Don's diary

May 23, 1997

Monday

What time is it? Here in Chicago it is 6.30pm but, in my post-flight consciousness, it is after midnight and therefore Tuesday. Whichever, it is dark. Dimly-lit downtown looms like a manmade mountain range as I drive in from O'Hare: the Sears building soars exhilaratingly above the rest, its antennae lost in mist, while its twin peak, the John Hancock Center, twinkles from up The Magnificent Mile. They were designed by the same architects and local heroes of the super-tall, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, but I am already beginning to romanticise this peculiarly American art form, and prefer to think of them as having been uncovered by some primeval glacier.

Tuesday

Later, I awaken and draw back the curtains to Lake Michigan, opalescent blue in the morning sunlight. In the central loop I take the remarkable elevated railway. As we move south to 35th Street and the Illinois Institutue of Technology campus the environment becomes harsher. In this rather more dangerous place is the architecture school with which we have a long-established student exchange. Internationally venerated as a building, it was also an architecturally puritanical school of thought. Both constructs were the work of the German emigrant Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His education programme of 1937 stated that "all education must begin with the practical side of life" but would "transcend this to mould the personality". Books came second to rigorous programmes "to train the eyes" and to produce models and drawings as perfect representations. Design was to be a product of thinking about the making of the building - not an overtly intellectual pursuit, but one which in Mies's hands could make poetry out of standard steel sections. Now the school is more pluralist. But while the English architect Ben Nicholson's Loaf House project, for example, aims to "express the logical extremes of human nature and lifestyle choices" in a prototypical urban house of the future (and you can see it on the Internet), older faculty shake their heads.

Wednesday

"Windy city" is right. I set out to scale Sears and am almost blown away. There really are far too many tall buildings here. My awesome objective (the tallest completed building in the world - but stand by for the Pacific Rim's contributions) turns out to be sitting on a rather puny pink granite plinth and to have disappointingly average-sized lavatories. I visit a former student on the 48th floor.

To the elevated railway again and thence to the suburb of Oak Park where Frank Lloyd Wright started his office and built so much. As a young man he made a deliberate choice to be arrogant rather than humble; contractors, seeing his name on drawings would tell clients they were not looking for trouble. Certainly the worst architects tend to be those who behave like servants and the virtuosity of Wright's work argues his case persuasively. I am bowled over by his Unity Temple with its startling spatial modulations, while his home with its studio, inglenook and memories of the children moves me to fire off postcards to my wife, impulsively promising that I will start the drawings for our house as soon as I return, and to the children to say that of course we can make a special little window. Later, as I settle in a plane seat for New York and my elation subsides, I recall that Wright deserted his family to run off with the wife of a client. He was arrogant about that, too.

Thursday

I join a group of our students on a field trip. Manhattan has seduced them, and they talk less of individual buildings than of the island as a whole and the irony that the form of the land beneath the streets is best given not by the fake landscape of Central Park but by the vertical variations in the city grid.

Friday

To Cooper Union, and the brownstone architecture school internationally famous for influential teaching, progressive thinking and innovative student work. It maintains its founder's promise to offer free education to all - a constant struggle when endowment income does not always keep pace with costs and when there are strong arguments in favour of charging for tuition but discounting according to need. But the policy of having no tuition fees results in an unusually diverse student body and, importantly in America, a continuation of the dream of mobility through education.

Within the building's white foyer, an art student has made a kinetic sculpture with ocean sounds and motor-controlled Ken and Barbie dolls in a beach scene. It involves, he says "issues of superficiality, sex, materialism, going on vacation but not really on vacation, vanity, disregard for health, and other admirable qualities of human nature". For me it is also a personal reminder.

Saturday

Manhattan is ethereal from Central Park as I hurry over to the Barbie shop for essential kit for the children. On the flight home the moon is to the left of us and the colours of dawn are to the right. Landing, we lose the light, but we shall see the sun rise twice.

Charles Rattray

Lecturer at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen and the editor of alt'ing: The Scottish Journal of Architectural Research.

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