I recently visited Chicago with my two boys (Asher 13 and Isak 12). We were only passing through on our way up to Madison, Wisconsin. With less than 24hrs to spend our options in Chicago were limited. Thus we were reduced to tourist, which in this case we didn’t mind. Whilst visiting the downtown area, basically the Loop plus the museums (we visited the Field museum of Natural History) we were able to catch an insight into what Chicago is–the very meaning of Chicago.
Here are a few premature observations:
1- Chicago’s geographic location has significantly determined it’s meaning. It is located smack in the middle of the United States. In a sense, then, can we not say that Chicago is literally the heart of the USA?
2- If Chicago is the heart of the USA then its architecture is the materialization (or the outer form) of the heart of the States. It is thus not surprising that the world’s first skyscraper (the Monadnock Building) was erected in Chicago. It is also interesting to note that the first skyscraper was a Home Insurance Building. In the heart of the USA there emerged a shift from a structure designed for load-bearing masonry to distributing the weight of a building to an external “skeletal” form.
3- Here we literally have a shift from form/content working together in terms of weight bearing loads of a building to the form itself. What the skyscraper is above all is a hollow skeleton that is empty of content, which later must be filled in. Could this shift from building with form/content working together to form without content serve as an insight into the very truth of Chicago (and by extension) the USA? Could we not say that the shape of the material world around us shapes our very identities? If so, then it is telling: The skyscraper becomes for us a metaphor about who we are as human subjects. There is form but the content is unknown and comes after the fact. This is like the reversal that Existentialism gives to the history of philosophy. Whereas before Kant there really existed essence which preceded existence (appearance). Moreover, Essence could resist a make-shift hi-jack of metaphysics simply because essence whether you want it to or not exists independently of thought (in other words, Essence was ontological). The very appearance of the skyscraper already anticipates existentialism’s reversal– existence (appearance, form etc.) gives the framework in which content, essence etc. must be conformed to. Form determines what comes next. I wonder if essence insofar as it is ontological is bound up into a “green” sustainable concept. Put differently, it may be the case (and this is just a premature conjecture–a shot in the dark, if you will) that once Essences are sublated by Form then what happens simultaneously is the idea of sustainability and earth-keeping etc. are neutralized too.
4- Public space in Chicago is clearly demarcated off from “corporate” space. The parks (from what I saw) were all located on Lake Michigan.
5- The Intellectual center especially the University of Chicago follows from our operating thesis above, viz. that Chicago is the heart of America that shifts from form and content to form sundered from (or at odds with) content. UofC is one of the greatest universities in the world. But for a great as it is, it is very young founded only in 1890. And the original benefactor is equally revealing—none other than the Oil King who made his money by founding Standard Oil. Thus what you have here is an interesting nexus point between Academic freedom in the heart of the USA, but all premised on the oil industry and capitalism. Here again we find ourselves confronting a great tension between form and content—between freedom (Intellectual) and enslavement (to the modes of production premised on the Oil Industry). Chicago is thus the materialization of an historic and conceptual contradiction, which is the micro-from of the USA’s macro-from.
Walking around downtown Chicago was in a way a tour of the inner-core historic conditions that is the United States of America.