Let's Turn That River Round: A Lesson in Creative Thinking from the City of Chicago


Sometimes the conventional tourist trail can be rewarding. In Chicago last October I joined the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s River Cruise. A charming guide (an unpaid volunteer docent) gave us a potted history of the Windy City’s magnificent skyscrapers.

We glided past the Tribune Tower of 1925, a neo gothic triumph of flying buttresses and spires. We marvelled at 1929’s Carbide and Carbon Building, all art deco elegance in black granite, green terra cotta and gold leaf. Its design was reputedly inspired by a champagne bottle. We paused to admire Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Building of 1973, a single-minded symphony in black anodized aluminium and grey tinted glass. We swooned at the rippling façade of Jeanne Gang’s eighty four-story Aqua Tower, completed in 2009.

 Mies van der Rohe - IBM Building next to the circular Marina Towers by  Bertrand Goldberg

 Mies van der Rohe - IBM Building next to the circular Marina Towers by Bertrand Goldberg

Chicago’s architecture is not just impressive, beautiful and richly diverse in style and tone. It also tells a story of bold entrepreneurism and creative problem solving.

The forty-story Jewelers’ Building of 1927 was once the highest building in the world outside New York. In a crime-challenged city the Jewelers’ Building boasted a car lift to ensure the safe transfer of diamond merchants direct to their offices.

Montgomery Ward is the oldest mail order firm in America. The beautiful Catalog House of 1908 provided two million square feet of storage and office space over its eight stories. ‘Pickers’ were issued with roller skates to traverse the vast concrete floors.

Wherever you look around Chicago you see ingenuity at work. There are skyscrapers built over railway lines and on eccentric shaped plots that posed huge engineering challenges. And urban invention continues to this day. Since 2001 the city transport authorities have been constructing a pedestrian Riverwalk along the south bank of the Chicago River. It aims to open up the riverside to the public, with floating gardens, lawns, cafes, boating lakes and fishing piers.

                                       Section of the Chicago Riverwalk

                                       Section of the Chicago Riverwalk

Inevitably, not all of Chicago’s architectural innovations were successful. For instance, the onion-domed Medinah Athletic Club Building of 1929 (now the InterContinental Hotel) has a blimp mooring station on its roof.

Jeanne Gang - Aqua Tower

Jeanne Gang - Aqua Tower

Nonetheless, ingenuity, creativity and bold ambition seem to have driven Chicago forward from one decade to another. I was particularly impressed by the city’s endeavours to deal with its poor drainage.

Since its early years Chicago had suffered sewage and sanitation problems. In the 1850s and 1860s whole buildings and streets were raised on hydraulic jacks to accommodate new drains. And yet the still rapidly growing Chicago continued to suffer deaths from typhoid and other waterborne diseases. The city responded by building the 28 mile Sanitary and Ship Canal. The canal connected the Chicago River to the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers. And it thereby reversed the flow of the Chicago River! Whereas previously it had discharged into Lake Michigan; now it flowed away from it.

I couldn’t help thinking that these tall tales, impressive statistics and leaps of lateral thought put modern London to shame. We don’t seem able to build an airport, a runway, a concert hall, a bridge with herbaceous borders. Our roads are congested, our streets polluted, our cyclists are always at risk. And our Government wants to sell our social housing rather than create it. All we seem capable of is stacking empty glass boxes one on top of the other, as far as the eye can see.

We often characterise such urban challenges as failings of the planning process or the political system. But, at a more fundamental level, they betray a lack of confidence and imagination. The transformational impact of creativity should not be limited to the interiors of our homes, shops and galleries. It should extend right the way across our cities: to our public buildings, our recreational space, our offices, our domestic architecture, our transport infrastructure.

Just think what we could achieve if we had the determination to turn our river round.

No. 62