Design, like most human-powered endeavors, comes and goes in waves. What is in fashion one day is verbotten the next. Then brought back in revered spectacle a generation later. Such is the mode of architecture. And such is the life of Chicago’s beloved Magnificent Mile.
Preservationists, and people who like to pretend they’re on the inside track, sometimes refer to Michigan Avenue north of the the Chicago River as the “Boul Mich.” It’s an allusion to the beautiful shopping boulevards of Paris, a few stretches of which still exist today. But while North Michigan Avenue once emulated its distant Old World cousin, that is no longer the case; and we should stop pretending that it does.
There are plenty of books that will give you a history lesson on the development of the development of the North Michigan Avenue corridor. How a double-decker bridge and the decline in the quality of the residents of what is now the Prairie Avenue District turned simple old Pine Street into a magnificent mile. Merchants followed mansions, and the next thing you know, it’s Paris on the Prairie.
Today, it can be difficult to imagine Michigan Avenue as a boulevard of exclusive boutiques and department stores. A few remain — Cartier, Tiffany, Burberry. Why they haven’t fled west to Oak, Walton, or Rush Streets, or up to North Damen Avenue is hard to say. In the case of Burberry, it’s probably because the London clothier owns the land on which its fancy new flagship stands. But while Burb’ may be one of the remaining Old Guard purveyors, it also conspired to be one of the nails in the coffin of Michigan Avenue as we know it.
The biggest, baddest, blackest nail was the first one — The John Hancock Center at 875 North Michigan Avenue. It was supposed to be a one-off; an aberration. A monument marking the end of the gentile shopping district in downtown Chicago. But it was more of a doorstop than a bookend. It was the bad seed that sprouted into a skyscraper revolution for the neighborhood. Over the next 30 years through lawsuits, facade-ectomies, and any other tricks they could muster, new skyscrapers sprung up like weeds along the Boul Mich, turning the former six-story stretch into a mighty canyon of commerce.
Today, modern and post-modern skyscrapers crowd out more modest Art Deco towers. And while tourists can still snap pictures of the McGraw Hill building (520 North Michigan Avenue), the Palmolive Building, or the Farwell Building to get a sense of the avenue’s history, those buildings are mere husks of what they once were — cannibalized, with parasite skyscrapers growing out of them like some kind of freakish jungle biology demonstration on the Discovery Channel.
Now the Boul Mich is entering a new age. Slowly, but inexorably, it is transforming once again into a showcase of modern architecture.
It started harmlessly enough with the Apple Store. At the time it was built, it was Apple’s leading-edge design, and hailed by critics as the wave of the future in retailing. It’s hard for people to complain about limestone walls on Michigan Avenue, since they fit in perfectly with the street’s heritage. And glass? Well, you can’t throw rocks at glass because it’s transparent. Any faults you see are reflections of your own imperfection. As a material, it’s modern, unobtrusive, and NIMBY-proof. The Apple Store is the Trojan Horse of modern architecture.
The next step was the Apple Store’s clone on the other end of the block. The sign says “Garmin” but the vibe is fruit all the way. More renovations and more new stores brought more limestone and glass to Michigan Avenue via Top Shop, yet another Victoria’s Secret, and others.
Then one day the Old Guard discovered it had a traitor in its ranks. Burberry brought in a wrecking ball and turned its sedate two-story non-event into a pile of rubble, replacing it with a black and chrome mesh gift box that, like most of its products, came from China — the Paris of the 21st century.
Aghast, the few remaining defenders of the faith finally had to admit the truth: The Magnificent Mile is now the Midwest’s largest mall, overrun with everycity chain stores falling over each other to extract the last dime of babysitting money from the region’s tweens.
And yet amid all this glitz and shine, the twinkle lights and street performers, are people who insist that Michigan Avenue is not Las Vegas, refusing to acknowledge that they’re already up to their knees in sand.
It is these sorts of people who are trying to shoot down the U.F.O. that Marriott wants to hover over the avenue. Designed by local girl-done-good Jeanne Gang, Marriott’s new ballroom looks like some kind of origami flower perched on top of the roof of Forever XXI (most publications incorrectly state that it will be on the roof of the hotel).
While there may be some slim legitimacy to their concerns about its petals hanging over the public right-of-way, they are relying mostly on the comical suggestion that light from the ballroom will be a nuisance to residents, failing to comprehend that the project is surrounded on almost all sides by commercial buildings.
So how do you keep up with the Jones’ if you’re already a modern building clad in stone? You invoke the thermonuclear option: Electronic billboards.
It was proposed that certain buildings of certain sizes be allowed to plaster their exteriors with video advertisements for the wares inside. The idea made quite a bit of headway through the city’s red tape before losing the support of the local alderman. But aldermen are not forever, and the proposal will pop up again when the time is right.
In style, substance, and geography, the Magnificent Mile is closer to Las Vegas than it is to Paris. As time moves forward, more and more daring architecture, like the Burberry Flagship Store and the Marriott ballroom, will be proposed for this most prominent of Chicago’s streets. And while it might be whistful and fun to champion the old school Mag Mile, the truth is that the battle for the soul of the city’s premiere shopping district was lost decades ago, and nobody ever noticed.