“Chicago Architecture 1872–1922”

The decision on the part of the Art Institute of Chicago to commission architect Stanley Tigerman—described in their own press releases as an “iconoclast”—to design the installation of this exhibit was a clear signal. This was to be no tepid run-of-the-mill show, no simple trotting out of the interminable ground plans and elevations, no staid recitation of art-historical dogma. Rather, there was to be a confrontation of context and content, a pointed and sentient inquiry into the tactics of display, all undertaken to enliven the assorted effluvia of Chicago’s golden age of architecture.

Tigerman provided an overwhelmingly insistent frame. There was piped-in music, trompe l’oeil floor painting, unexpected trellis work climbing museum walls, the occasional gazebo, potted dried ferns, huge posterlike photos of the superstars of Chicago architecture, columns, arcades, and more and more and more. This was so blatantly and barefacedly the Tigermanization of Chicago’s architectural history that it led to a kind of acquiescence by submission. The response solicited by this unrelieved surfeit of display was one of awe, and much as in entering a fun house, disbelief was best suspended at the door.

The content of the exhibition itself has an undeniable art historical significance. Between the Great Fire of 1871 and the international competition for the Chicago Tribune Tower in 1922, Chicago was a center—perhaps the center—of progressive architectural inquiry. The achievements of architects such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Daniel Burnham have earned them near-icon status in Chicago, and the exhibition succeeded to the extent that it examined the city’s outstanding architectural legacy. Curator John Zukowsky’s imposing catalogue offered a significant scholarly contribution.

At certain moments Tigerman’s scattered aim was perfect. Placing the show’s bookstore in the middle of the exhibition was a clever reminder that mammon underwrote Chicago’s architectural history, and that commerce must be served. A shrinelike memorial and a series of benches over a plan of Graceland Cemetery (where Sullivan, Burnham, and Mies van der Rohe are buried) was surprisingly poignant. But odd tangential subtexts kept slipping to the fore. Tiger-man betrayed a fascination with Mies, whose arrival in Chicago in 1938 should have precluded his presence here; that fascination was manifested in some almost coded allusions, and crowned by the inclusion of an empty Miesian pavilion at the exhibition’s center. Eliel Saarinen, who, despite his much admired entry in the Tribune competition, never built a thing in Chicago, appears as a full-length life-size photo at the end of the exhibition in what must be a private act of homage. Some cheap and tawdry accoutrements, such as the vases and pedestals Tigerman placed near Wright’s imposing dining room furniture from the Robie House, 1909, were notably disappointing. Tigerman’s installation finally missed its mark, not because of its shortcomings but because of its excesses. It was too insistent, too unrelieved, too unwilling to permit the material it surrounded to speak at all. Rather than providing the true revisionism that can lie in iconoclasm, the exhibition was a vast exercise in the more familiar and idiosyncratic art of mannerism.

James Yood