The Robert ruins in Gallery 218

The Art Institute of Chicago recently featured on social media a painting by Hubert Robert:

Among the many worthwhile works on the second floor of the Art Institute are these four works in one room. I have always enjoyed them. Building off yesterday’s post about how today’s buildings could become tomorrow’s fossils, these paintings romanticize ruins from past civilizations. Imagine walking through such structures. There may have been centuries when people could wander through such ruins in Rome, Greece, Egypt, and more. Today, such a site would be hard to find as many ruins are swarming with tourists.

What always impressed me about these paintings was the scale of the buildings. As the social media post notes, the people at the bottom are very small. The buildings are massive and impressive. They connote great civilization and activity. Imagine this building above with a full vaulted ceiling and full of people. The buildings have lived on even as the individual leaders and residents changed.

The Diderot quote above is an interesting one. These buildings are falling apart and time will conquer them. At some point, the pillars will fall, the arches will be no more, and the scene will look very different. But, rulers and leaders construct such buildings in the first place so that the structures outlive them. They will not last forever, but even as ruins or remains in the ground they can still attest to a past era.

My first experience riding Chicago’s Divvy bikes

On a rare 50 degree Chicago day, I rode Chicago’s Divvy bikes for the first time. I made three relatively short trips: from Ogilvie Transportation Center to the Art Institute, from the Art Institute to Navy Pier, and from Navy Pier to Ogilvie. Here is evidence of my rides:


My quick thoughts on the experience:

1. It is fairly easy to pay for and to get the bikes. It costs $7 for an all-day pass and rides under 30 minutes are free. There are lots of Divvy stations in the Loop so finding a stand near major attractions isn’t too hard. While it is a pain to have to wonder where other stations are when on the bike, I’m guessing $7 a day doesn’t cover a GPS with every bike.

2. The bikes themselves worked fine: big tires, nice fenders (otherwise I would have been quite splattered from all of the melting snow), good brakes, seats that are easy to adjust. The bikes only have three gears and this is limiting, but Chicago has a limited number of hills.

3. Riding near Millennium Park and Lake Michigan was easy. Riding in the Loop was not. I can handle it as I learned how to ride the mean streets of suburbia while a teenager (this may sound like a joke but we rode on a number of busy streets). Plus, traffic was pretty light in the middle of the day. However, I have a hard time imagining the average tourist wanting to do this. Some street have bike lanes but the only one I saw that was a protected lane was on Dearborn Street, a north-south street. Madison had a bike lane and I rode back to Ogilvie on Adams in the bike lane but both of these had plenty of double-parked taxis, cars, and buses. While drivers noticed me and took a wide berth, how tolerant would they be of slower groups of riders?

I would do this again, particularly in nice weather, as it is a different way to see the city and it can cut down on the time to get from attraction to attraction (less than 15 minutes biking from Navy Pier to the train). But, riding on busy streets is not for everyone and Chicago has a ways to go before having a street infrastructure that makes it easy for visitors to hop on bikes.

Quick Review: Bertrand Goldberg retrospective

The Art Institute of Chicago currently has a Bertrand Goldberg retrospective, the first of its kind. Goldberg is well known in Chicago for several works of architecture: Marina City on the north bank of the Chicago River as well as the Prentice Women’s Hospital, which has been in the news lately because of a discussion about whether it should be preserved.

Here are a few photos from the exhibit:

A few thoughts about Goldberg’s work:

1. His primary design form, concrete cobs or wavy walls around a circular core, are quite unique. However, I can’t imagine any building today being built in this style. This has definitely aged.

2. The exhibit portrayed him as a visionary because of his interest in reviving the city through large, self-contained developments. This sort of sounds like New Urbanism but the scale is quite different as are the aesthetics with large concrete surfaces. This reminded me more of Le Corbusier or the arcologies found in Simcity. The self-contained nature of these developments might stop people from fleeing to the suburbs but it wouldn’t necessarily push them to interact with the wider city.

3. Goldberg is known for a few high profile works but also designed a number of other things as well including lots of hospitals, some houses, public buildings, and household items like chairs.

4. My biggest critique of the exhibit: the buildings and designs are given without context. Take Marina City. It definitely is iconic and interesting. Yet, how did it get built? How was the land acquired and the project pushed through the city government? How did it affect the surrounding neighborhood? What is its legacy beyond its walls? For example, the developer for the project was Charles Swibel, a man well-connected to Mayor Richard J. Daley and an unsavory character when it came to things like public housing. While the exhibit suggested Goldberg was trying to help the city, did he really do so in the long run? What was needed was the perspective of an urbanist who could provide some commentary about the overall effect of these buildings. While the exhibit mainly focused on design elements, it really is also an opportunity to assess how Goldberg’s design helped or hindered American cities.