Stepping off the Loop onto street level in Chicago is an attempt to navigate through one of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe‘s dreams. The canyons of steel, glass and concrete are striation par excellence, linearising not only the spatiality around you, but your psychological satnav. Left, right, forward or back, but that’s it. Pick one.
Drifting across the city was a time of exploration and dérive, but also one of information gathering of a historical nature. The remit was to analyse the nuances of the colossal economic expansion of the city in the late nineteenth century, taking me to experts of the city at the time. The exchanges I had with urban historians, Chicago professors and museum curators were astoundingly mesmeric, with the stories of the stockyards, grain elevators, meat markets, political corruption and social deprivation bringing a further dimension to the already contested cityscape that I was conducting in my mind. Everyone has a pre-conception of city that is lodged in their psyche which is attacked the moment they step onto it’s concrete. Mine of Chicago was shaped by Hollywood and a previous fleeting visit in 2005. How much you allow the city’s forces of the here and now to change that pre-conception is dependent on your ability and desire to let them, and I was a willing recipient. Perhaps it was the romanticism that was being narrated to me through the historical texts and the conversations I was having, but it juxtaposed the city in on itself like a Latourian handkerchief, creating an urban tapestry that has an exposure and rawness that seductively encourages a sleazy voyeurism. No layering or concealment in this city, Chicago seems to lay its cards on the table for all to see and participate in.
Pounding the freakishly large ‘sidewalks’ unidirectionally for prolonged periods is anything but disorientating, unless you look up and suddenly get attacked by vertigo. The city’s architecture intermittently brutalises your view, decorating it with glimpses of individuality and whispers of a prosperous and yet multiplicitous past, before slamming the door shut with a curtain of black, rekindling those modernist lucidities that the neo-liberal city has perfected so wickedly. The sparkling yet sparse backdrop of Lake Michigan serves to catalyse such brutality; the abruptness of the city’s limit at the lake front could be mistaken for a city teetering on the edge of cliff, straining to get the best view whilst trying to keep its balance. Only the delightfully tacky Navy Pier juts out into the lake to stabilize the teetering city.
The tyranny of horizontal striation that is the feature of the grid city is exacerbated by the it’s second dimension of verticality. Up or down. Pick one. Up into the stratosphere to get a view of the city that De Certeau intended, with a pane of glass separating you from the ant-infested street below. Hovering above the city 100 floors up gives you a sense of perspective that is rarely matched in European cities, and it seems the city is beating it’s aesthetic chest hardest when gazed upon from above. It is a bar chart of modernist towers plotting Burgess to the exactitude that would get you an A* in your GCSEs, and makes no excuses. Only Trump’s latest addition to the forest seems ridiculously anachronistic and out-of-place.
Down underneath the plateau of homogeneous concrete, and you reach the CTA’s subterranean dot-the-dot puzzle, for 5 year olds. The obvious spokes emanating from the Loop are as conspicuous as the lack of any lines to the East (or the bottom of the CTA map), as anything going in that direction would risk puncturing Lake Michigan. It’s simplicity is matched only by its uselessness in the face of a automotive-imbued society; the 1 hour malodorous trip from airport to Downtown is testament to that. Certain lines will criss-cross the loop underneath, with little regard for the circular precision with which it was originally designed. But the trains on these lines are then belched up from the underworld outside Downtown, and careen dangerously close to the second and third floor windows of the hapless urbanites unlucky enough to live adjacent to these harbingers of creaky metal and glass.
Unlike other vertical carnivores such as New York, Hong Kong, Sydney, Shanghai or even Frankfurt, Chicago’s surly attitude mixed with a pertinacious prevalence suggests that it uniqueness is found in its ubiquity of modernist thought. It’s unabashed narrative of brutalism and its unashamed exposure of all things modern (included in that is the general mocking of all things that attempt to escape the straight-jacket of linearity), Chicago stands out proud (or should that be churlish) among the Alpha cities of the world. For that reason alone, it would be make a great urban geography field trip destination.