Chicago: Culture Central

31 Mar 2008 by business traveller

Chicago's claim to prominence among US cities comes from its unrivalled concentration of architecture, public and commercial art galleries and music, says Tom Otley.

If there is such a thing as “second city syndrome”, Chicago seems to have left it behind some time in the last couple of decades. A visitor, either on leisure or on business (Chicago is, along with Orlando and Las Vegas, pre-eminently a convention city), will find no reluctance in Chicagoans to compare their city favourably with New York. But then, as you are regularly reminded by these enthusiastic advocates of the “Windy City”, it is nicknamed that not because of the weather fronts sweeping off Lake Michigan, but because its inhabitants have always been renowned for talking up their home. Chicago is most famous, perhaps, for its weather. During the summer, the city turns towards its lake front, and the parks – both established and newly constituted – are home to festivals and an outdoor life reflected in the sudden appearance of street-side cafés (even if, in the shoulder seasons, outdoor heaters are required for comfort). When winter comes, however, it’s a different city, one well used to the extreme lows and able to handle the worst that nature can throw at it, although whether you as a visitor are quite as robust is another matter. Travelling in January when, at one point, the daytime temperature was eight degrees below zero (not counting the wind chill), there was a crystal-clear clarity to the air which made the buildings look as if they had been carved out of ice. Not surprisingly, these months see the Millennium Park turn itself to ice sculptures. It’s a perfect season for gazing upwards at the architecture, Chicago’s most famous attraction. Nowhere in the world will you find such a concentration of outstanding buildings, with everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson to Renzo Piano and De Stefano Keating represented in the Loop, that central part of Chicago, which takes its name from the cable cars which once looped the area. These have now been replaced by the famous elevated expressway circling the area – known simply as “the El”. Architecture is Chicago’s biggest tourist draw. The reason for this concentration is the great fire of 1871, which decimated the central area but, according to the Rough Guide to Chicago, “left Chicago’s three major industries – the lumber yards, the stockyards, and the railroads – untouched. Since Chicago was then at the heart of the country’s economy, as well as its geography, businessmen across America turned their attention to rebuilding the city.” The money was there, the will and, soon afterwards, the pioneering use of steel-framed building techniques, ensuring the city never looked back, but only up. There are over a dozen tours you can take with the Chicago Architecture Foundation (see box), including the Historic Skyscrapers tour, the Modern Skyscrapers tour, Architecture of Culture and Commerce, Downtown Deco, and Chicago Old and New, and for a free morning or afternoon there is no better way of getting to know the city, although you might get distracted by the excellent shops. If you are self-guiding and determined to go shopping, the greatest choice is north of the Loop along the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue, where you’ll also find the 100-storey John Hancock Centre at 875 N Michigan Avenue with a 360º view of four states: Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. There’s also a fair amount of public art, including the Picasso sculpture which the artist donated to the city in 1967 (you’ll find it in Daley Plaza, where The Blues Brothers ended their car chase in the famous film). And in front of the Mies van der Rohe Federal Centre complex, you’ll find the enormous bright red sculpture Flamingo by Alexander Calder. So you have the architecture and its accompanying works of art, the shopping – easily the match of New York and more accessible – and the restaurants, from steak houses, pizza parlours and hot dog chains, to high-end fine-dining options and cuisine reflecting the waves of immigrants, who have made Chicago their home (particularly the Italian, Irish, Polish, Ukrainian, Swedish, Greek and Mexican). Then, there’s the fact that Chicago is the home of Blues music (the subject of a subsequent piece in Business Traveller), and for those looking for an affordable alternative to New York, hotel rates here are in general probably 30 to 40 percent less than those in the Big Apple. Yet, for all these attractions, there are still misconceptions about Chicago. Elizabeth Walasin Lulla, of the Chicago Office of Tourism, says: “People think they are coming somewhere industrial. They don’t expect the lake and the greenery. The stockyards were closed in the 1960s, and although we have industry, it’s a long way from the city centre. It’s a perception that we are working hard to change.” Perhaps the most effective way of doing so is to emphasise the art and culture that this city can offer. Forget the “second city” millstone – if anything, that title would now belong to Los Angeles or Atlanta. Instead, think of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), whose former conductors include Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim, and on the other side of the road, the Art Institute of Chicago, which houses one of the finest collections of art in the world. During its season (September to June), the CSO performs in the 2,600-seat Orchestra Hall (220 S Michigan Avenue) in a lovely early 20th-century Beaux Arts-style auditorium. Tickets are easily booked through the website, and although it depends on the performer and the work, only 10 days before we travelled we picked up tickets for an evening performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (and seats were still available on the night). The Art Institute is currently undergoing massive renovation ready for the new Modern Wing (due in 2009), but remains open, and has some excellent temporary exhibitions to go along with its permanent collection, which includes Edward Hopper and Watercolours by Winslow Homer: The Colour of Light, both until May 10. This area is also where you’ll find the Chicago Cultural Center, another Beaux Arts building, and one which many visitors miss, perhaps because the home of the Chicago Office of Tourism is on the ground floor by the entrance so people don’t explore further, and also because the revolving exhibitions in the many galleries on this floor take the attention. Climb up the stairs to the Preston Bradley Hall, however, and you’ll find a huge Tiffany dome and interiors of marble, gold, gilt and stained glass, a reflection of the ambition of Chicagoans through the ages. But it’s not all about history. The Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E Chicago Avenue) is a square box of a building, more attractive inside than out, and home to Jasper Johns and local artists such as Alexander Calder, as well as Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd and Jeff Koons, who is enjoying a retrospective from May 31 to September 21. (Many of the works to be included in the exhibition will come from the MCA’s own collection or as loans from Chicago-area collectors with in-depth concentrations of Koons’ work – a unique presentation for Chicago, which will be its only venue.) Still, if you have been to Chicago before, or want something different from the normal tourist route of guide-book attractions, then a tour with a City Greeter is perfect. The idea (which admittedly originated in New York) is to allow a Chicago insider who lives and works in the city to take visitors around for, typically, a three-hour tour. There are 180 greeters on call, offering 25 different neighbourhood tours, on a total of 40 different themes, in 16 different languages – for free. (For a full list of choices visit www.chicagogreeter.com) Since the various museums had given me a taste for the artier side of Chicago, I booked a tour of local galleries with a City Greeter, and one afternoon met up with Nancy McDaniel who, with her partner, runs Dumela, a small business importing African art. Since part of the Greeter concept is to help a visitor get to know Chicago like a resident, we headed straight for the public transport system, and took the El north to the River North district. The district (www.rivernorthassociation.com) is a strange mix of themed restaurants such as the Rainforest Café, giant McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food outlets, car lots and warehouses now converted into art galleries. In fact, despite appearances, this area has been on the up in recent years, causing many galleries to relocate elsewhere in the city to places like Fulton Market, South Loop and Pilsen. That said, for the first-time explorer, River North is the place to head, especially since these large buildings often contain several galleries, saving time and long walks. At 300 West Superior, for instance, there is the Judy A Saslow Gallery (www.jsaslowgallery.com) and Andrew Bae Gallery (www.andrewbaegallery.com). The former specialises in contemporary Chicago artists (David Csicsko, until April 18), while the latter is contemporary Asian art. The day we arrived, owner Andrew Bae had just finished unpacking some new paintings from Sandra Sunnyo Lee – huge portraits which, leaning against the wall, were both contemporary yet referred back to much older times, not least because of the technique the artist employed of scraping some of the paint from the pictures to give them a distressed or antique feel. Other galleries worth visiting include the Ann Nathan Gallery at 212 West Superior (www.annnathangallery.com) and Roy Boyd Gallery (www.royboydgallery.com), which recently showed Joel Perlman and Marco Casentini until April 15. For a visitor from Europe, there is also the advantage of currency in these galleries. A 9 percent state tax is payable on these purchases, but for those shipping abroad this is avoided, and depending on whether there is an import tax or not in your home country, this can represent a considerable incentive for some impulse buys. Perhaps, shopping for fine art isn’t on the list of most business travellers to Chicago, but for those with the urge to explore, the arts provide an effective way of dismantling misconceptions about this magnificently enjoyable city.


Chicago Architecture Foundation The organisation offers over 40 different tours of Chicago architecture, tel 1 312 922 3432 or visit www.architecture.org for more details. Chicago Greeter For a free, three-hour tour (tipping not allowed), register online at www.chicagogreeter.com or tel 1 32 744 8000 at least seven to 10 business days before arrival. Alternatively, there are 60-minute tours available for those who do not have time to register online, but these are available only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 3pm from the Visitor Information Centre in the Chicago Cultural Centre at 77 E Randolph Street where you must fill out a registration form. Chicago Tourist Office www.gochicago.com Chicago Symphony Orchestra www.cso.org Museum of Contemporary Art www mcachicago.org and Art Institute of Chicago www.artic.edu  


SOFITEL CHICAGO WATER TOWER WHAT’S IT LIKE? Opened in 2002, the 32-storey white triangular tower, designed by Paris-based architect Jean-Paul Viguier, leans over its reception area like a boat intending to head down Rush Street towards the Chicago river. It’s a striking building when viewed from the outside, and continues to impress with its double-height reception and triangular staircase, which leads down from the meeting spaces on the second floor. There are coloured fibre-optic illuminated walls, black granite flooring and low sofas keeping any guests in the lobby out of the sightlines. WHERE IT IT? At the junction of Chestnut and Wabash Streets, a five-minute walk from Chicago transport station, and two minutes from the shops of North Michigan Avenue. The name of the hotel comes from the nearby Water Tower monument, which famously survived the great fire of 1871. The hotel is also a short walk from the “Viagra Triangle” of upmarket bars and restaurants around North Rush Street, where men, who ought to know better, go to meet younger women. It’s worth a trip. ROOM FACILITIES: There are 415 rooms on floors six to 32, with roughly 16 on each floor. The rooms have natural beech-wood walls, dresser and bed frame, with contemporary chrome hardware and deep rust-coloured carpeting. There is a good-size workdesk and high-speed internet access available at US$9.95 per day. There are large framed prints above the beds, but I found it difficult to sit up and watch TV without making the frame sway ominously above me. Besides the Standard Rooms, there are 30 Deluxe Executive Rooms, 32 Deluxe Suites and one Presidential Suite, and many of these have good views of the Chicago skyline or Lake Michigan – although vertigo sufferers should be aware that in some rooms the leaning nature of the building (it extends 18m over the street at its most extreme) gives some rather scary views. RESTAURANTS AND BARS: The small Café des Architectes on the ground floor serves French cuisine in a suitably modern setting of deep red banquettes, glass-topped tables, oversized lampshades, signature clock-faced carpet and glass walls. Le Bar is an atmospheric place in winter, with a fibre-optic ceiling, black and white newspaper-like blinds, a long stainless steel and bubinga wood bar, six projection destination clocks, a small library of books about Chicago architecture and design, and a granite fireplace for visual warmth. BUSINESS FACILITIES: There are business centres and meeting rooms on both the second and third floor. The second floor, which houses the hotel’s fitness centre, has a total of 930sqm of meeting space (including 12 window-walled meeting rooms). A glass staircase leads down to the third-level Grand Ballroom, which offers 418sqm to accommodate 400 guests theatre-style, 260 seated guests, or 220 seated guests with a dance floor. The dramatic ballroom is naturally lit with floor-to-ceiling windows and a skylight and has a pre-function area. LEISURE FACILITIES: There is a small, well-equipped gym on the second floor, with water, towels, fruit and free headphones for use on the cardio machines. The hotel has arrangements with spas around the corner. PRICE: Internet rates for a fully flexible midweek stay in June start from US$315 for a Superior Room. VERDICT: Something very different from most Chicago hotels, and with only 10 Sofitels in North America, perhaps the hotel has to strike a pose to be noticed. The clientele is noticeably more European than at other five-star properties in this area, and both the restaurant and bar can be recommended, although there’s a lot of competition just a few minutes walk away. CONTACT: Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, 20 East Chestnut Street, Downtown, Chicago, tel 1 312 3244 000, www.sofitel.com
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