“Chicago Seven”

Walter Kelly Gallery And Graham Foundation For Advanced Studies In The Fine Arts

In the February 1978 Walter Kelly Gallery “Exquisite Corpse” exhibition, eight Chicago architects—Thomas Beeby, Laurence Booth, Stuart Cohen, James Freed, Helmut Jahn, James Nagle, Stanley Tigerman and Benjamin Weese—who had already named themselves Chicago Seven, exhibited models for townhouses. This group has an interesting history.

In February 1976, Booth, Cohen, Tigerman and Weese came together to challenge a 1973 exhibition titled “100 Years of Architecture in Chicago: Continuity of Structure and Form,” mounted in Munich, Germany, which helped support the slogan, “Chicago is the only city in which International Style is also local style.” The resulting Salon des Refusés, entitled “Chicago Architects,” intended to display “the suppressed romanticism of Chicago’s unknown architects,” and did demonstrate a largely unpublicized eclecticism—but no unified counter-style. Then in December 1976 a Richard Gray Gallery show of models for country houses (Beeby, Freed and Nagle having joined to form “Seven”) put forth the consensus that “the small private structure as opposed to large corporate and government commissions” was a source of “vitality in areas other than Chicago’s current development of super highrise buildings with ‘tube’ structures.”

The purpose of “Exquisite Corpse” is to keep open “a dialogue on ideas about architecture in a city notably suspicious of architectural dialogue.” Following a children’s game once used by the Surrealists—cadavre exquis—each architect created a house design, without seeing the other architects’ designs, so that the final street might ignite the “spark of freedom” of a Surrealist juxtaposition. Assuring individualism of design by the use of this game implied that even an architect’s mimicking of “the Joneses” might at times be an involuntary thing.

The resulting houses were bizarre: Ben Weese’s country-modern double bungalow with an oversized body, shrunken pyramidal roofs, and front projecting bays that rested upon one another; Thomas Beeby’s romantic villa with an arched grille beneath a skylight diffusing light and shadow around an interior already broken into compartmental, roof-capped, frescoed rooms; Laurence Booth’s Chateau Chardin with separate levels for man’s materiality, sociality, individuality, intellect and spirit—the upper level with a slide-back dome to unite praying man with the cosmos; James Freed’s white facade-flanked child’s box-house sheltering a block structure-in-a-structure and a winged butler who received a salute from a uniformed man in the rear court; Stuart Cohen’s hybridized facade—third story International Style rectangle sandwiched between decorative cornices and progressively diminishing second and first stories supported by classical columns—which challenges ideas of a building having to reflect only one cohesive style; Helmut Jahn’s greenhouse-type facade whose bent steel whitewashed columns supported a clear plexiglass sheath—a nice liberty with International Style’s box sheath over a standard-part frame.

But ironies also abound. According to Booth the exhibition was both a futuristic and a nostalgic idea for a different kind of city. Each model, with a 15-foot front and 30-foot rear setback, and a maximum 40-foot cornice line recalling the cornice lines which limited the height of Michigan Avenue buildings before World War II, was set in the gallery, in a row, on a pedestal representing a plot of land 20 by 120 feet. Chicago’s 70 square miles of residential land could actually be apportioned into such plots to give to each of the 1.3 million urban citizens. A synthesis of Bauhaus uniform social planning plus 19th-century eccentric individualistic design!

Yet the designs that were supposed to be eccentrically romantic were actually intellectually self-conscious, and the social scheme that was supposed to be objectively egalitarian was actually fantastically irrational. Would you blast out the existing city to get the land and rewrite all the building codes to get the zoning? Then too, a scheme like Stanley Tigerman’s triple front stoops leading to a curvilinear mass approached by four derbied men with severed bodies did raise the issue of whether the houses were really meant to be built. Despite the egalitarian inclination, any of these structures would cost around $250,000! A primary objection to International Style was its contextlessness, a presumption that the one perfect efficient design would suitably function anywhere for anything. But these row houses also assumed a flat terrain, the only sort of nature exemplified by Jahn’s multicolored rainbow-cloud graphic and Beeby’s pruned wire trees. Why so aggressive about combining architectural references and so passive about accepting humanity divorced from nature?

Finally in Spring 1978, having increased their number to 11 architects, Chicago Seven sponsored a townhouse competition to give support to other “seductive and upbeat” architects. If “Exquisite Corpse” had looked a little strange, this competition’s winners were absurd: James Goettsch’s hybrid with a red plastic stairway atop transparent curvilinear walls; Deborah Doyle’s transparent prism through which light would be diffused from a purple neon tube running along the basement.

In its rush to be “arty” Chicago Seven continually leaves unsolved a variety of crucial problems.

C. L. Morrison