The Olympics are coming (I think) – is the future, too?

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

The Olympics are coming (I think) – is the future, too?

Sept. 26, 2009

So, what will Chicago look like in 2016?

How about in 2116?

The former, of course, will have a great deal to do with whether or not the International Olympic Committee on Friday slips five rings on Chicago’s fingers and weds the Windy City to the 2016 Games.

The latter, meanwhile, probably depends on who your favorite science fiction filmmaker is.

And how much time you spent watching The Jetsons as a kid.

Olympic Games or no Olympic Games, though, I really have no idea what the Windy City will look like seven years from today, let alone a century from now. But thankfully, for our entertainment, a bunch of Chicago architects do.

And through Oct. 11, their visions of the city’s future – both near and distant – are on display at a captivating free exhibition entitled “Big. Bold. Visionary. Chicago Architects Consider the Next Century” hosted by Chicago’s Tourism Gallery, 72 E. Randolph St., and available online at

As part of a region-wide series of exhibits and events celebrating the centennial of Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s influential Plan of Chicago, the exhibition provides more than three dozen local architecture firms an opportunity to make their voices heard at a time when, thanks to the city’s Olympics bid, Chicago again is pondering the face of its future.

In 1909, Burnham – the legendary architect and urban planner who famously said “Make no small plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood” – and his partner, Bennett, laid out a 165-page Plan of Chicago that presented a comprehensive re-imagining of the entire region from Kenosha to DeKalb to Michigan City.

At the Tourism Gallery, that plan is lauded as “a vision for Chicago in the 20th century” that “established a precedent of dreaming big and thinking boldly that every generation of Chicagoans since has firmly embraced.”

Plenty of big dreams are indeed on display at the “Big. Bold. Visionary.” exhibition, which is organized into six categories: the lakefront, big plans, towers, catalysts, public appearance and transportation.

Some of the dreams are off the wall, such as architect Joe Valerio’s depiction of a 22nd-century Chicago in which the downtown is covered in a transparent blanket akin to a giant swath of Saran Wrap. Heat trapped beneath the skin would be exhausted through eight massive solar towers, with the rush of air powering a series of wind turbines.

Other ideas at the exhibition are less dark, but no less intriguing. They include an “Eco Bridge” envisioned by architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill that would extend as a two-mile breakwater into Monroe Harbor, creating on the lake “a grand new space, providing recreational opportunities and unparalleled views of the skyline from a central Eco-Tower.”

That’s a view of Chicago I’d like to experience. And last weekend at the Tourism Gallery, a silver-haired gentleman standing beside me agreed.

“This is so cool,” he said, referring to the entire exhibition. “Because some of this will happen … When you’re in a wheelchair, and I’m dead.”
Now, while that may be true for many of the exhibits, there are at least a few – in particular, those connected to a 2016 Chicago Olympics – that conceivably could happen while I’m still ambulatory and my silver-haired friend is, you know, still alive.

One such display called “Bend it like Burnham” envisions the lakefront of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan as the venue for the 2016 Olympics, while another imagines Chicago’s “New South Coast” and details a layout for an Olympic Village on the Near South Side.

By next Friday afternoon, we’ll know if such Olympic dreams have a chance of becoming a reality in Chicago. My gut tells me that they will. But if not, you can likely blame it on Rio, which I see as the only serious competition for Chicago in the race for the 2016 Games.

Here’s my thinking: With the 2008 Olympics having been held in Beijing and the 2012 Olympics set for London, the IOC won’t select Tokyo or Madrid. It’s too soon to return to Asia or Europe.

That leaves Chicago and Rio de Janeiro, which is viewed by many as the sentimental favorite because South America has never hosted a Summer Olympics.

I don’t doubt that Rio would be an excellent choice, but the city might be better suited for the 2020 Games. Keep in mind that Brazil already will be hosting the 2014 World Cup and that advertisers might be hesitant to pour money into another major sporting event in the same country just two years later.

By 2016, it also will have been 20 years since the United States last hosted a Summer Games (Atlanta ’96), and the U.S. likely is due.

In April 2007, I was at ESPN Zone in downtown Chicago when the Windy City was selected over Los Angeles as the U.S. candidate for 2016. That day, the crowd erupted as if the Cubs had finally won the World Series.

It was that loud.

My guess is that come Friday, Chicago will shout once again.