Chicago: Tourism by design

In Chicago for his 2014 Dulux Study Tour, Melbourne-based architect Ben Milbourne was deeply impressed not just with the city’s architectural landmarks, but its engagement with the public on the value of design.

Chicago is a great architectural town, birthplace of the American Skyscraper and home to some of the most influential architects and architecture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. On the first leg of the 2014 Dulux Study Tour, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that architecture has a central place in the psyche of this most American of cities.

Daniel Burnham, Luis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and more recently Jeanne Gang are public figures, whose influence in shaping the city is widely known and recognised. It is true that Chicago has a very rich architectural heritage, but so do many other cities, which begs the question: ‘How has Chicago so actively engaged the public in the discussion about the importance of architecture and the urban realm?’

Juliane Wolf, design principal with Studio Gang, argues that the importance of architecture to Chicagoan identity is a function of geography: “The flatness of the prairie defines Chicago, with very few geographic features the city itself takes on the role of landscape, its buildings are its landmarks – urban mountains, that you use to orient yourself within the city.”

Chicago has a robust architectural discourse within the profession, via the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and other institutions. However the city also hosts the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) whose mission it is to engage the public, not just architects in a discussion on the future of the city, and to communicate the value of design. According to the CAF website: “The Chicago Architecture Foundation is the leading organization devoted to celebrating and promoting Chicago as a centre of architectural innovation. As Chicago’s forum for the exchange of ideas on urban design, CAF inspires people to participate in the building of vibrant communities and to demand the highest standard in urban design. CAF awakens young people to achieve their potential through the discovery of architecture, engineering, and design.”

A rootop view along the Chicago River

A rootop view along the Chicago River

Image: Ben Milbourne

Established in 1966, the CAF operates a broad range of programs and in 2013 hosted a total audience in excess of half a million people with an operating budget of US$17 million, generated through donations and ticket sales. Promoted as the ‘No. 1 thing to do in Chicago’ (US News & World Report), the CAF runs daily tours throughout the city, by rail, foot and boat along the city’s river system. The most popular tours, the river cruise run every 30 minutes, consistently selling out with patronage in the hundreds. Staffed by docents
(volunteers) who conduct tours and interpret the buildings in Chicago’s downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods.

Volunteers come from all walks of life, many with little or no previous formal education on the subject of architecture. The tours cover the early development of the city, through the gilded age to the most recent additions to the urban fabric, offering the general public insight into not only how the city arrived at its current form, but also the role of architects in shaping it. Other initiatives include free weekly lectures, exhibitions and a youth education platform, with participation approaching 50,000 students and teachers per annum in programs such as Lego architecture workshops, engaging kids in design culture and thinking.

Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) boat cruise on the Chicago River.

Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) boat cruise on the Chicago River.

Image: Ben Milbourne

Other American cities are actively looking to Chicago and the CAF as a model for public outreach. The New York chapter of the AIA has established a program where entries in their annual awards program are exhibited via advertising boards throughout the subway system – getting architecture into the public domain and providing exposure for some of the projects that may not have gained an award in a given year.

At a time when business is increasingly interested in design thinking, designers and architects need to demonstrate the value of design not only as a methodology for decision making but also in delivering value to environments and end products. In order to do so we need to engage the broader public in a discussion of the value of what we do. Australia has some excellent programs for engaging the public with architecture, in particular, the annual Open House program in many capital cities demonstrates that the public does have an interest in the built environment. However, we as a profession need to pursue a far deeper engagement with the public to demonstrate the value of good design, on a more than annual basis. Chicago’s multi-faceted approach, and rich history of public engagement demonstrates the way forward.

Next stop … New York.

Pilgrims to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House near Plano, Illinois — the 2014 Dulux Study Tour group (L—R): Michael Zanardo, Suzannah Waldron, Ben Milbourne, Jenna Rowe, Cherry Williamson.

Pilgrims to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House near Plano, Illinois — the 2014 Dulux Study Tour group (L—R): Michael Zanardo, Suzannah Waldron, Ben Milbourne, Jenna Rowe, Cherry Williamson.

Image: Ben Milbourne

The 2014 Dulux Study Tour visited Chicago and New York, courtesy of Dulux and the Australian Institute of Architects. Read more about the 2014 cohort.

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