Tag Archives: architecture

Architects, Designers, and Engineers (Oh, My!)

CBR_Logo2Women of Steel and Stone:
22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers
by Anna M. Lewis

For readers who for some reason aren’t aware of it, the old boys’ clubs of architecture, engineering, and design did not always warmly welcome women into their ranks. For readers who feared that stopped them, Women of Steel and Stone is here to remind readers of their moxie as well as how they have altered and enhanced public spaces. Unfortunately, the women who have dared to work in three-dimensional design remain two-dimensional in these pages, far more steel and stone than blood and bones.

women steel stone 9781613745083The twenty-two women featured in this installation of the “Women in Action” series serve as a handy introduction to female leaders in these fields. What they represent in scope, however, they lose in depth. As a result of too-breezy writing for this weighty topic, their names may easily fail to stick. Remarkable life stories here read more like lengthy curriculum vitae.

To be fair, this series targets young adults, so the assumption is they require reduction of complex lives into something easy to digest; one lifetime, for the record, goes by in about ten minutes. Extended any longer with too many turns of events, not to mention clauses, interfering with the course of the women’s achievements, and they may stop reading. So best to keep the pacing brisk, even if the lives being chronicled contained their share of reflective pauses.

Fortunately, Women of Steel and Stone ably fulfills an agenda that’s easy to respect: to introduce its young demographic to women who can serve as role positive models with no shortage of élan into the bargain. Yet the role models inevitably fall flat in prose that itself lacks all dimension. The textbook reading, even when inspirational, rarely sings. It even more rarely morphs into language verging on truth and beauty—let’s just forget poetry—which is a shame, because many of these women’s buildings and landscape designs aspired to no less.

The main problem here is that what amounts to a survey course in women who broke the mold itself feels conformist, effectively stripping these renegades’ lives of color. By adhering to a formulaic biography for each subject regardless of her differences from the woman following her in the next chapter, this books makes those who boldly stood out in crowds strangely blur together.

For readers who, by chance, are looking to do some quick research on a given female architect or landscape designer, however, identifying her date of birth and other major life markers, this volume makes that easy. Readers looking for a textured portrait of lives rich with struggle and occasionally genius—a written analogue to some future Ken Burns film, excavating the commonness of the human condition in its extreme particularities—may likely be disappointed.

That said, these women still leave an impression. This book’s chief virtue is that it makes for quick reference regarding biographical high points, and like any good piece of reporting, the most salient information isn’t long in coming. So readers learn a lot of firsts quickly, such as that Emily Warren Roebling acted as the first female engineer, helping complete the Brooklyn Bridge, that Beverly L. Green was the first African-American women in the United States to secure her architecture license, and that Zaha Hadid was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

The danger is that, unless this information echoes previous studies or prefaces deeper ones to come, readers are likely to forget them. Firsts can feel less important once they’ve been done in sufficient quantities afterward. All the more reason for the writer to invest casual readers in the originally struggle, helping us to identify with someone with whom we may well have little in common, even if we do both happen to be women. For something to make a real impression, to have a life beyond the page and in the imagination, it has to do more than earn a place in the encyclopedia of women’s progress, of which this is a slim and dry version.

One-Star Review

January 2014, Chicago Review Press
YA Nonfiction
$19.95, hardcover, 272 pages,
ISBN: 9781613745083

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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Chicago by Camera

by Larry Kanfer and Alaina Kanfer

Award-winning photographic artist Larry Kanfer’s colorful photographs glow in nearly three-dimensional relief in his new book, Chicagoscapes, a collection of images of our fair city.

Kanfer, who earned a degree in architecture from University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, has teamed up with Alaina Kanfer to assemble a fine collection here, images that capture slices of the city from north to south. Readers will find images of iconic Chicago attractions, from Navy Pier to North Avenue Beach, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Field Museum, from The Berghoff to The Wiener’s Circle. (Unfortunately, many readers won’t know what they’re looking at because there is a dearth of caption information. A list of illustrations at the back of the book provides some details, but many of the descriptions are merely catchy phrases rather than helpful information.)

chicagoscapes 9780252034992More than a hundred photographs are in these pages, a slim volume fit for giftgiving or the coffee table. Some of the images show the expanse of the city in impactful two-page spreads, some encourage the reader to look more closely, diving in to an array of smaller images assembled on a single page.

Kanfer has captured the city in a unique way, focusing his lens on familiar sites but revealing them in a new light. Although the images are lovely, it’s the colors and post-production techniques in them that captivate. Kanfer often uses soft focus to draw the reader’s eye to particular details: a column of balconies on one of the city’s residential high-rises, a bunch of skaters on the ice at Millennium Park. Many of the images focus tightly on details, rendering a common site abstract. Bridges, “L” staircases, and the Marina City parking levels become a collection of color and light and shadow and lines and angles. As such, Chicagoscapes is atmospheric and moody—quiet somehow despite the fact that Kanfer has photographed one of the busiest cities in the world.

Indeed there’s something almost anathema about this collection when one contrasts this subtle quietness with the verve that is Chicago. In his short introduction to the book, “Our Chicago,” Kanfer writes about the “big city, with all its noise, hustle, and bustle,” and, yet, many of the images were clearly taken at odd hours, rendering Chicago something of a ghost town devoid of people and traffic. For instance, an image of Devon Avenue appears to have been taken very early in the morning: Only one car prowls the street—a street usually so packed with cars and pedestrians that it can take forever to drive just a few blocks in either direction. An “L” stop reveals no one waiting for a train. A lone little boy playing at the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park belies the fact that the area is usually jam-packed with children and adults all summer long. Plenty of images do, though, capture areas of the city full of people—beaches, parks, the lakefront trail. Even so, the Chicago in these pages feels quiet. Sleepy. Dreamy.

While some readers will find these images moody and magical, photography purists might well rankle at the post-production techniques used here. Some of the images are rendered in such a way as to appear as illustrations or paintings. One image in these pages has been pointillated à la Georges Seurat; it’s a beautiful, interesting look at the city, but it’s also a bit jarring as it is the only such doctored image in the collection.

Kanfer’s approach isn’t so much photojournalism as it is art photography. Most of the images here capture the beauty of the city, the pretty parts. Even a photograph of a graffiti-covered wall is colorful and artsy rather than gritty and edgy. A handful of black-and-white photographs grace these pages, but those that do are innocuous and safe. Readers will find no images here of the gritty South or West sides, no images of street upon street of foreclosed houses, no photographic insight into run-down CHA projects.

But that’s not what this book is about. Chicagoscapes is a love letter to what is magical and romantic about the Windy City. Kanfer has in these pages captured this beautiful city through atmospheric lighting, interesting angles, intriguing composition, and great timing. Although some readers might find some of the images a little snapshot-y or postcard-y, Chicagoscapes is full of great moments in a great city.

Three-Star Review

October 2014, University of Illinois Press
Photography/Local Interest
$34.95, hardcover, 128 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03499-2

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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A Guide to the Architectural Gems of ‘the Most Beautiful Great City’

CBR_Logo2AIA Guide to Chicago
Third Edition
by American Institute of Architects;
Alice Sinkevitch and Laurie McGovern Petersen, Editors

Funny, isn’t it, how transplants often know a city’s landmarks better than the locals. It’s so easy as a local of a major metropolis to push aside going to its museums, historic sites, or other attractions—the excuses are as numerous as they are flimsy: they’re too touristy, there’s not enough time, they’re too expensive, they’re too inconvenient, etc., etc.

AIA Guide Chicago 9780252079849Locals and tourists alike no longer have any good reason to miss seeing Chicago’s many architectural gems, thanks to the publication of AIA Guide to Chicago. This third edition, released just this summer, is packed with hundreds of visit-worthy architectural sites across the city, from lakeshore to West Side, from north to south.

Last updated in 2004, this new edition adds a decade’s worth of progress—beautiful, stark, or controversial—including Aqua, Millennium Park, and Trump Tower. This edition features three dozen maps, charts, and tables as well as more than 450 black-and-white photographs and illustrations. The guide also features a new preface from WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer, whose popular PBS specials hit a number of the architectural highlights in the book.

Arranged by neighborhood, the guide is divided into four main sections comprised of twenty chapters that take readers building by building and street by street through the neighborhoods of the Loop and the South Loop, the North and Northwest Sides, the West Side and suburban Oak Park, and the South and Southwest Sides. Each section gets a minihistory of the area, noting how it first developed and, in many cases, fell into decay before becoming gentrified (or not). Detailed maps serve as fodder for self-guided tours, although the guide does not advise whether readers should walk or drive through certain areas (or, for that matter, whether it is wise to even get out of your car in some neighborhoods). Some of the maps might have readers walking around in circles every now and again, but even those circuitous routes would be worthwhile since they highlight some of the city’s wonderful architectural gems.

The many gems found in these pages are both well known and little known, and it is this expansive scope that makes the AIA Guide to Chicago so enthralling. The editors and contributors have in these pages hit the major highlights—the Sears Tower (sorry: can’t call it “Willis” yet), the Hancock, the Monadnock, the Rookery—but they also have revealed countless lesser-known buildings peppered throughout the city. Readers, for instance, will find information about the William V. O’Brien House on Arlington Place, “one of the city’s most unusual for its era;” the Cardinal Meyer Center, originally “Soldiers’ Home,” on 35th Street, “a rare example of a surviving Civil War-era building in Chicago;” and the Warren McArthur and George W. Blossom houses on Kenwood, “the most important of the ‘bootlegged’ commissions done while [Frank Lloyd Wright] was working for Adler & Sullivan.”

Indeed, Wright, Adler, and Sullivan are just a few of the popular architects whose structures are featured in these pages. Readers also will find listings for buildings created by the likes of E. E. Roberts, George W. Maher, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frederick Schock. More recent entries include those by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Frank Gehry; and Mies van der Rohe. As might be expected, most of the structures and places covered in the book date to the early twentieth century during the post-Great Fire building boom, although this new edition features a number of buildings from recent years as well.

In addition to residences, office buildings, and government buildings, readers also will find information about parks and cemeteries and the structures and grounds therein. Even O’Hare Airport gets special attention, with a few pages dedicated to its terminals and outbuildings.

One could easily spend the better part of nearly every weekend for six months exploring the buildings and other sites detailed in these pages. For those who don’t wish to dedicate quite so much time exploring the city and its architectural treasures, it’s just as easy to pick one or two of the neighborhoods to explore using the detailed maps. Even those who prefer armchair adventure will find much to enjoy in this expansive guide, packed as it is with images and history.

AIA Guide to Chicago makes it difficult to come up with an excuse not to explore the city, whether in person or virtually through these pages. Architecture buffs, historians, Chicagophiles … whether tourist or local, there is something of interest to many a reader in this fact-filled guide.

Four-Star Review

June 2014, University of Illinois Press
$34.95, paperback, 550 pages
Architecture/Local History/Travel
ISBN: 978-0-252-07984-9

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Learn more about AIA Chicago.

Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.
—Frank Lloyd Wright

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