If there’s any justice, history will recognize John Zukowsky for his singular place in documenting and disseminating Chicago’s architectural history. He’s produced several of the most significant visual records of the city, including the two-volume companion to the milestone surveys [Chicago Architecture 1872–1922 and 1923–1993] that he mounted at the Art Institute in the early 1990s; together the catalogues create an amazingly comprehensive chronicle of built Chicago. And, shortly before leaving the city in 2004, he published Masterpieces of Chicago Architecture, a visually breathtaking timeline of the city’s greatest buildings.
An assessment of Building Chicago, Zukowsky’s latest contribution to the canon, more or less demands the inquiry: Is it necessary? Given the increasing interest in the subject over the past couple of decades and the number of pictorial surveys of the city that others have published, do we really need another iteration of “Chicago’s Greatest Hits?” And hasn’t Mr. Zukowsky said it all already anyway?
The short answers are “yes” and “maybe, but so what?” Indeed, there is probably not much new to say on the subject that Zukowsky himself hasn’t already said. (Beyond the fact—and this is not insignificant—that a dozen years have elapsed since Zukowsky’s last compendium, and a lot has happened architecturally in the last dozen years.) But with architectural history, you can always find new ways to look at the material—not only conceptually, but visually. And in Building Chicago, Zukowsky has lucked into a whole new inventory of visual materials.The image collection of the Chicago History Museum (formerly known as the Chicago Historical Society) recently acquired rights to most of the spectacular archive of Hedrich Blessing, generally considered the world’s greatest architectural photography studio, dating back to the 1930s through to 1979—in addition to the museum’s already impressive collection of vintage photographs.
In his introduction, Zukowsky acknowledges he’s revisiting much of the territory he covered in the 2004 work (also for the publisher Rizzoli), which drew mostly from the Art Institute’s extensive collection of drawings, artifacts, and photos. Here, Zukowsky’s source for imagery, while almost exclusively photographic, is actually much broader than the Art Institute’s and really makes for a much more vivid picture.
Zukowsky is a fine scholar, but the writing in Building Chicago is generally dry and uninspiring, particularly if you’re well-versed in the subject matter. But you’re not reading this book for the text. Like any picture book—and, while it’s a serious historical work, Building Chicago is primarily a picture book—its success depends on the images. So it’s particularly fortunate that Zukowsky was able to indulge his “curator’s choice” and assemble a brilliant iconography of the most emblematic buildings in the city from the museum’s collection.
Zukowsky admits that he didn’t intend this as a comprehensive history of the city’s built environment: It is, quite frankly, a look at the city’s most important, influential and prominent structures. Aside from some high-profile apartment towers and one lakefront mansion, there’s little about residential design, almost nothing ecclesiastical, and very little outside the city’s core. The visual story Zukowsky is presenting here doesn’t pretend to reflect anything beyond the public realm or show us much about the neighborhoods in a city that is supposed to be all about neighborhoods. It’s about the architecture that has become a key element of the tourism industry and an economic engine on its own, celebrating the great, important buildings of Chicago that provide the city its one real claim to international distinction and are the source of boundless hometown pride.
Readers familiar with the cityscape will not be surprised here with the choice of buildings illustrated. But the book’s real distinction is the historical selection from Hedrich Blessing—both in its great period photos of grand buildings now demolished (the Michigan Square Building) or recklessly remodeled (the Prudential Building lobby) and of projects far less glamorous: A 1944 photo of the Monroe Street Red Line platform and another of the newly finished Lake Shore Drive pedestrian overpass at North Avenue are particularly edifying.
It’s hard to imagine a better compendium: Building Chicago is an important addition to any serious collection of books about the city.
Building Chicago: The Architectural Masterworks
John Zukowsky, Rizzoli, $85.00