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Modernism, Globalization and Sustainability

   In 1665, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini was summoned to Paris by Louis XIV of France to work on a new design for the Louvre Palace. This request from the French king was something truly different and unprecedented. Perhaps this was the moment when things changed, when modernism, globalization and sustainability became aligned, finally intersecting in the 21st century. Bernini, whose international reputation at the time exceeded his predecessor Michelangelo, was a major proponent of the Italian idea of architecture. Among his major commissions was the oval-shaped plaza with its colonnade that forms the forecourt to the Vatican. Bernini was sought after for his innovative ideas, and this was a very new thing.
   For millennia, architecture had been exported by the dominant powers as an expression of political will. The first evil empire, Rome, brought their interpretation of Greek Classicism and its technological inventions to the known world. Throughout the Roman provinces, the peoples’ acceptance of Roman architecture was both an acceptance of the dominance of Rome and a willful desire to feel less provincial.
   Bernini was not being summoned from the provinces to the capital, but he was insteadmaking connections between intellectual power centers. To achieve this dialogue, there was an investment of time and scarce resources.
   Fast-forward 343 years to Chicago in the 21st century. The city’s future is dependent in part on its place in the international marketplace for ideas. The design community—whether related to architecture, art, graphic design, multi-media or many of the other arts—is competing in this marketplace.
   This competition is proving to be both a burden and an opportunity.
   A sizable portion of the architectural community is not prepared for this future. For a city with a great reputation, most clients purchase and most architects sell their services as a commodity. Commissions are awarded based on how much have you done, rather than how well it has been done. In this world, design is a non-issue. Architecture has been reduced to what is expected instead of what is possible.
   This is the future of the past. Chicago’s skyline has become crowded with hundreds of condominium towers, one just as forgettable as the next, and most were designed by Chicago firms. At the same time, our institutions, often the leaders in design, have accepted the notion of architecture as a commodity.
    But architecture as a commodity is nothing unusual to Chicago or for that matter any other city. New York, Los Angeles or any city large or small usually defaults to risk aversion. For example, Northwestern Memorial Hospital continues to develop its gray drab unimaginative medical campus in Streeterville. There are too few imaginative clients and too much money on the line to lead to any other result—or at least that is the conventional wisdom. But what if…

Architecture as an Idea
   If Bernini was alive today, he would argue that design is the value that the architect adds to a building. Give 10  different architects the same budget and time to build a building and there will be a winner, a loser and eight in between. This is the argument for globalization. If architecture is an idea and if ideas have values, it is a worthwhile investment to look at the global marketplace before selecting a designer.
   And this is an argument that we cannot easily dismiss. Chicago is a better city for Gehry’s band shell in Millennium Park, despite the fact that Frank Gehry must have a carbon footprint the size of Antarctica given his world travels.
   Yet this argument has its dark side. Globalization for the sake of marketing has been cruel to Chicago. When the trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago were selecting an architect for their new building, there were six architects on their short list—five who would go on to prove the value of their ideas, and the sixth was Josef Paul Kleihues. None of the six were Chicagoans. They selected Kleihues, whose Michigan Avenue building is an unquestioned visual (and functional) failure. Similarly, despite Rem Koolhaas’s success elsewhere, including the spectacular Seattle Public Library, the McCormick Tribune Campus Center on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus is a disappointment.
   At the same time, Chicago architects are being “summoned” to other places to compete in this global marketplace of ideas. The website of every Chicago design architect (no naming names) features national and international work. Yet these same architects, in high demand in other venues, fall victim to the “grass is always greener” fantasy. Bending Robert Heinlein, we are strangers in our own land.
   Perhaps Louis XIV got it right. Bernini infuriated the French Court, arguing the superiority of Italian culture to the point that he was sent packing back to Rome. The renovation of the Louvre was put on hold. In 1669, Louis changed his mind and decided to rebuild his country house instead. He hired the French architect Louis Le Vau and the French landscape designer André Le Nôtre to develop the design. The result was Versailles.

Published: October 11, 2008
Issue: November 2008 Investing In Chicago