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Geoffrey Baer Revisits the Chicago Skyline in New WTTW Documentary

By Chuck Sudo in News on Nov 28, 2011 7:15PM

2011_11_28_baer.jpg WTTW will premiere Chicago’s Loop: A New Walking Tour, the latest in Geoffrey Baer's series of tours, tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. In this new tour, Baer revisits the birth of skyscrapers in Chicago, the influence of architects such as Mies and Sullivan on Chicago's skyline and interesting tidbits such as the side streets that could pass for alleys to passers-by.

Baer has produced this tour before, in one of his earliest WTTW programs in 1996. He's been known to revisit certain subjects in subsequent programs — his recent tours of the Chicago River and lakefront come to mind — but he's hesitant to call this a remake as much as it is a sequel.

"So much has changed since I did that first tour," Baer said during an extensive phone interview last week. "For example,I used to have hair." With additions to the skyline such as Trump Tower, Aqua, the Spertus Museum and Roosevelt University's new building since that first tour in 1996, Baer and producer Dan Protess thought it would be best to make a sequel to that first tour.

We also discussed how the Great Chicago Fire didn't lead to the initial skyscraper boom, which of the new skyscrapers have the best chance of joining the conversation of Chicago's greatest skyscrapers and the struggle over preserving Prentice Women's Hospital.

Chicagoist: How do your walking tours for the Chicago Architecture Foundation (Baer is a CAF docent) differ from the new special?

Geoffrey Baer: With TV, you aren't tied to geography. The first walking tour show had a defined route. Dan Protess felt having a route this time around was unnecessary. We don’t make a big point of it in the show, but there is a route with this program; as a docent I always have geography in mind. And people familiar with Loop would think it to be a bit jarring if we just bounced all over the place. What's happened with shows is they've evolved from docent tours into stories of historical perspectives. Architecture is a theme, but this program has more of a historical perspective. a lot more depth and detail.

C: It seems as though you and Dan Protess have developed a good working relationship. How much influence does he have in the final product?

GB: Dan was heavily influential. The animated parts in the new doc were his idea and something we couldn't have done 16 years ago. Today we can produce them in house: It's more cost-effective. The themes in this one become more front and center.

Dan also has a sharp pencil when it comes to editing. I write a show that's too long (I like to say that I write for radio), and Dan cuts it. Less is more with Dan. He's highly efficient and he's good at reining me in, in that way. We do have a real shorthand. Each of us bring different perspectives. Dan has a great sense of story.

C: What do you think is the most herculean endeavor of the early, post-Great Fire construction efforts?

GB: I've always have a hard time with that kind of question. It's so hard to pin down. if we just bounced all over the place. Look at Pilsen, they never did raise the buildings.
Another thing that I hope comes across — I like dispelling myths — is that the Great Chicago Fire wiped the city clean and people rushed to create the first skyscrapers. I challenged that in the special. The City that rose from the ashes wasn't much different than pre-Fire Chicago: Buildings were 5-6 stories in height and were later torn down to make way for skyscrapers. Some architects were already in town, but buildings like the Home Insurance Building wouldn't be built for another 14 years. Myths a little too easy.

For this tour, we partnered with CAF docents who were best at research... they called themselves "Team Geoffrey" and had them fact-check hundreds of documents. The team was led by Kathleen Carpenter

C: This tour does a great job of highlighting how one of the greatest threats to these buildings are politicians looking to demolish them to make room for a new building. Do you think there's a constant disconnect between architects, planners and restoration advocates, and politicians?

GB: Preservationists talk about this all the time. The current discussion over Prentice Women's Hospital is an example. I'm not an expert on this, but what happens is buildings like Prentice aren't quite old enough to appreciate them in historical context. Nowadays, look at Carson Pirie Scott, the Auditorium Theater, the Rookery, the Reliant Building. These are important works of their time and need to be preserved. 40 years ago, with all Louis Sullivan buildings, they weren't old enough yet. We were all about modernism back then — people said, let's just tear those old things down. Now we're all about modernism — let's just tear those things down. Every era is like this. We're just now reaching the era where people are appreciating modernism, buildings like the Inland Steel Building. In the era of post-modernism, lets add an entry and call it "brutalism." perhaps not quite old enough yet to be fully appreciated. Some see “brutalist” work or later modernist structures like Prentice as as hulking, concrete. ugly by some eyes. You get to a point where the style from 30-40 years ago is threatened. Preservationists believe Prentice must be saved. Another argument: opponents believe Goldberg's Prenitce must not be saved.

In the show we talk about how the city wanted to bulldoze the entire north loop. That would have been a disaster. In the city you want texture. Drive to O'Hare along Dempster Street from Evanston from the suburbs and it's one constant bland building after another. It's... dead.

C: You also spend a some time in this special looking at the detail and ornamentation of buildings and how it tells a story.

GB: One of our Hidden Chicago episodes was on building ornaments. It's there in your face all the time and, when you point it out, people are delighted. They don't realize there's a whole story there. the purpose of ornaments is to tell a story. It's sad because it's obvious, but as a storyteller it's an opportunity to get people to look at what's staring at them. I call it the "I never knew that" factor. I love pointing out things in an environment, to see with new eyes. There are a lot of things like that in the city.

C: Like the Number One City Datum at the Northern Trust Building. I had that feeling watching the documentary.

GB: That's an example. Although maybe the way it's stated in the show gives a slightly false impression. With GPS, they don't have to run a line going all the way back to it these days. Maybe a surveyor goes back to it. But it is the reference point for all city datum. There are many reference points throughout the city that reference back to Number One City Datum. All over the city there are trap doors. You clean the dust off them and open the door, there's a surveyor's mark. They don't have to run back.

C: Which of the newer buildings do you think have a chance to enter the discussion of the great buildings in the Chicago skyline years from now?

GB: That's difficult to answer. You do need some distance from the time one is built to know how important it will be. We're in an exciting era in high-rise architecture. There's a kind of a jazzed-up modernism that's different from Miesian minimalism. Spertus is an example, made from multi-faceted forms of glass. Architects and designers are able to do them because of computer aided design and newer technologies. Look at
Aqua's wavy decks. Twenty years from now will people think it looks kitschy? Or will it still be praised? The odd shapes and angles in many buildings today are a bit like the notion of uncertainty in subatomic physics. Instead of the rational rigidity of modernism, they reflect society today with all its uncertainty, subjectivity and diversity.

:C: which of the new additions is your personal favorite?

GB: Everybody loves Aqua. I think it's fantastic. I love the facade of Spertus. I love new Roosevelt University building. (Tribune architecture critic) Blair Kamin uses term "public realm" to describe how a building's outside impact is greater than the smaller set of people who actually use it. Roosevelt and Aqua are great because people look up at it and take it in.

Here are Chicagoist's previous interviews with Geoffrey Baer.