Which city is the center of America’s architectural universe? NY, LA, Chicago, or none of the above?

Is New York the creative center of American architecture? Is Chicago a second city? And what of Frank Gehry’s LA? I ask because, while riding the “El” into work today, I was perusing Robert A.M. Stern’s illuminating collection of essays, “Architecture on the Edge of Postmodernism.”

In one of these essays, “New York, New York: Pluralism and Its Possibilities,” first published in 1979, Stern writes of New York’s place as a center of ideas–a nexus of distinguished architecture schools, journals, museums and newspaper criticism that no other American city could match. He goes on:

“One comes to New York to see architecture being made, and not so much to see it. How different from Chicago, where the products of Mies’s talents and those of his followers are everywhere to be seen. Chicago is like Detroit or Hollywood–the product and the place are one; architecture is Chicago’s dominant plastic art, just as film is Holywood’s chief artistic product; they are company towns, urban villages grown up to produce and market one or two things. New York is a metropolis, a world capital; architecture is dreamed here, realized everywhere.”

Did Stern correctly characterize Chicago in 1979? And now, 31 years and a host of changes later, where is he right and where is he off base?

Here are some thoughts to get the debate going:

1) Stern correctly observed Chicago’s preeminence in architectural production–a standing that is as true now as it was then, at least if one takes multiple generations of a city’s buildings, and not simply contemporary work, into account. But while he acknowledged Mies, Stern left out the other heroes who made Chicago preeminent–William Le Baron Jenney, Adler and Sullivan, Burnham and Root, Holabird and Roche, Frank Lloyd Wright, Holabird and Root, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. A surprising lapse for a distinguished architectural historian, but maybe the literary stylist in Stern didn’t want to get bogged down with a long list.

2) Even in 1979, Stern greatly oversimplified when he characterized Chicago as an urban village grown up to produce and market one or two things. The city has long been the metropolis of the Midwest, a maker of tools, a stacker of wheat, a player with railroads and all that other stuff Carl Sandburg mused about in his famous “Chicago” poem. Today, Chicago is a global metropolis, regularly named one of the world’s top financial centers and the place that the Leader of the Free World calls home. More to the point, it’s no provincial design ‘burg. It exports its architectural talent around the world, just as it imports top design talent like Gehry, Koolhaas, and Piano.

3) New York’s position as a center of architectural energy has been greatly undermined, if not superseded, by the rise of Gehry and other Los Angeles architects. That’s not my observation. It came last year from New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, occasioning this heated response from William Menking of The Architect’s Newspaper.

My take on this debate: Bye-bye, 1979. New York may still lead in talking, but the essence of architecture is building. And great builders and thinkers can be found all over, the Web’s distance-collapsing influence making an architect or an architectural dreamer in LA, Chicago, or even Des Moines as important as his or her counterpart on Park Avenue. Hey, New York–start spreadin’ the news: It’s a multi-polar architectural world out there. Deal with it.



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