Mayoral plan to light up Chicago could be a bright idea

lightsFrom the Saturday, Feb. 1, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

One night a few weeks ago, I was headed northbound on the Dan Ryan when I noticed something off-kilter about the twinkling Chicago skyline looming beyond my car’s windshield.

It was the Willis Tower. It wasn’t twinkling at all.

Why the iconic skyscraper stood dark that night, I don’t know. But what its skyline void made me realize is that while we don’t often refer to Chicago as a city of lights, it very much is one. And now, in the hopes of boosting tourism, Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to officially make it so.

Last week, the mayor’s office unveiled a grand plan that the Sun-Times noted would essentially turn Chicago into a Midwest version of Paris – “La Ville Lumiere, the City of Light” – by spotlighting the city’s architectural gems in a variety of spectacular new ways.

The initiative is to begin with an “international design competition” that will invite teams of architects, engineers and designers to envision ways to light up Chicago’s “buildings, parks, roads and open spaces.”

Ground Zero for the year-round light show project will be the soon-to-transformed downtown riverwalk, but the project’s spotlight will eventually extend beyond the downtown area into Chicago neighborhoods.

Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago, is spearheading the project and told the Sun-Times that if artists, architects and engineers “work together as teams,” he’s certain they will find ways to use Chicago’s world-renowned architecture, iconic bridges, Lower Wacker and the river itself as a “canvas” to “imagine lighting in a unique and different” way.”

I think the initiative sounds exciting – if cash-strapped Chicago can afford it, and if it truly is something that can help the city accomplish its aggressive goal of increasing tourism 10 percent to 55 million annual visitors by 2020. I do believe the project has the potential to increase Chicago’s global renown, which could lead to more revenue flowing in.

However, such sweeping plans for city light shows aren’t the only bright idea that Emanuel & Co. should be considering. Last week in an insightful post at the Architecture Plus blog, critic Lynn Becker wrote about an alternative lighting project.

“ … Wabash Avenue has traditionally been considered the problem child of the Loop because of its falling beneath the shadow of the Loop ‘L,’ ” Becker wrote about the shrouded street. “Most recently, the Chicago Loop Alliance, in partnership with Civic Artworks- has been soliciting ideas for their campaign, How Would you improve Wabash Avenue?

“… The primary answer has always been obvious. Stop trying to ignore the ‘L’ and start looking at it. Ultimately, the Loop ‘L’ is not just historic infrastructure – it’s the largest piece of sculpture in Chicago. Take the time to look at the pillars, girders, trusses and struts, and you’ll find amazing, intriguing and – yes – beautiful webs of form.”

Becker went on to add, “This isn’t just a tourist thing. It’s about countering the drear cold darkness of winter in the city, and bringing out the best in its architecture and infrastructure even at night. Yes, Chicago – its schools and government institutions – need bread, desperately, but no city survives without the circuses that give the heightened sense of life that makes people want to live there.”

Becker suggested letting the city’s talented local lighting designers showcase the Wabash “L” and vowed, “I guarantee you, Wabash at night will become one of Chicago’s premier attractions, drawing tourists to its glow like bugs to a zapper.”

And to me, that sounds t like another great way to create a buzz.

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