Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chicago Notes, Part One: Midwestern Mystics

The Selected Ballads has been away for a while, partly due to a trip to Chicago.  Some notes from the Great Metropolis on the Prairie:

For the first time in several years, I revisited Millennium Park and the adjacent Art Institute.  Last time I was there, the Cloud Gate was being buffed to remove the seams between the individual mirror squares that make up the surface of the "bean".  Now, there's not a seam in sight, and one could almost believe the whole thing had been poured into a mold.  Looking again at Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion, I was thinking what a thrill it would be to stand in front of a big audience and unleash a highly amplified open E chord into that space. Has anyone ever asked Jeff Tweedy or Steve Malkmus about that?

If it does nothing else, Renzo Piano's addition to the Art Institute, the Modern Wing, provides a much-needed connection between the museum and Millennium Park, both at ground level and via a bridge that rises from park level to the 2nd floor of the new wing.  Fortunately, it's also a pretty nice piece of architecture - well-detailed, restrained in its use of a limited palette of colors and materials, and in harmony with both the park to the north and the main Institute building to the south (apparently, there are some problems, though).  A lot of care was taken to make the new wing energy-efficient, including the admittance of quite a bit of natural light, which actually made me realize that I prefer to feel a little less connected to the outdoors when looking at art in a museum.  Maybe it was the beautiful day I visited on, but the natural light entering (from the less art-damaging northern direction, as per Piano's design) the Modern Wing started to make me wish I was back outside, a feeling that disappeared once I was back in the main body of the Institute.

On the other side of the Institute, Dan Kiley's '60s-era South Garden may now be overshadowed by all the design action to the north, but it has aged well and remains a high point of Modernist landscape architecture.  Kiley's design sets up a simple grid, gets the grades, materials, and proportions right, and basically gets out of the way to let a by-now-mature grove of cockspur hawthorns create an environment quite apart from the nearby Loop.

Visiting the exhibit, Looking After Louis Sullivan, was a bit like going to church for me, as I consider myself an initiate in the great master's dualistic-mystic cult of organic-geometric architecture.  The show featured the work of four photographers, including the heroic martyr to architectural preservation, Richard Nickel, as well as some of Sullivan's own drawings.  Among these drawings, I spent a long time studying the incredibly intricate, pencil-drawn plates from A System of Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man's Powers, a commissioned work completed near the end of Sullivan's life.  A diagram (titled "Manipulation of the Organic") showing how a relatively simple natural form like a leaf or a seed pod could, by following nature's example, be elaborated and abstracted into a complex piece of ornament, reminded me of some of the ideas of Sullivan's approximate contemporary Gaudi (an adjacent drawing, showing a similar process of elaboration with geometric forms, also had some resonance with Gaudi's work).  Just because both men took inspiration from the forms of plants and obsessively elaborated geometric forms doesn't mean they were aware of, or in any way influenced by, one another's work, but it's an intriguing possibility.

I also visited the Garfield Park Conservatory, one of the masterworks of another of my heroes, Sullivan's fellow Midwestern mystic, landscape architect Jens Jensen. The conservatory, and specifically its fern room, were recommended to me as a must-see masterpiece, but I had a hard time believing than an interior landscape could be in the same class as Jensen's great parks and gardens.  It is, though.  The fern room is a complete landscape, a complete work of art even, as meticulously thought out and calibrated for various effects as a traditional Japanese garden, but with more of a concern for hiding the hand of man.  The fern room is both an immersive, mist-shrouded prehistoric fantasy and a landscape composition that would reward close study.  This story, which is also summarized on a plaque in the fern room, gives a sense of Jensen and the perhaps more genteel times in which he practiced (whether or not the story is 100% factual hardly matters).

No comments: