Not unlike a road trip, Midwest Architecture Journeys is long, winding, and full of surprises.
Edited by Chicago architecture journalist Zach Mortice, with an introduction by author and Curbed critic Alexandra Lange, this perfect coffee table book contains essays, features, and the occasional haiku from more than 30 architects, critics, and journalists on the buildings and landscapes that define the Midwest.
Midwest Architecture Journeys visits lesser-known works from architecture giants like Frank Lloyd Wright, Bertrand Goldberg, and Louis Sullivan, but pays equal respect to structures that Lange describes as “anonymously designed”—the grain silos, highway rest stops, public housing complexes, and warehouses that typically wouldn’t appear in a museum but are no less inventive or subversive in their utilitarianism.
Underlying each essay is a deep sense of reverence and an understanding that architecture is inherently personal and political. In “Please Return Again,” Milwaukee journalist Monica Reida mentally wanders the shelves of her childhood library in Waterloo, Iowa—an exercise that soothes the anxieties of adulthood even as she hasn’t stepped inside in nine years.
In another, writer and artist Corey Smith contemplates the three tallest buildings in the Midwest that are not, in fact, buildings (Frank Lloyd Wright’s doomed-to-fail plan for a 528-story skyscraper called The Illinois was never even built) and how these “images that fill guidebooks and postcards and the lips of strangers” reflect our former selves.
Curbed Chicago spoke to editor Zach Mortice about Chicago’s place in the canon and how we can expand our understanding of what architecture can do.
Curbed: Many of the buildings are covered in the book are outside the architectural canon, like flea markets and parking lots. What would you say architecture is to you?
Zach Mortice: It’s what humans create, so it’s an expression of our culture. Unlike visual arts, you can’t really have architecture that’s completely idiosyncratic. It costs so much money and takes so many resources to do a building. By definition, it must reflect the value system, the culture, the priorities, the social hierarchies that we see. And that’s why it’s so fascinating, right? It’s kind of duty-bound to reflect everything going on in the culture. If you dice it apart and put it under a microscope, you can learn so much about what the priority is.
You can learn so much about industrialized agrarian economies by looking at the shape and form and materials and placement and arrangement of a grain silo, as one piece by [Lynn Freehill-Maye] points out.
What value systems do you think Midwestern architecture espouses?
The Midwest, especially historically, is perceived as a place where there’s room for utopian visions. But [the idea is that] you have to get there through diligence, labor, and hard work.
[Wilbur] Wright College, which I wrote about, is an example. It’s an incredibly self-contained architectural arrangement—it completely isolates you from the Chicago city grid and it’s just a really hyper-managed 1960s sci-fi expression of a place. It had this really utopian vision for what the personal desktop computer, which was brand new back then, could do in an educational context.
Alexandra Lange writes in the introduction to the book that Midwestern architecture is sometimes characterized by the New York media as a “novelty” or as a “ruinous theme park.” In setting the tone for this book, what didn’t you want to do?
I don’t think we wanted to do any photo essays of, like, abandoned factories. Ryan Scavnicky’s piece on ruin porn addresses a lot of those things, but in a really progressively shocking and wide-ranging, super clever and funny way. That was a much better way to go. That was one red line that definitely crossed my mind.
Lange also writes in the introduction that “Chicago is always where it starts.” And then it goes into an essay by Jordan Hicks about the Hancock building and the Cahokia Mounds in southern Illinois. What about Chicago is special to the architectural canon, then and now?
That’s one of my favorite things to talk about. In so many ways, Chicago kind of invented the modern city. A lot of the structural, material gymnastics required to build tall were invented here, with masonry and steel in the first Chicago School and then refined more and more with Mies later on. That’s an incredible legacy that scholars can mine forever and ever and ever.
People here are concerned that we’re still coasting on those advances and [are now asking] what are we going to be known for. [But] lately, I’m more and more hopeful that Chicago can retain its crown. I think [the city] is something of a hub for leftist revisionist ideas of what architecture can and should be. The latest [Chicago Architecture Biennial] is a good example of that. It hooked a set of international designers up with local Chicago architects and nonprofits to get them working in local Chicago neighborhoods through this activist, revisionist left historical lens.
There are six democratic socialists on the City Council. That hasn’t happened in any major city in 100-plus years, maybe with the exception of Milwaukee. This is a very rare historical thing. You can imagine as time goes on and these coalitions form and solidify, they’re going to have a very different conception of what public infrastructure should be, and hopefully supporting them will be a similar crop of designers who share that vision and can create the infrastructure to serve that vision—that social mission. Maybe that’s the long-term vision for how Chicago carries this legacy forward. That would be really positive and incredible, and I wake up just hyped every day at the chance to document that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.