Meet the Canadian who's the keeper of Chicago's skyscrapers
For the Charlies of architecture, Chicago has long been something of a golden ticket.
It certainly seemed that way when I darted my way through the city over a two-day span, this past summer, its breadth of buildings luring me at every turn, confectionery-like. There was the Chicago Athletic Association, with its blush brick and look-at-me limestone columns, riffing quite persuasively on the classicism of the Doge’s Palace in Venice and, more recently, bought and continued as a hotel by the city’s Pritzker family. There was the neo-gothic splendour of the Wrigley Building, right on the river’s bend, on which one of the town’s most enduring names still sticks (no, really).
There was, likewise, the oldie-goldie that is the Merchandise Mart which, when opened in 1930, was the the largest building in the world (and even then had its own zip code), as well as the gold juggernaut that is Trump Tower (designed by the same guy who did the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, incidentally, and whose relationship with the city’s aerial space has, no doubt, taken on a new hue in recent years). There is the oh-so-beguiling Aqua Tower, a newer addition to the skyline — swirling, rippling, slender as a ballet dancer.
It is not for nought that Chicago can boast that its most popular tourist attraction is … an architecture boat tour. Right?
Into this most American of American cities, then: a meet with the stealth Canadian who is the keeper of the skyscrapers, you might say. As the last-minute scraping went on around us, and the din of that opening week hoopla, inside the all-new, and not-to-be-missed, Chicago Architecture Center that she oversees, she — Lynn Osmond — had manifested to give me a personal tour.
“Even the cab drivers here can tell you the names of architects,” she was saying, shortly after making her acquaintance and the obligatory banter about unshakable Canadian accents, but before we set off on an exploration of this 20,000 square feet institute, a ballad to the city designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.
Six feet tall (vertiginous, you might say — not unhandy in her line of work!), and giving off a je ne sais quoi of Mary Steenburgen-ness, she wound up in Chicago 22 years ago (at the erstwhile Chicago Architecture Foundation, to be exact) after a career zigzag that originally had her working in the performing arts space. She once managed Canadian Stage, back in Toronto, she mentioned.
Check this out: sooner rather than later, she was showing me a pretty nifty 3-D-ish model of the city — complete with 4,250 buildings — which effectively tells the story of how this midwest city became an “epicenter of modern architecture.” Working as a companion piece? A film and interactive light show aiming at showing Chicago’s early growth, its rebirth after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, its first-ever skyscrapers and the buildings of steel and glass, along with Millennium Park.
Inevitably, too, Osmond — who is at the global head table of the fast-growing sector that is called “architectural tourism,” and has every great architect on speed-dial — proved to be a font of acquired knowledge.
“We burned down at exactly the right time,” she quipped at one point, brandishing a line that she has no doubt silver-trayed before, and before launching into a small thesis about the Great Chicago Fire that famously took out most of the city, but was — as most students of architecture know — one that coincided with the invention, not long after, of the elevator. That is to say: in 1884, engineer William Le Baron Jenney changed the notion of going up and down forever when he built the Home Insurance Co. at the northeast corner of LaSalle and Adams Sts., using an iron and steel frame that allowed it to rise 10 storeys.
Since demolished, its legacy remains intact. Altering the skyline forever, the sky, effectively, was now the limit.
Her own favourite building? I had to ask. And Osmond was quick to name the “John Hancock” — an icon on Michigan Ave. that she cites for its height, its brawn, and its cross-backing.
So intertwined is the personal and the professional at this point for the president and CEO of the centre — a St. Catharines, Ont. native! — that in a case of life imitating architecture (or something like that), Osmond even turned her own wedding, some years back, into a building frenzy. After meeting her businessman husband-to-be through this very organization when he served on the board, as she side-barred to me when we talked — though, he did leave the board shortly thereafter, to head off a conflict of interest — he and she held two-for-one architecture boat cruises during their I-do weekend. She handled Millennium Park; he stuck to the historic skyscrapers.
That weekend, too, Osmond gave her husband a T-shirt, which cheekily acknowledged their “height differential,” as The Chicago Tribune reported at the time (he’s 4 inches shorter than she is). The present: a T-shirt emblazoned with that famous architectural epigram, courtesy of the legendary Mies van der Rohe, “Less is more.”
It is a motto that rings today even in the gift shop located inside the Centre. I noticed coffee cups with that same Mies motto!
Leaving me to my own devices, ultimately, I walked out of the Center — located right on the river, with a bird’s of the Wrigley Building et al — and helped myself to one of the much-ado architecture cruises that Osmond helped bring to life when she arrived in Chicago all those years ago. It being a picture-perfect day — no wind in sight in this archetypal windy city! — it was not only a 90-minute crash course in Beaux-Arts, modern, post-modern, etc, but also a study in patterns upon patterns, shadows upon shadows! So recommended.
Sometimes more is more, too.
Shinan Govani is a freelance columnist based in Toronto covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani