A Lap Around The USA – Day 20 – Chicago - Sandpit

A Lap Around The USA – Day 20 – Chicago

Inspiration / 23 May 2017

by Dan Koerner

Architectural Boat Tour


On the recommendation of several friends and colleagues, I found my way down to the Chicago River and got my self on a boat tour that takes in the (largely modernist) architectural wonders of Chicago. Operator Wendella claims to be the original purveyor of such an experience so I look for their logo and jump on one of their boats. John, our illustrious tour guide initially informs us that the site where we are docked would have been completely desolate after the devastating Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – allegedly started in a barn on the outskirts of town belonging to one Catherine O’Leary whose cow seems to have kicked over a lamp. John also makes note of one of several cantilevered bascule bridges nearby that stretch the main branch of the Chicago River and its two main tributaries to the north and south.


John – really going for it.

In fact, the City of Chicago’s Y shaped logo actually pays its homage to this north/south fork in the river that forms a Y shape in the centre of town. But this tour is less about the river and more about the buildings.

Chicago was once home to the master modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – affectionately abbreviated to Mies for those in the architectural know. Mies taught at the nearby University of Chicago and had several proteges who either continued his iconic, unadorned style or openly rebelled against it. This is no more evident than the nearby Seagram building, designed by Mies and easily identified by its clean lines and airy lobby which is right next to the Mies student Bertrand Goldberg designed Marina City whose curvy exterior expresses its architect’s insistence that architecture, like the natural world should not contain right angles. This building went up 5 years before Mies’ death and I’m sure would still have tim turning in his grave if not posthumously scowling.


Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building.

We continue down the river for a good 70 minutes and John, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s buildings does not shut up for the entire trip. Impressive. Seriously, this is an incredibly informative and very fun thing to do with an afternoon and adds to some of my favourite experiences on this trip that were mediated by a real person sharing their knowledge in their own idiosyncratic way. I now know a lot more about the history of Chicago with the added bonus that my feet aren’t additionally sore.

By the way, as it turns out the cow never really started the fire and was exonerated by the City of Chicago many years after Catherine O’Leary’s death.

Admission: $35.50

Digital engagement: Was nearly running late so used the website to prebook my tickets. Didn’t give me a success screen and email took some time to come through which caused a bit of panic.

Jane Addams Hull House


The Jane Addams Hull House is a historical building and museum on campus at the University of Chicago which was once home to the social reformer and first female American Nobel Prize laureate Jane Addams. Addams was sociologists and pioneer of womens and immigrants rights in early 20th century America and founded the house in 1889 as a community centre and social experiment for inclusion. By 1911 the complex had grown to eleven buildings which housed philosophers, artists and academics along with immigrants and the needy in a kind of commune promoting the social betterment of its inhabitants. Hull House is all that exists now amongst the 1970s University of Chicago campus but is a beautiful and historic piece of late 19th century American architecture. Now a museum it is charged with maintaining Addams’ legacy for social innovation and inclusivity. A permanent exhibition houses many artefacts and ephemera from the time of Addams and her colleagues as well as a series of commissioned artworks and revolving exhibitions.

Upstairs on my visit was an exhibition called States of Incarceration which is a travelling show that opened in 2016 in New York City that explores the thorny issue of the history and future of mass incarceration in the United States.

Also downstairs was a clever installation in a windowed, octagonal antechamber. The installation has sound recording sourced from the archives that illustrate the late 19th century atmosphere of Hull House’s surrounds. The installation artist had cleverly attached transducers to the windows and wooden frames of the room to bring to the sound to life. The effect was as if the sound was coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once without the point source that a small speaker would provide. Super nice.


Antechamber with transducers.

Admission: Free

Digital engagement: Bits and pieces including a series of wall mounted iPads and iPod touches in kiosk mode for the AV content in the exhibition upstairs. Nothing permanent in the building.

Art Institute of Chicago


Founded in 1879 the Art Institute of Chicago is a deceptively massive institution perched right in the thick of things right next to Lake Michigan. I say deceptive because the entry foyer is fairly small considering the epic scale of the collection including show-pony rockstar works like Whistler’s Mother and American Gothic. I also have to note here that of all the places I’ve visited, in terms of their digital tools, UX and VX they are getting it really right here and led to one of the most easily accessible, straightforward visitor experiences I’ve had on this trip. I got in the door just in time before a million other gallery goers came in behind me and got through the ticket line pretty quickly. Above our heads in the line were a series of flat screen that welcomed visitors and gave basic information. They also informed the crowds that American Gothic today, unfortunately was not at home and was on tour in Europe. Nice move as a piece of forewarning before I slightly pricey ticket is purchased. The screen also promoted the Art Institute of Chicago’s app which I downloaded via their speedy, free wifi which blessedly didn’t take me through an annoying captive portal process where I had to agree to unseen T&Cs. I obtained my ticket from yet another surly front of house person, checked my bag and skipped out on getting an audio tour device. The app, it seemed allowed me to punch in the same numbers that I would on one of these $7 devices.

Once in, I hung a right to have a quick look at the very lovely Ryerson and Burnham Libraries which are accessible and have a modest collection of books available to the public. Back in the foyer I once again opt for an audio tour led experience for my visit. The app itself has the most successful wayfinding I’ve experienced on this trip with maps it somehow fairly effectively managed to triangulate my position on, as well as what floor I had made my way to. Objects on the tour appear as large markers, greyed out if they are actually on another floor. This is a little tricky to get your head around but once you’re used to it makes plenty of sense.

Ryerson and Burnham Libraries – interior (click to explore)

The tour takes me past about 20 of the museum’s “best of” objects including a really impressive amount of antiquities from Ancient Rome, Greece and limited parts of Asia and the Islamic world. I’ve never seen this amount of Etruscan objects on display in one place whose mysterious culture I’m a bit of a nerdy fan of. The tour takes me past many more priceless objects with succinct audio from curators and staff and soundbites from the artist where available. This is all punctuated by really sparing use of music which helps massively with the immersion but without getting in the way of the interpretation of the objects. I only struggle at one point to figure out the map where it looks like I would have to fly out of a window and back in to get to my desired location. I ask for help from another young and surly member of staff who informs me that I’d be better of catching a Pokemon with the app rather than finding an artwork. I found this interesting as for me it was quite successful in what it sets out to achieve. Goes to show how problematic app driven experiences are, even when they’re doing the best job they can at it.

Art Institute of Chicago – interior (click to explore)

Interestingly, there is no desperate wanting of my email address from any of these tools and I leave actually really amped at the invisibility and effectiveness of the Art Institute of Chicago’s digital tools.

Admission: $35 – cheaper if you’re a Chicagoan.

Digital engagement: Lots of stuff – see above.


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