--January 2008: Issue 26 of City Reading Ⅰ
When I was in Hong Kong, I had a good friend named Ernest Lee, a senior architect graduated from Dept. Of Architecture, Hong Kong University, who is a hypercritical person that seldom expresses satisfaction except only one time. Before our site study in the US, I asked him a question, “Ernest, which city you think is the most beautiful one in the United States?” To my surprise, Ernest Lee gazed at me and remarked immediately without hesitation, “You mean the most beautiful city? I am sure that it is Chicago. Absolutely,” I was really overwhelming impressed by his reply because of his continuous absolute words, namely “the most”, “sure” and ”absolutely”. At that time, I have not been to Chicago and harbor a distorted impression which was gained from American gangster films such as Godfather. In my opinion, gunfight scenes in warehouse seem to be the representative of Chicago’s image. Later on, I got to know that Chicago was nicknamed as “pork city” or “world’s slaughter house” by poet Carl Sandburg when reading city history.
So who is right, Architect Ernest or Poet Carl Sandburg? At my first trip to Chicago I found that both are right.
Today’s Chicago displays elegance and nobility of the lakeside city style, which are unique and cannot be found in other American cities.
It is previous successful industrial transformation that contributed to Chicago’s urban development. Almost all the treatises described it as “phoenix’s nirvana” expresing two meanings. Firstly, a fire broke out in Chicago in 1871 and lasted for several days. It destroyed nearly 200 million dollars property in an area of 675 square kilometers. However, it was fortunate that merciless fire had not hindered Chicago’s urban development. On the contrary, Chicago had expanded unprecedentedly owing to serial large-scale reconstructions. It seems testifies a popular buzzword in realm of urban construction, saying that not only construction makes a city, but demolition does as well. If we apply it to Chicago we may say that not only construction makes a city, but also fire.. Besides, the fire even gave birth to a new architectural school who maintained that fire-fighting requirements is essential and thus high-rise commercial office buildings began to give priority to fire resistance. As a result, they extricated from ancient pattern of high-rise buildings in New York, and founded Chicago School based on engineering technology and practical consideration. One of the representative personages of Chicago school is Eliel Saarinen. His student Frank Lloyd Wright is even more famous and is reputed to be the No.1 American builder master.
Secondly, it is Chicago’s successful economic transition that contributed to its urban development. In the 1960s, Chicago was undergoing economic transition and the government was committed to developing Chicago’s exhibition and convention service. Founded as an exhibition and convention center in 1960, McCormick Place in southern lake becomes the largest exhibition and convention center after several times expansion. Meanwhile, government is committed to promoting the development of waterfront tourism project and cooperates with local enterprises and property owners to improve waterfront environment, developing public space on the banks of the Chicago River and supporting and promoting sustainable development of tourism and exhibition economy. After a series of industrial transformation, Chicago has shed its image of a pork city.
Nowadays, Chicago serves a financial and commercial center and a transport hub in the US. It positions itself as an international second-tier metropolis in a sensible way, in stark contrast to dozens of Chinese cities desiring to be listed as a world-class first-tier metropolis. (In comparison with Chicago, we lack this kind practical spirit carried forward by Chicago citizens.) It is surely undoubted that Chicago is the most beautiful city in the United States. Among 69 coastal cities out of 75 large cities in the United States, Chicago is richly endowed by nature-Lake Michigan sitting in the east, which is a giant fresh water lake like a tranquil sea. Reflecting a picturesque Chicago on its calm surface, Lake Michigan bestows advantages of all the coastal cities on Chicago while avoids their disadvantages manifested by New York and Baltimore. . What’s more, being one of the most beautiful city skylines in the world——from Sears Tower in the west, Lake Shore Drive Apartments designed by builder master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the middle to John Hancock Tower in the north——the north-south city contour of Chicago seems like a piece of frozen music. Lake Michigan mirrored the entire city contour, just like a beautiful necklace laid on a mirror. Reflection bestows Chicago with a transcendental aura. When standing in Chicago lakefront museum district, all the tourists can admire the extraordinary beauty of Chicago City and are enchanted by breathtaking scenery here like Ernest.
It is very interesting that beauty of cities not only rests on picturesque scenery, but on the angle of vision for appreciating city skyline in the distance as well. In other words, how you see the building comes before merely seeing. Otherwise, no matter how beautiful a city is, you will miss the chance to admire beauty of the city just as parade beautifully dressed in the dark or cast a glaring pearl to the gloom. Let us analyze the reason why Shanghai City is so beautiful. We may reply because it sits on the banks of the Huangpu River. From north to south or from south to north, tourists can admire complete picturesque city skyline. The fact Pudong development occurs nearly a hundred years later than Puxi Development gives Shanghai city the beauty of times. From south to north, The Bund seems to come to a standstill in 1937 and displays old bund landscape. From north to south, it presents Chinese modern city image in the 21st Century. By comparison, shanghai city bears A Tale of Two Cities and is characterized by its distinctive landscape blending traditional glamour and modern elements.
So does Chicago. It is renowned for its own landscape corridor “Chicago River”, which is an ignored urban landscape resource.
Due to the existence of Lake Michigan, we usually forget Chicago River unconsciously. In fact, Chicago is named for Chicago River. The relationship between Chicago river and Chicago city can be depicted by the folk saying in Beijing——Tanzhe Temple came before Beijing City. This should be carved in mind, while it was a pity that even Chicago residents forgot its mother river for a long time.
Let’s put Lake Michigan aside and review Chicago River.
The 66-kilometer-long Chicago River and urban canal system radiating from Chicago River contributed to the economic growth of Chicago City. After it enters Chicago City via the Lake Michigan estuary, it is split into two tributaries and run through numerous residential areas and industrial corridors. When serving as an expressway of Chicago’s transit network, Chicago River paid a heavy price and it was once a heavily polluted river. For this reason and considering the prominent position of lakefront area in Chicago, the role of Chicago River as public space has been widely ignored. Although in 1974, The Riveredge Plan of Chicago portrayed picturesque landscape on the banks of Chicago River, there was no implementation plan for further development. Until 1990, government issued Chicago River Urban Design Guidelines (Downtown Corridor) to regulate the planning and development on the banks of Chicago River. In the past 30 years, government at federal, state and municipal levels invested more than 4 billion dollars in tackling pollution in Chicago River and set new development goals in lieu of previous industrial zone transit and sewage discharge functions. Nowadays, Chicago River becomes a very beautiful city river which not only has green pedestrian walk and parks alongside but also gets carefully preserved on other costal landscape and various fish in the river. When strolling along the river, you may feel a more realistic Chicago because Chicago on riverside looks more realistic, humane, discernable and touchable than that Chicago on the other bank of Lake Michigan.
It is lucky for a city to have an angle of vision and a landscape-admiring stand, whereas Chicago has two, namely Lake Michigan the bigger and Chicago River the smaller. Therefore, we may obtain two Chicago images. One is the picturesque Chicago for admiring across from Lake Michigan, and the other is modern cosmopolitan Chicago for experiencing. From the latter one, you could read the other side of Chicago.
Chicago City by Chicago riverside is steeped in history.
Walking along the river, you will be too enchanted by beautiful scenery that to resist the temptation to viewing from the opposite bank. As a consequence, you keep crossing the river by a good number of bridges over it again and again. People, who understand the beauty of the city, even a little, would not go straight along Chicago River, and few of them will treat the beauty in that simple way. Instead, they may choose to walk to and fro to take in breathtaking scenery from different visual positions. Only after being exhausted, will you sense a cunning Chicago from this humane Chicago River. Additionally, you may sense that poet Carl Sandburg also gave an accurate portrayal of Chicago as an industrial city in old days. Time passed reinforced Chicago’s modern and elegant image nowadays.
Chicago City by Chicago riverside is reputed to be a business park.
In terms of urban functions, Chicago River is distinct from other city rivers. This difference lie in the fact that it is actually a urban business river densely bordered on both sides by a multitude of well-known high-end office buildings, such as 333 West Wacker Drive and 225 West Wacker Drive designed by famous Atkins Design Office, RR Donnelley Building designed by famed Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill and world-class Marina City nearby on the opposite bank, all of which are named for roads they locate instead of being named respectively as there are too many well-known buildings on the banks of Chicago River. Among them it is worth mentioning that North Quay Renovation Project, once being a former solid brick and wooden warehouse was transformed into a modern and popular store and office building by painstaking architect.. When I visited it at dusk, it was holding a grand business party there, at which guests can sense the high commercial value of Chicago riverside as a business park.
Chicago City by Chicago Riverside is a humane place fit for habitation.
When walking on the banks of Chicago River, you may be fascinated by Chicago City, a city where business parks coexist in perfect harmony with urban culture, desirable residences, eco-environment and beautiful landscape. It blends in perfectly with Chicago Riverside as the way in which roaming passers by on the banks of Chicago River and swimming fish in the river does. Urban pedestrian walkways on the banks and city yachts going through bridges turn Chicago River into a linear city park, which make Chicago River serve as an urban eco-corridor of Chicago City. Chicago residents value Chicago River and thus preserve and make the most of its coastal resources in an ingenious way during the implementation of their river revitalization plan so that it is difficult for tourists to find two identical stretches of coastlines. Contrastingly, you can discover revolutionary coastline design here. For instance, riverfront foundation pier of Marina City was designed into a marina. The upper Marina City can be used as accommodation, while the middle Marina City can be used as parking lot and the lower Marina City can be used as berth. These two giant corn cobs stand as a monument to human riverfront building imagination. Of course, Marina City is a successful attempt. However, there are also lots of failures. For instance, River City on south bank of Chicago River is a typical attempt failure and its designer is Bertrand Goldberg, the most active architect in the late 20th century and one of the last idealists. After designing Marina City (Corncob Towers) in 1967, Goldberg intended to design a perfect housing complex called “River City” for middle class whom he believed to be in need of residences. Despite the fact that him successfully predicted that middle class needed residences, Goldberg had failed in his attempt because his design is far beyond demand of middle class. Inspired by the legendary river snake of Chicago, this idealist designed two S-shaped buildings of high-end, which is a similar marina unaffordable for middle class. However, his landscape design adds a certain glamour to Chicago riverside from the perspective of architectural aesthetics, from which we can perceive how carefully Chicago residents who love Chicago River deeply make the most of its landscape resources since superlative beautiful Chicago River deserve their meticulous planning.
This is Chicago City. This is Chicago River., She harbors dreams, and bears reality. She records history, and promises the future. Only after viewing Chicago River, can you polish your Chicago image and come to understand what Chicago is really like. In my opinion, Chicago viewed from Lake Michigan belongs to visitors , while Chicago admired on the banks of Chicago River is the home of Chicago residents, for the latter Chicago abounding in history, in reality; being full of urban culture, and commerce;; characterized by urban development and natural landscape. In this perfect harmonious society, Chicago showcases its superlative beauty and oozes unrivalled charm. These must be the reason why Ernest regarded it as the most beautiful city in the United States. It is lucky for a city to have a river and Chicago is among the luckiest cities. Why?
Three factors lead to this result. First of all, Chicago River has an advantage in location by running through Chicago City (including main business districts and landscape areas) and it is convenient to take in beautiful landscape on the banks.
Secondly, Chicago River has an advantage in width and it is neither too wide nor too narrow. Viewed on the banks, it blends in perfectly with Chicago city and is not likely to obstruct urban traffic. By appropriate width, Chicago River adds certain glamour to urban landscape and avoids blocking traffic.
Thirdly, Chicago River has an advantage in eco-environment. After revitalization for ages, Chicago River is noted for clear water, verdant bank and navigable watercourse. Thus residents on banks along with fish in the water can live a harmonious and happy life. It is worth mentioning that there are a good number of yachts cruising on Chicago River.
A city with a river like Chicago River boasting favorable location, appropriate width, useful functions and pleasant eco-environment must be a beautiful city. If not, the only reason should be that you do not value it and ignore its beauty. What a pity if that happened!
However, it is really pitiful that there are so many cities in China neglected their rivers. Huangpu River, Suzhou River and Haihe River are among the list ignored by us. After revitalizing rivers for 10-odd years, Huangpu River and Suzhou River has improved and restored eco-environment, lending glamour to Shanghai landscape. After witnessing the urban development of Chicago City in the United States and Shanghai City in China, what should Tianjin City do with a classic urban river ? In my opinion, it should be determined to learn from these cities and thus can surpass them at last. In addition to its favorable location and appropriate width like Chicago River, Hehai River is noted as a city river sourcing from Tianjin City, which means it is a real river of the city more than other rivers. Nevertheless, Hehai River is in lack of river ecological management and riverside landscape improvement. It is imperative to have this work done as Chicago residents did before. The case of Chicago River heartens us that what we do for revitalizing city rivers now will be proved valuable in the future.