October 19, 2007

Their Vision, Their Words, Our World
The Art Institute of Chicago’s collection of architects’ oral histories brings the past into focus

by Zach Mortice
Assistant Editor

How do you . . . create an extensive oral history of the most influential architects in a city’s history?

Summary: The Chicago Architects Oral History Project presents the lives, careers, and achievements of the city’s best architects in their own words. The collection is focused on SOM partners and students of the prominent Illinois Institute of Technology. Expectedly, the influence of Modernist standard bearer and mentor Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is felt throughout.

When Gordon Bunshaft designer of the iconic Lever House in New York City and Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., won the Pritzker Prize in 1988, he gave the shortest acceptance speech in the history of the award: 58 words, and the last two were, “That’s it.” But somehow, when he was interviewed for the Art Institute of Chicago’s Chicago Architects Oral History Project, he was able to talk for about 330 pages’ worth of words.

In 1990, his words joined the testimonials of many other Chicago Modernism luminaries at the museum’s Ryerson and Burnham Archives. Those included are the leaders and mentors that developed the city’s iconic buildings and the full-throated endorsers of the Modernism that defines Chicago—a city that arguably has done more than any other to advance the sphere of the International Style and invent the Modern skyline.

Begun in 1983, the project’s intention was to capture the history and knowledge of the aging generation of original Chicago-based SOM partners and students of the influential Armour Institute in Chicago, later renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology (ITT). “They were coming into their 60s, if not their 70s,” says Mary Woolever, archivist at the Ryerson and Burnham Archives. “It’s sort of the right time to catch somebody in their career, when they’re still engaged in remembering the projects and their colleagues.”

The collection has since grown to 80 entries. A handful of interviewers (often architectural historians) sit with subjects for 10-12 hours broken up over several days and then edit the results with them. The final transcripts are available to read in the museum and on its Web site. “Regardless of how long and how hard I prepare [for] an interview, there is always an element of discovery—things I couldn’t have possibly known or researched. That’s very exciting for me,” says Betty Blum, an interviewer for the project who has been working on it since it began. Of all the interviewers, Blum has sat with the most subjects, and she’s also helped to select which architects will be interviewed.

What about diversity?
“The more you think about memories, the more you remember,” says Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, founder of Ross Barney Architects. Ross Barney realized this as she was interviewed for the Chicago Architects Oral History Project last year. Born in 1949, Ross Barney is a youngster for the project. Her inclusion put her in the company of former mentor John Holabird, FAIA, of Holabird and Root.

The project is primarily a scholarly resource for authors and academics. Ross Barney says she also hopes the archive will be used to introduce non-architects to the profession, and, “for this reason, it needs to be as diverse as possible,” she says.

As in architecture at large, there is room for improvement. The project has been more inclusive of women (Ross Barney, and two other women architects were added most recently), and several Asian-American architects are present, but not one architect of African-American or Hispanic descent is on the list.

Blum says a lack of funding has precluded producing as diverse a group as they might prefer.

Woolever says that the current generation of architects hasn’t been able to showcase its diversity in the oral history project yet because they have not retired or accepted emeritus professional arrangements, the typical period in which subjects are interviewed.

Ross Barney says there are architects worthy of inclusion now.

The ghost in the room
Much of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project details the influence, mentorship, and methods of one man who isn’t even in the archive: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His tenure at the Armour Institute and ITT created legions of then-young architects (such as the Art Institute of Chicago’s A. James Speyer and Schmidt, Garden and Erikson architect Paul McCurry, FAIA) who were energized by the hope of bringing egalitarian order and social reform to a war-ravaged world through Modernism. Whether architects are vindicating or repudiating Mies, he is the common touchstone; the ghost in the room. Two members of the “Chicago Seven” (Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, and James Ingo Freed, FAIA) who challenged the standards and orthodoxy that Mies’ teachings had grown into give Mies as much ink and breathe as his acolytes did. Some of these students and associates became partners at Chicago-based SOM, including Bruce Graham, FAIA, the designer of the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center, and thus found themselves in crosshairs of both the primary historical narratives of the project.

Those like Bunshaft and McCurry, who were lucky enough to be born in the early-20th century and to find their way to Chicago and/or SOM, quickly found themselves at the crest of a wave of enthusiasm that gave them new ideas on how the built environment can serve humanity. For good or ill, this is the story of the oral history project so far. During his interview, Bunshaft enthused:

“Perhaps the most important thing that ever happened to me was that I was born on May 9, 1909 . . . When I returned from the army after the Second World War, I had already had a few years of practice at SOM. I already had two degrees from MIT and a Rotch Traveling Fellowship. So, in 1947, the United States, especially in New York, was starting on a building boom. Clients wanted Modern architecture, and here I was at the right age, excited about Modernism, and fortunate enough to join Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in 1937 . . . “

Woolever calls words like these, “first person history.” “It’s not like we’re interviewing the flash 30-year-old with one fabulous building,” she says.

Beyond the page
The Art Institute is planning to transfer the original audio tapes of the interviews to patron-accessible DVDs soon, so that visitors are able to hear the vocal mannerisms and speech of this pre-eminent group of architects for the first time. It’s also begun adding live video clips of architects (including Ross Barney) to the site. Without the project, she says that this history may be lost forever, especially now that communication is instantaneous and therefore disposable. “This may be the only way to preserve the thoughts of Modern architects.”


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Link to Chicago Architects Oral History Project.

Photos 1-5, from the Chicago Architects Oral History Project Web site.
Photo 6, photo © Sandro.

1. Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990)
2. A. James Speyer (1913-1986)
3. Paul McCurry (1903-1991)
4. James Ingo Freed (1930-2005)
5. Bruce Graham, FAIA (b.1925)
6. Carol Ross Barney, FAIA (b. 1949).