World will fol­low our decade of new di­rec­tions

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Blair Kamin Blair Kamin is a Tri­bune critic. bkamin@chicagotri­bune.com

An­ge­les’ Frank Gehry ap­pear to be on the wane, per­haps be­cause the Great Re­ces­sion made such build­ings look ex­ces­sive. (The same fate be­fell jazzy, heav­ily or­na­mented Art Deco de­signs in the 1930s.)

A more aus­tere aes­thetic, com­bin­ing geo­met­ric rigor and spa­tial com­plex­ity, pre­vails in the work of such ar­chi­tects as Chicago’s John Ro­nan. Tra­di­tion­al­ists like

Chicago’s HBRA Ar­chi­tects are out there, too, trans­form­ing his­toric prece­dents to mod­ern needs rather than try­ing to in­vent a new ar­chi­tec­ture ev­ery Mon­day morn­ing.

If any­thing unites these dis­parate ap­proaches, it is the ev­er­more-ur­gent mat­ter of en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity, a con­cern driven home with stun­ning power by the re­cent flood­ing of

Venice.

With an eye to­ward en­ergy ben­e­fits, ar­chi­tects and de­vel­op­ers are look­ing anew at ma­te­ri­als like mass tim­ber (large pieces of wood that are fused to­gether to make them struc­turally ro­bust and fire­proof ). There is fresh talk of “bio­philic” de­sign, which strives to con­nect a build­ing’s oc­cu­pants to na­ture.

Not con­tent with the dull “mow, blow and go” clus­ters of grass and shrubs that once en­veloped cor­po­rate palace, land­scape ar­chi­tects are ascendant. The na­ture-in­spired build­ings and re­gen­er­a­tive land­scapes of ar­chi­tect Jeanne Gang are a key ex­am­ple.

A re­newed con­cern for eq­uity is part of the shift­ing out­look. In­creas­ingly, the ques­tion isn’t only “what gets de­signed?” but “who ben­e­fits?” Mau­rice Cox, for­merly Detroit’s plan­ning di­rec­tor and now Mayor Lori Light­foot’s plan­ning chief, per­son­i­fies this trend.

As the na­tion ap­proaches its 250th birthday in 2026, the art of adapt­ing old build­ings to new uses con­tin­ues to com­prise a sig­nif­i­cant part of what ar­chi­tects do. But the build­ings be­ing trans­formed these days are not cute

Vic­to­ri­ans or mag­nif­i­cent BeauxArts li­braries.

They in­clude build­ings of the mid­dle years of the 20th cen­tury, like the Art Moderne be­he­moth of Chicago’s Old Post Of­fice and the ex­otic New For­mal­ist struc­ture of the Univer­sity of Chicago’s Keller Cen­ter. How quickly to­day’s cut­ting-edge de­sign be­comes to­mor­row’s cul­tural ar­ti­fact.

Soon we’ll be fight­ing over a key legacy of post­mod­ernism: the Hel­mut Jahn-de­signed James R. Thomp­son Cen­ter.

As al­ways, Chicago is an ur­ban caul­dron in which the com­pet­ing forces of power and money, pas­sion and art, vie for supremacy amid the smoke and fire of ar­gu­ment and de­bate.

As the world ur­ban­izes and grap­ples with the con­se­quences of ever-greater heights and den­sity, it in­vari­ably will look to the cru­cible of late 19th and early 20th cen­tury ur­ban­iza­tion — Chicago — for an­swers. Why? Be­cause change is the only con­stant here.

Would we want it any other way?

TER­RENCE AN­TO­NIO JAMES/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

The Keller Cen­ter, a ren­o­vated mid-20th cen­tury build­ing at the Univer­sity of Chicago, added a mul­ti­level atrium with bleacher seat­ing.

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