“Hey y’all, crank it up!” You don’t get them more American than my Soul Cycle instructor Megan. It is Saturday morning, 7:30 AM in Chicago, the metropolis of the Midwest. The second city of the USA, that owes its size to industry, meat and grain, and world famous because of its skyscrapers. Think New York City, but without its airs and graces and the never-ending hurry. Chicago remains friendly, even on a rainy day. My storm umbrella from Delft, however, is done for within 30 minutes. The self-imposed nickname ‘The Windy City’ does its credit. Not the most obvious pay-off when wanting to attract visitors. But this city, with its violence and riots it had to endure in the past year, has not had an easy run when it comes to city marketing. This hardship is relative though, because still, every year, 35 million tourists visit the city, attracted, among other things, to the spectacular skyline of the city.

Skyscrapers and segregation

Chicago is integrating. A comparison with Rotterdam is quickly made. Chicago, too, has known a reconstruction – not after the war, but after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The largely wooden buildings in the centre of the city went up in flames. And, similar to Rotterdam, progressive urban planners and architects busied themselves in creating a masterplan for the new city to be built. The city fell in love with the phenomenon ‘skyscraper’ and did not let go of this love. Despite the impressive architecture, Chicago is also the city of Al Capone, the drainage and a bloody mafia history. Besides this, Chicago is a city of neighbourhoods, a large number of which are in full development.

Fulton Market District

One of the most up-and-coming neighbourhoods is Fulton Market District, which lies on the edge of downtown. Formerly called Fulton River District, it was an area full of industry, warehouses and transport. At the beginning of this century it started a new life: warehouses were converted to loft apartments and offices. With this, it became a residential area – though the masses stayed away. This aal changed in 2012, when renowned hotel and members’ club Soho House settled in Fulton. As a result, the epicentre of trendy Chicago moved from River North towards Fulton. When Google established its headquarters in the area a couple of years later, it truly became a chic neighbourhood and household name. Many companies followed, including the headquarters of McDonald’s and countless coffee bars and eateries like ones you see in sought after, emerging neighbourhoods across the globe. Don’t be surprised when you have to wait in line for an hour to get a table at a restaurant. The place branding for Fulton is minimal. The area is merely marked by raw signage above one of the streets and is – strikingly enough- surrounded by construction fences and machines. This area is clearly not close to being done. At this moment, branding mainly happens online.

Moreover, the city is altogether swarmed with cranes. The approach in Chicago is very American, in comparison to European cities. Urban development happens largely top-down. “Money is very important here,” says Sasha Zanko, coordinator of the Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize from Illinois Institute of Technology. This prize is awarded every other year to the most distinguished buildings in North- and South-America. Zanko moved from Rotterdam to Chicago a couple of years ago, together with her husband Vedran Mimica, who got offered the position of Dean at the College of Architecture at the same university. She paints a picture of a culture where government and project developers jointly to shape the city. The inclusion of residents and end-users here is more the exception than the rule. “If you build it, they will come,” seems to lie at the core.


Participation in city making

At the same time, Chicago is experimenting with giving a voice to its citizens, though reactive and limited in form. Last year, for example, the ‘Chicago River Edge Ideas Lab‘ asked nine local leading architecture firms to reinvent the ‘second coast of Chicago’ with the help of the public. The corresponding exhibition was shown during the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2017 and become known as one of the highlights of this manifestation. The architecture firms presented their ideas about attractive public spaces alongside the river with, among other things, a continuous pedestrian and bike lane as well as a good connection to the city.

In the end, more than 11.500 people visited the River Lab exhibition. They were also able to give their opinion about the different concepts and ideas, and indicate which they found the best and most attractive concept. The corresponding website reports that (merely) 500 people gave feedback via the online questionnaire. Finally, the ideas from the architects and reactions from the public will serve as input for ‘a couple of design guidelines for the edge of rivers which apply to future development projects alongside the Chicago River,’ as quoted from the same website. Both Chicago and her citizens do not quite seem to be on the move with regard to participation and co-creation. ‘When and if given the change, there would be a lot of work for agencies like BRAND’, as quotes by Sasha Zanko.

Chicago’s past… and her future

A lot more concrete in that respect is the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), that wants to involve people on a big scale to architecture and urban development. CEO Lynn Osmond carelessly talks about the impressive visitor numbers. CAF attracts more than 640.000 visitors every year, both tourists and fellow Chicagoans, with their never-ending walk, bike and boat tours, led by enthusiastic volunteers. This is unheard of: this project has become the largest program of architecture tours given by volunteers, across the entire globe. According to Lynn, educating the public about architecture and design is of immense importance. “We believe that a public educated and engaged in architecture and design helps all of us
make better decisions about the places in which we live.”

Very soon, CAF will open a big new exhibition space at the foot of the famous Abraham Lincoln Centre, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This enables the foundation to reach even more people. “We’re going to the next phase of our growth where we become a destination for the discovery of architecture and design in Chicago,” as quoted by Lynn. But they do not only focus on the past. Their ‘Future Cities’-program focuses on a specific theme every year, from this year onwards. This theme shall be directly related to the great ‘urban challenges’ that our world cities stand for and face.

I sincerely hope that one of these themes will fit to involving citizens in the right way. Because even though Chicago is an immensely fascinating city, where there is lots happening – in this area, there is still a battle to be won.

Rinske Brand



Photos (from the top down)
Cover photo: View from John Hancock Tower
Skyline from the water, The Bean, and the L (elevated train)
Fulton Market
The Chicago city model at SOM Architects

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