing. Go and see these significant works of architecture, but make time to explore the larger neighborhood. Allow for the exceptional, the commonplace, and the hidden gems to regularly surprise you. This article takes you through four pieces of architecture and urban design which illuminate hidden facets of the South Side.
Approximately seven blocks north of campus one can find a stately building of grey granite, the Blackstone Public Library. With a simple but timeless exterior, the building does not stand out among the historic stock of Hyde Park. Once inside, though, it reveals its beauty as visitors enter under a vast dome which illuminates the interior through translucent glass laid into a glistening brass latticework. Carved marble, murals and cornices abound; however, the real gem here is in the stacks, or rather is the stacks. Constructed of cast glass floors supported on a polished brass structure, the stacks have an incredible lightness and beauty, perfectly capturing the spirit of Art Nouveau as interpreted through the restrained architecture of circa-1904 Chicago. Take the short walk, sign up for a library card, and spend some time searching for a good book amongst this most exceptional piece of architecture.
Most students at the U of C will get plenty of the campus architecture over the course of their tenure. It is essential to get out and meet your institutional neighbors though in order to see how different academic settings engender different forms. Start with your neighbors at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Just a short hop north on the Green Line, IIT is traditionally known as the go-to place for Miesian modernism, but offers much more in the form of the McCormick Tribune Campus Center (MTCC). An often-maligned building, the MTCC is the handiwork of Rem Koolhaas, and possibly the best building in Chicago. Featuring a dizzying array of different spaces, textures, colors and forms, the MTCC never ceases to present a previously unknown aspect to the visitor no matter how many times one has experienced the building. The MTCC remains one of the purest expressions of contemporary modernism on offer in Chicago and provides a potent antidote to the ornate gothic revival that much of U of C’s campus features. Stop here when you have a few extra minutes while taking the train north or make an afternoon of it. If you go, skip the student dining services (they aren’t any better than your options at U of C) and get back on the Green Line for the authentic cuisine in Chinatown or Pilsen.
Head south on Chicago’s lakefront, just a short bike or bus ride from U of C , and explore Steelworkers Park, a defunct steel works which once covered 600 acres and has now been reclaimed as parkland. The site retains the massive brick walls and buttresses that once held iron ore, but now host plant and animal life. The arresting beauty of senescence pervading the remaining structures juxtaposes perfectly with scenic views of Lake Michigan and a replanted prairie landscape. Ruins in a major city such as Chicago don’t get much better than this. Pack a picnic and pick up some friends for an afternoon here before the weather turns. It is an experience that rewards those willing to venture off-campus with lasting memories.
Midway Plaisance is most often referenced as a waypoint or landmark on the way to other destinations, but it deserves to be experienced in its own right. The remnants of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Plaisance connects Jackson and Washington Parks, and along with these anchor parks, was designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and planner Daniel Burnham. The Plaisance is best experienced starting in either of the parks which bookend it and walking along the length until arriving at the opposite end. Over a century before New York’s High Line or Chicago’s 606 trail, the Plaisance was showing how a linear park can connect and create places, activating the adjacent neighborhoods and providing welcome public space at an urban scale. It is not to be overlooked.
Ben Schulman is the editor of the design section of Newcity and co-host of “A Lot You Got to Holler,” the Newcity podcast on design, architecture and urbanism. His work with Newcity is one of many ventures he engages in to communicate the value of design and cities. Ben serves as the communications director for Small Change, a real estate crowdfunding platform that works to catalyze the development of transformative real estate projects. Previously, he was the communications director for the Chicago chapter of The American Institute of Architects, editor of Chicago Architect magazine and communications director for the urban think-tank, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). His writing has appeared and been noted in outlets such as ARCHITECT Magazine, Belt Magazine, ICON, New Geography, Streetsblog, The National Review, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pop City Media and as a contributor to The Urbanophile, among others. When not writing about cities, Ben serves as an editorial assistant for the journal New Media + Society, and helps head the Contraphonic Sound Series, an attempt to document cities through sound.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | Website: benschulman.com