Photo courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation
Jen Masengarb: Sadly there are not a lot of American cities, where on an August night, in the middle of summer at ten o'clock at night where you can hang out downtown with your five-year-old, right? There's just not a lot of American cities where that happens downtown. And that happens here.
Jo Reed: That's Jen Masengarb--she's Director of Interpretation and Research at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. And this is Artworks, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Chicago is known for many things, including deep-dish pizza, the Cubs, breezy winter weather and architecture. Chicago's architecture is second to none; in fact, the influence of its architects is known throughout the world. Since the beginning of the last century, Chicago has become a showcase for high-rise buildings that seemed to touch the sky while remaining in perfect proportion to one another. This gives the Chicago Architecture Foundation, or CAF, both fertile ground and significant responsibility. Probably best known for its architectural river cruise, CAF presents a vast array of programs, lectures, exhibitions, educational events, as well as many city tours---all are designed to draw the public's attention and appreciation to the city's architecturally rich and varied legacy. Jen Masengarb is at the center of a number of CAF projects. When I was Chicago, I visited with her in the foundation's offices in the beautiful Santa Fe Building in downtown Chicago. I started our conversation with the obvious question: Why is Chicago the home to so many outstanding buildings?
Jen Masengarb: Well, there are lots of reasons. Historically, and still today, I think that being a younger city-- let's compare New York to Chicago, for example, in that that vein. Chicago's about 200 years younger than New York. That's crazy. I mean, 200 years. That's a long time. And so I think being that sort of younger upstart of a city compared to the East Coast, I think Chicago's always felt like they had something to prove. Always trying to sort of push that envelope and say, “Hey, hey, what about us? What about us?” Whether it was sort of historically in the 1890s when we were trying to get the World's Fair here in 1893, trying to prove to the country, “We're not a backwards city.” “We're not the sort of Wild West that maybe the East Coast perceives us as.” I think you see that translated then in through the city's history. So there's that idea. I would say secondly, we point a lot to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 here that burned roughly about a mile and a half east to west and about three and a half miles north to south. And that was primarily the downtown district. Having that sort of clean slate, that tabula rasa, gave Chicago a chance to start over in many ways. And it also drove up land prices. And it also brought new speculation, real estate speculation here. And it also brought many architects to the city, who were maybe younger architects from the East Coast who, or maybe, you know, had just either trained or just come from school or were working in a larger firm, this gave them the opportunity to come here and sort of make their mark. And we see that still translated today. The Louie Sullivans or in that sort of generation of Louie Sullivan coming to Chicago or Franklin Wright coming from Wisconsin, or Daniel Burnham coming from Massachusetts, that era, that late 19th Century, those architects coming here, this is the place that they experimented with things. And that's harder to do in a city like New York that's more well-established, that you're trying to sort of get your foot in the door as an upstart professional.
Jo Reed: Do you also think because Chicago got to start over after the Great Fire that there was a way that architects and city planners learn from mistakes that had been made?
Jen Masengarb: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. The city in terms of the grid system, that was all laid out well before the fire. And the city had roughly about 300,000 people at the time of the fire. But we were such a rapidly expanding city. Our population doubled roughly every 10 years throughout the late 19th and into the 20th Century. So when the city was founded in the 1830s, we were roughly at about, mmm, 3,000, 4,000 people here. And by 1900, we've got a million and a half. Imagine, in your lifetime, let's say your parents came here from Massachusetts, brought you here as a kid in the 1830s, you would've come to a city that had three, four thousand people. And by the time you are a grandparent, you've seen the city now at a million and a half. That's an amazing rate of growth. That's fueling, obviously, the architecture. That's fueling this need to build, to build higher, to build with new ideas. I mentioned the sort of innovation that's still happening. Chicago is no longer the home of where the tallest buildings in the world are being built. That is obviously Asia and the Middle East today, in terms of the rapid growth of skyscrapers. But Chicago is still the place where those skyscrapers are, many, many of them, are being designed. Burj Khalifa in Dubai, it was designed right here in the building where I'm talking to you, here in the Railway Exchange Building, by a Chicago firm. And the building that's going to eclipse Burj Khalifa, the Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia, is also designed by a Chicago firm. So this is still the city where those ideas are percolating.
Jo Reed: Certainly one idea that really I think defines the character of the city was a decision, in fact, not to have buildings and that's along the lakefront. Where there was just a decision that that was going to be a public space. And how that really informs the city in a very profound way.
Jen Masengarb: It does. Let's just look at Midwestern cities, for example, around the Great Lakes. Many of those cities, the lakefront is either for one of two things. It's either for the wealthy, and the public doesn't have that sort of access to the lakefront, or it's for industry. And in Chicago, it's neither of those things. It's for the public. So you get a lakefront of roughly 16 miles north to south along Lake Michigan that has no big factories on it, has no big mansions, has no big sort of private walks just for residents that live there. It's just open. And there's certainly not been without a fight over the last 100 years. There's always <laughs> a battle for those things. We've got a couple museums that dot the lakefront. Nothing directly on the water, per se, although Museum Campus sort of gets into that. We've got one skyscraper that sort of inches its way out pretty close, and that was sort of a fluke. But for the most part, it's all public. And I think you're right. It is very much the character of the city. It's our front yard. It's our playground.
Jo Reed: And clearly seen as successful, because there's been a great campaign underway by Mayor Daley first and now Mayor Rahm Emanuel to do the same thing along the river with Riverwalk.
Jen Masengarb: Exactly. <Laughs> Exactly. For so many years in Chicago's history, the river was a dumping ground. We dumped our sewage in it; we dumped animal parts from the stockyards into it. We tried to control it, we tried to reverse it. We have reversed it. We've just abused the river for so many years. And there is a changing sense that the river is just as much of an asset as the lakefront. The Chicago River is interesting because it's still very much a working river. I mean, you can see massive barges of sand and gravel and so forth sort of floating up and down the river, but <laughs> the barges are going right past little kayakers now, or pleasure boats, sailboats. And our Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise. So you get this sort of interesting mix of it's still a working river, but the character of it is changing and people are really seeing it much more as an asset. Buildings that used to turn their back on the river are now really embracing the river, and using the river just in the same way as using the lakefront. So anything that's built in the downtown area along the river, has to have public access along the river--
Jo Reed: It's also interesting in Chicago how much the architects who design the buildings are in conversation with one another. How the buildings refer to the ones that are around. And it's so interesting, because it's not one building competing with another. It's a reference to it.
Jen Masengarb: That's I think something that a lot of people, are really surprised about when they start to learn a little bit more about architecture. And we give them that architectural literacy that, those new set of glasses to wear, that new lenses to sort of see the city. They're surprised at the fact that sort of buildings are in fact talking to each other. I can give you my favorite example of where I see this happen. At the corner of Dearborn and Monroe, we've got a building from the late 1950s called the Inland Steel Building. It's a building that if Don Draper and his Mad Men crew had their Cooper Draper Pryce headquarter office here in Chicago, it would be in this building. That's to give you that sort of image. Late 1950s. Stainless steel. Not a very large building. About 20 stories or so. Green-tinted glass. It looks like it could've been completed last year. It's that modern. And I say that with small “M” modern. But it's an incredibly well respected building among the architectural community. And it was landmarked within about five years, actually, of it being built, which is also kind of crazy to think about. Across the street, you've got a building from the 1970s, the next block down a building from the 1980s, and then a building from the early 2000s. Sort of right in vicinity, all around them. All around the Inland Steel Building. And in each of those cases, all of the buildings have pulled themselves back from the street edge around the Inland Steel Building, or curved their corners or rotated 90 degrees from the Inland Steel Building. Or put a plaza next to them, all in sort of referential deference to the Inland Steel Building, to this like little jewel of a building that sits there on the corner. And when we start to point this out to visitors, that the architects are indeed sort of in conversation with each other over time, how do we not crowd this building that we admire? How do we pick up on the similar texture or pattern or coloring or scale to relate to this building? That's a surprise for many people. And the fact that you can almost hear the buildings sort of talking to each other I think is a fun thing to imagine.
Jo Reed: The Chicago Architecture Foundation has as its mission inspiring people to discover why design matters. Why does design matter?
Jen Masengarb: I think one of the things that we try to help people do is see design in the everyday, to see how their interaction with the built environment, I mean, that's our focus, architecture, the build environment. And we start by helping them understand a sense of place, helping them get that sort of understanding of what makes this community special, whether it be block by block or city to city. We also want to help them see how and why buildings are designed the way they are, why they look the way they do, why they function the way they do, what the architect was thinking, and how a building is impacting their own neighborhood. We have all had experiences where I think we are in a building, for example, or in a city that doesn't feel right, it's not working, it's uncomfortable. And we might not be able to put our finger on why we don't like that building or why we don't like that public space or why we don't like that city at that scale, but we know that there's something not right. We know that it's uncomfortable or that it's maybe even harming the corner that it sits on, because of anything as simple as where the entrance is located or what materials were used or the scale of it. We want to sort of peel all that away and give people some architectural literacy, as we call it, to help them sort of understand the buildings that are around them so that they can start to make better decisions as citizens to understand why those little design decisions add up to something much larger.
Jo Reed: Well, one of the ways you do this is through your tours. How many tours does CAF give per year?
Jen Masengarb: We give roughly about, per year, about 6,500 tour departures a year. That translates into about 85 or 90 different types of tours, different tour experiences. So not 80 or 85 tours, but 85 kinds of tours per year. They run year-round. They're all led by our volunteer docent corps. We've got about 420 docents who go through a fairly rigorous training over several months to become certified as CAF docents. So our tours depart in all different corners of the city and all various modes of transportation. We've got the River Cruise, which is our most famous tour, but also walking tours and bike and boat and train, “L” train, and segue, all sorts of different types of tours, and for various age groups, little kids, high school kids, and senior citizen groups and everybody in between.
Jo Reed: I know you helped design a curriculum for high school students. That's “The Architecture Handbook”. Tell me your thoughts in putting this together.
Jen Masengarb: Sure. “The Architecture Handbook” was published in 2007. It's the first and to our knowledge still the only high school architecture textbook in the nation. And it was written primarily with the goal, a big goal, transforming the way that architecture is taught in high schools. Historically, architecture's been taught in high schools through drafting courses. So whether that would've been by hand over the last 80, 100 years, in schools that had drafting, and now, obviously, many high schools, are using very sophisticated drafting online tools. But in many schools still, unfortunately around the country, the kids are learning 16 weeks of a software program and they're coming out of those 16 weeks without really understanding decisions behind architecture. And they're sort of missing that sort of fundamental Architecture 101 of--
Jo Reed: The context.
Jen Masengarb: --the context. Exactly. The, “What is the architect thinking about when they are drawing a floor plan or a site plan or a section, et cetera?” And the needs of the profession are changing also. 50 years ago you could graduate from high school and you could get a job at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill being a draftsperson. And you could stay there for a career of 30-plus years being a draftsman. That role is really changing in architecture firms across the country partly due to technology but also because architecture firms, engineering firms, need thinkers that are much more well-rounded. So the drafting is still very important, it's a drawing-- those skills are still very important, rendering, model making, et cetera, but it's just in service of something larger they need them to also be thinkers and problem solvers and understand that context, like you were talking about. So we wrote “The Architecture Handbook.” There's a student edition and there's a teacher edition. Its subtitle is, “A Student Guide to Understanding Buildings.” And that's really the mission or the goal of it is to help the student sort of look at all these various drawing types, of site plan, block plan, floor plan, elevation section, et cetera, details, and understand “What is the architect thinking when they're drawing these? What are the big issues? How was the building designed? How does it stand up? What materials are used? How are the spaces arranged?” Those kinds of things. The theme of the book is home, and we chose that because that's the building type the student knows best. That's the building type a teenager knows best, right? That's what they can relate to. We're not having them design skyscrapers, for example, because that's not a building that they're in contact with on a regular basis. So the book looks at a case study home here in Chicago, a very small, sustainable house on the West side of the city that's our case study house, and then we compare that house with the student's own home, and then with 10 significant homes around the world, from various time periods, all the way dating back to the 16th Century and up to today. And we look at various homes and again, the same sort of issues. How they're designed in the various ways, like how they stand up and what materials are used and how they're situated on the site and who the user is and all those sort of, again, those architectural thinking, that literacy that we've been talking about. The book was published in 2007. It is the official text here in the Chicago Public School system for those high school students, and we sell the book around the country. It's used in roughly about 350 high schools across the country, and several foreign countries.
Jo Reed: The other program that you have that I know is your baby, and is very new is Discover Design, which seems like a fascinating program. Tell us about that.
Jen Masengarb: Yeah. Discover Design was launched officially in January of 2012. We see it as the next level after “The Architecture Handbook.” Once you've got that sort of Architecture 101, those foundational skills of drawing and architectural thinking, how do we now help you, you the student, you, the teenager, solve some design problems of your own? And so discoverdesign.org is a digital learning tool that connects teens, teachers and architects across the country for project-based learning in architecture. In this case the theme is schools. They're learning about how those schools were designed. We're peeling back the curtain behind how these buildings are designed. They're hearing from the architects through videos, they're looking at sketches and drawings of significant school buildings around the country. They're, again, comparing that with their own school building and how their own school is designed, and then the student is choosing a design problem that we've posted online and then they are solving that design challenge. Whether it be something small like designing a new locker for the 21st Century, right? That might be sort of an example of a small design project that we'd post on Discover Design. All the way up to a medium-sized one, which might be redesigning your classroom, or a large design challenge, which might be redesigning the cafeteria or the library, something like that, which are examples that we have posted. But I think the real key to what Discover Design is teaching is not so much about that final, “Tada. Here's my brilliant design for a redesigned library or redesigned cafeteria,” but instead it is coaching the teenager through the steps of the design process. So they're posting their work in the stages of the process. They're posting videos, photos, sketches, interview texts, renderings, models, et cetera, of their work. Unlike what a teenager typically wants to do. This makes them uncomfortable. This is part of where the learning comes in.
Jo Reed: I think it makes all of us uncomfortable to open up--
Jen Masengarb: But to show that--
Jo Reed: --to show the process.
Jen Masengarb: --messiness. Because the teenager wants to, you know maybe, or the adult, like solve the problem the night before and then have it done and say, “Isn't it perfect? Here it is. Tada. I've just pulled it out of the air.” But that's not how architecture and design works. It's a very iterative process. It's messy at times. Creative. But exciting. And we want to help teenagers see that that's how design problems are solved. So it makes them nervous to sort of post something that's not a finished, fully-formed idea yet, or something that might change. But this is not unlike what they're learning, for a teenager, what they're learning in a math class when the geometry teacher says, “Show me the proof of your theorem, I want to see how you got there”---It's the same in architecture and design. And so Discover Design does that. It's a free tool and the great sort of synergy that happens between the student posting their work, teachers leaving comments and then architects who volunteer as online mentors also posting comments. And then the teens themselves are serving as peer mentors for each other, and it's just, it's really exciting to see.
Jo Reed: Well, another work in the community that you have is the program Neighborhood Voices. Explain what that is.
Jen Masengarb: Sure. We have now worked deeply, in two communities. We're working on our third and fourth now, but working with residents and giving them the skills to become basically tour guides of their own neighborhood. So helping them learn many of the same skills that we teach our docents. How to create a tour, how to develop a tour, how to give a tour. We're teaching these community residents that architectural language, the architectural history. But it's different than if CAF was just coming into a neighborhood and saying, “These are the assets that are important to you.” “These are the five buildings that you should be talking about.” It's not done in that way. It's done in very much a ground-up way that CAF is coming and saying, “Let's talk together about what you value, about what's important to your community.” And in some cases that might be a building that's maybe not as architecturally significant, but historically significant or culturally significant, socially significant to the community itself. And perhaps that might mean some of the maybe more famous architectural icons for aesthetic reasons are maybe not as valued in the same way as a community landmark might be, for cultural reasons.
Jo Reed: But it gives you a much greater insight into the heart of that community.
Jen Masengarb: Exactly. Hearing what they value and then giving them the skills to interpret. But really grass roots effort with the community to help them figure out what's important to them.
Jo Reed: How long have you lived in Chicago?
Jen Masengarb: I've been here for the same amount of time that I've been at CAF, which is about 13 years.
Jo Reed: What have you seen change in Chicago architecturally over those 13 years?
Jen Masengarb: I think the biggest change that I've seen in my time here in Chicago, which is not very long, as the city goes or as Chicagoans go. But I think the thing that's had the biggest impact is Millennium Park. It's changed… It is our Bilbao museum. We hear cities talk about the Bilbao effect. This is the Millennium Park effect, and I think we're seeing that in lots of other cities across the country.
Jo Reed: What had been at Millenni--?
Jen Masengarb: Yeah. What had been at Millennium Park, Millennium Park was parking lots and railroads right at the city's front door. I mean, imagine having somebody come up to your home and instead of a welcome mat you've put out your dirty boots, you know. <Laughs> and now the welcome mat is this beautiful expanse of green space and the sculptures and fountains and a manmade river and connections to the art institute. It's very much the city's playground. Sadly there are not a lot of American cities where on a August night, right, in the middle of summer at ten o'clock at night where you can hang out downtown with your five-year-old, right? There's just not a lot of American cities where that happens downtown. And that happens here. The Crown Fountain is a stunning example <laughs> of art that's alive. Art that people inhabit. Art that was never intended to be played in or splashed in or had your kids run through the water, but it is that.
Jo Reed: It wasn't intended for that.
Jen Masengarb: It was not intended for that <laughs > it was intended to be looked at. It was never intended to be played in. It was intended to be looked at. These two monoliths of glass block, lit with LCD screens, or LED lights in the inside, and screens, and projecting these two faces of thousands of Chicagoans, two at a time, facing each other, sort of looking out across this two-inch deep reflecting pool in the middle. And then every few minutes the faces smile and perhaps wink and then they spit water, and sort of a modern gargoyle, and the kids scream and the children run through the fountain. And parents are taking pictures, and to me you ask them what's changing, this is what's changed our city. That engagement. We've got lots of community parks, but this is that heart of Chicago, has really, really changed.
Jo Reed: That was Jen Masengarb--she's Director of Interpretation and Research at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. You've been listening to Art Works produced by National Endowment for the Arts. The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at Arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, winner of the Caine Prize, writer Tope Falarin. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Jen Masengarb explains Chicago's rich architectural legacy and CAF’s role in bringing it public awareness. [24:52]