The Mayor Has a Big Plan For Lighting Up Chicago’s Skyline and More

Artist's concept of an illuminated Chicago. Courtesy of the City of Chicago Office of the Mayor.

Artist’s concept of an illuminated Chicago. Courtesy of the City of Chicago Office of the Mayor.

Most major American cities sit in one camp or another.  They either think that illuminating their skylines is wicked cool, or a gauche abomination.  Dallas: Light’s on.  Houston: Perish the thought.  

Cincinnati, is on the fence.  It only dresses up for company.  When there’s a nighttime sporting event on national television, especially one with a blimp, the mayor’s office will send a memo to as many building managers as it can to encourage everyone to leave their office lights on when they go home so that downtown glitters like a junior prom, instead of looking like the light-sucking void of despair it really is after 5:00pm.  

When we first started publishing this blog 11 years ago, Chicago was above all of that.  Artificial lighting?  Who needs it.  We did that back when we were small (Santa Fe, Torco, Unitrin).  Now we have height, and don’t need to prove anything to anyone.

Then BankOne changed all that when the Daley administration gave it permission to put up an illuminated sign at the top of what is now Chase Tower (10 South Dearborn Street).  Soon everyone was getting into the game.  United Airlines.  Boeing.  Some consulting firm that nobody’s ever heard of whose name blazes pink across the night sky in the West Loop.

Now Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to light up your life.  To give you hope.  To carry on.

Artist's concept of an illuminated Chicago. Courtesy of the City of Chicago Office of the Mayor.

Artist’s concept of an illuminated Chicago. Courtesy of the City of Chicago Office of the Mayor.

He’s going to launch an international contest to come up with ideas for illuminating Chicago’s skyline.  Not just with corporate logos, but with floodlights, arc lights, and winky LEDs.

Historically speaking, Chicago was once a city of illumination.  It was Chicago’s White City that was the site of the first mass deployment of electric light to illuminate an urban space.  And no architect would ever build an art deco-era building without provisions for banks of flood lights shooting up its facade into space.  If you can get your hands on nighttime pictures of Chicago from the 1920’s and 30’s, it looks better lit than it does today.  Even all the amateur photographers abusing the H.D.R. technique on Flickr can’t compete with 20th Century Fox-style searchlights.

Then we went to war.  Cities on the coasts blacked out because of U-boats.  The rest of America went dark to conserve electricity.  The austerity outlived the fighting, and by the time we started to see a touch of exuberance in the late 1960’s, we were beset by the Energy Crisis.  Windows got smaller.  Glass got thicker, and more opaque.  We conserved ourselves into brutalist concrete boxes of despair.

Perhaps inspired by or envious of, those cities he visited on his recent trip to Asia, Mayor Emanuel wants to light up Chicago like a menorah. Filled with sparklers.  On New Year’s Eve.  In Las Vegas.  It’s an ambitious plan that will need the support of a number of city departments, as well as developers and building owners.

Artist's concept of an illuminated Chicago. Courtesy of the City of Chicago Office of the Mayor.

Artist’s concept of an illuminated Chicago. Courtesy of the City of Chicago Office of the Mayor.

In concept pictures released by the Mayor’s office this week, we can see the Chicago River bridges illuminated in varying colors.  That’s a great idea, and a lot of other cities have done wonderful things with bridge lighting.  But proposals in the past have fallen flat for the Chicago River’s  main channel because of CDOT’s use of maroon as its signature historic bridge color.  You know what reflects well off of maroon?  Nothing.

Recent bridges from CDOT have been given different treatments.  At least temporarily.  When the Damen Avenue bridge opened in 1999, its arches were painted crimson.  But that was simply too much fun, and CDOT repainted it grey a decade later.

The Emanuel Administration is full of big ideas for Chicago’s infrastructure, but to date its success rate is somewhat patchy.  Remember that plan to have private companies pay to renovate hundreds of city buildings?  Yeah, now it’s more like a couple of dozen.  Maybe.  How about the giant urban nature preserve that got our phones ringing for a week from every environmental magazine this side of Dusseldorf?   Or the ballyhooed Northerly Island reclamation project.  Or the Yet-An0ther-Navy-Pier-Renovation plan?

Hizzonor’s announcement is as short in length as it is short on details.  In its entirety:

The city will launch an international competition to light the city at night. The competition will seek entries from artists, architects, planners and designers from around the world. It will begin with the river and extend throughout the city and will activate Chicago at night, allowing tourists more opportunities to enjoy the city and presenting another reason for people to visit Chicago.

Nothing about how it’s going to be paid for.  Or who’s going to decide what’s worthy of being illuminated, or how it should be done.

Until we hear specifics, we’ll file this in the same category as Tall Tower, The Chicago Spire, 7 South Dearborn, the second Navy Pier, the bridge across Lake Michigan to northern Indiana, and that vertical “green wall” that was supposed to take over the facade of the InterContinental on Michigan Avenue.

The Sun-Times has an article about this with lots of quotes, but little actual information (not the newspaper’s fault).

 

Editor

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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