A Toothless Landscape

Sometimes I imagine life as a sprawl of disjointed of photographs, a series of still-lifes in sepia that preserve some kind of timeline. They pass through the noise and confusion of day-to-day life, threading the needle with certain moments of clarity, all of them unraveling, ultimately, toward death. Preservation, then, is paramount. Preservation is the motivating factor behind most of our greatest achievements and accomplishments, all of them an effort at marking the memories of an otherwise forgettable life in a place where time moves uncontrollably. These memories need not necessarily be physical pictures, but the condensed moments that stand out, the newsreel that plays when people speak of seeing their lives flash before their eyes.

The moments that define a life tend toward the deeply personal and are therefore entirely subjective, a first-person account of what one’s eyes point and click at everyday. It’s this everyday that intrigues me, the mementos of routine and little variances in routine—stepping over ephemeral puddles along the curb after a storm, noticing the progression of color that seems to blow off of trees with the wind, giving way to other colors and, eventually, sticks and bone. The tedium of Sundays collapsing together as calendar pages turn reminds me to think about these moments, and to think about what lasts. Some are moments when we feel outside ourselves, seeing ourselves as strangers, or as nothing more than a collection of found images. There I am on the sidewalk, neck tilted back, head tipped up. My glasses are a bit fogged from my breath in the cold air. In the lenses, a reflection of the tops of buildings—ornate, art deco designs clipped short by the frames of my glasses. Everyone else behind me in the background is looking down, looking away, looking at phone screens—everyone except the pair of eyes that take notice of me, looking up. No one seems to notice the buildings whose shadows they walk through, which is a little sad when one considers that the erection of buildings is the ultimate memorial, the final headstones of the dead and the dying, and each one tells a different tale. Most people don’t want to be reminded that they’re going to die, and so we avoid talking about death, and at times we avoid speaking of the dead. Only after loss or forgetting can we comfortably remember.

For one weekend every October, the Chicago Architecture Foundation organizes an open house of sorts, letting the public peek into more than 150 buildings of significance across the city whose access is otherwise restricted. Some of these buildings’ insides are more or less shuttered to the public’s eye the other 363 days a year and generally remain out of mind. Some of the works are simple offices in ornate buildings in which architects conceive and design other buildings, which sounds dull to the friends I pitch the idea to but for me is an exciting glimpse into the wheelhouse of genius. Walking through the Sullivan Center classroom at a stop on State Street, the tour group I had fallen into largely ignored the students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who were at work in this repurposed space. My eyes were drawn to the straight edges they traced and cut along, the perfectly interlocking grids of white on blue, the 3D printers turning 2D drawings into scale models. Before my eyes, a whole generation of architects, all of them absorbed in the world of graphs and grids, making math and geometry into stone and steel and glass. It’s easy to forget that all buildings are spawned from such humble beginnings—the moment ink or graphite touches paper, shapes and numbers become something grander, something…else. They’re only students, and realistically, most of them will never get to design and oversee an actual building’s construction. But something about the architect at work, like the artist at the canvas, is compelling. It is glimpsing at untold hours. It is seeing the ghost words beneath frantic smudges of eraser rub and pencil dust. It is beauty in imperfection, cobbled together with protractors and compasses, straight edges and angles, from which great heights are born.

Artistry and mathematics may seem like strange bedfellows, but their synthesis is nothing new. In the 15th and 16th centuries Leonardo da Vinci dabbled in architecture, math, and of course, art. His Vitruvian Man blends geometry and perspective, and by imposing one layer over another he seems to be forcing a round peg into a square hole. But the result is something beautiful, reminiscent of the image of a dancing Shiva, the cosmic creator and destroyer. What better analogy for da Vinci—or any skilled architect—than the delicate balance of preservation and innovation?

At the Chicago Temple I encountered a prototypical Midwestern couple, with the wide-eyed airs of rural tourists, looking through a clear plate window bordered by panels of stained glass. Their excitement was on par with mine, only in a slightly different way. For me, the excitement was in simply being there, inside a historically significant building, envisioning all the work that went into making such a project possible. The view was breathtaking, but like most city dwellers I suppose I’ve become jaded—it’s not a new view but a different angle of the same view. I didn’t come for the sights, but for the simple thrill of being in the buildings that make up my city. Some of the tourists marveled at the city as though they’d never seen such stature, never even imagined it to be possible. Much of the Midwest is marked by just a squint of horizon sandwiched between the more-or-less parallel lines of endless fields and the hovering haze of clouds, every so often interrupted by one of those impossibly straight rows of trees—the only trees in sight for some stretches. Trees become utilitarian in the Midwest, and in the midst of labored land cultivated for human use the nature is harnessed for its ability to mark off patches of land, to block out the lives of neighbors and strangers, but all of those separate little lives blur and crash and mingle here in the city where it’s impossible not to live on top of one another. And that, I think, is what is so abundantly clear for those out-of-towners from up high in the tall buildings of Chicago is the way the land compresses and condenses space and mindset. Instead of sprawling out in order to find comfort and safety Chicagoans sprawl up, higher and higher, and what the landscape loses in width it gains in height. They took photographs out the window, this couple, and I snapped a furtive photograph of them. Something about their fascination captivated me, and in this photograph the very chapel itself frames them, its support beams boxing them into a bordered grid, all of these grids running concurrent with the grids of traffic below. And here in this tiny chapel one gets the impression of the soul of the building, deceptively simple, appearing from street-level as just another narrow limestone block and suddenly tapering into jagged spires and a steepled tower, hidden in sanctuary from the world below. Peering over rooftops, this couple stared across area codes and oceans of limestone, marble, concrete, and their excitement was both sincere and contagious. I caught myself lingering at the window once the others had left the chapel, allowing myself to marvel at the view, but more than that contemplating the sequence of structures and stillness that surrounded us at our lofted elevation. A skyscraper suddenly seems like the most logical and obvious place to build a place of worship, and in the moment I could not quite conceive of why, exactly, but I was nonetheless compelled to confront the spiritual nature of what I’d been thinking and feeling. On a Sunday afternoon the irony of worshiping these idols of iron and stone was not lost on me.

There is something of the divine in architecture. The architect Rem Koolhaas wrote that just as the cathedral was the center spoke of every gothic city, “freeways made [many] towns possible. They’re the cathedrals of our time.” In the city of Chicago, we tend to think of the city as existing along axes, the North side and the South side and the West side divided by the 90 and 94 and 290 and 55. But when Koolhaas says that freeways are the cathedrals of our time he is thinking more in terms of larger organization and importance to local culture. And he’s right. Architecture is divine. It is a manifestation of humankind’s aspirations to ascend to the heavens, the grandeur of greatness, the mania of magnitude. It returns us to those moments of childhood when the world seemed vast and unknowable. After the Chicago Fire wiped out most of the city’s tinder towers, developers and architects moved forward. There is a certain aspect of a city made of wood—its weakness, its vulnerability, the very things that would render a place human—which seems irretrievably lost in today’s modern design. There can be no return to the old ways. Perhaps in the future, our descendants will tell a reinvented creation myth: the people longed for the comfort and familiarity of a wooden city, but there was no going back. Those titans of the past who did look back were frozen in stone, like Lot’s wife who couldn’t resist the longing for familiarity. The city’s presence will be felt even in its absence. All that will be left is the endless sight of stone and shattered distance.