In early May I set out on a four-day journey to Chicago, Illinois. I began the trip wondering how architectural organizations in Chicago, a city so densely packed with renowned buildings and structures, approach the challenge of engaging their viewers with these works. How can architecture be made more accessible? What techniques are used? Curated exhibitions of images, models, and research, or tours and activities that physically involve the structures? What methods have been found to be the most successful?The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), one of the many visits I made during my stay, is currently working to overcome this challenge. They use a variety of methods, such as tours on foot, bike, and boat, and a video series filmed throughout Chicago, to engage visitors with the architecture. (I was able to go on their riverboat tour, which was a great way to see the city from a different viewpoint.) In addition to these, they also hold two to three exhibitions each year in their gallery space at the foundation’s building on Michigan Avenue. It was here that I saw their exhibit Chicago: City of Big Data, which highlights the importance of technologies like sensors and social media in showing how physical spaces react to current issues of population growth and environmental change. CAF is an example of an organization that has approached the challenge of making architecture accessible head on, and found successful methods both curated within their own space and around the city.
A second method that I explored on my trip involved rejecting curated architectural exhibits entirely. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust has made the work of Wright extremely accessible to viewers without entering the confines of a museum or gallery. During my stay I was able to go on two architectural tours run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust: the Robie House Interior Spaces tour and a tour of Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois. Both delved deeply into Wright’s techniques and background as an architect, using only the spaces he created for context.
My second day in Chicago I was also able to visit to the Illinois Institute of Technology campus to admire the structures of Mies van der Rohe, Helmut Jahn, and Rem Koolhaas. This visit made me realize that there is much to be said for the installations and models brought into the museum, and the extensive historical tours, but many times the buildings truly speak for themselves. My self-guided walk through campus was a different type of architectural experience that was very powerful for me and, I’m sure, other visitors as well.
After four days of various architectural encounters—tours, gallery and museum visits, and self-guided exploration—my questions remained unanswered. I found that there was no single method that proved most successful. Rather, it was the combination of these approaches that allowed me to best engage with the architecture. In Chicago there are so many opportunities available through different organizations, allowing visitors to create exactly the experience they need in order to make the structures most accessible to them individually.
Reflecting on this trip it is clear to me that this was only the beginning of a much larger analysis of architectural accessibility. I hope to continue these studies in other cities as well, so as to compare the overall approach that Chicago has taken versus other architecturally prominent cities.