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With Beauty, Timing Can Be Everything


Margaret Hawkins

“The Most Beautiful Places in Chicago,” a lushly photographed urban travelogue, aired on the local PBS station in early March. The writer and producer, Geoffrey Baer, is a born and bred Chicagoan and self-styled architecture historian, so it was no surprise that all the sites he chose are buildings. Baer’s expertise and his affability together make for great television; the program brims with shots of him standing awed in a church, scaling a climbing wall, and strapped into the passenger seat of a two-seater prop plane flying over the Chicago skyline while pointing out its many wonders. 


Host Geoffrey Baer at The Rookery, one of “The Most Beautiful Places in Chicago,” PBS. Photo: WTTW/Liz Markel

Baer’s choices are indeed all beautiful. He includes old standbys — the Tribune Tower, The Rookery — but has carefully curated his list with an eye to inclusivity, and takes care to extend past the literal boundaries of the city into the suburbs to catch lesser-known beauties. We get the wavy blue glass towers of Jeanne Gang’s St. Regis Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, the Baitul Ilm Mosque in Streamwood, Ernie Wong’s Ping Tom Park in Chinatown, and El Centro, Juan Gabriel Moreno’s library building on the Northeastern Illinois University campus. Leaning with aggressive friendliness over the Kennedy Expressway and built with a double wall to insulate the interior from traffic noise, El Centro is a particular beacon of inclusivity. Not only does it represent the largely immigrant population that attends the school, it offers up its gorgeousness 24/7 to the hundreds of thousands of commuters who drive past every day.  


Juan Gabriel Moreno, El Centro academic/community center, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago

So, no disagreements with Baer’s selection. Still, the very concept of “most beautiful places” begs the question: what is ‘beauty?’ Or to put it differently, does something have to be pretty to be beautiful? 


Lawrence Downes wrote a great piece about Chicago architecture for the New York Times twenty years ago when Donald Trump bought the old Chicago Sun-Times building and knocked it down to build a new Trump Tower. Downes felt proprietary toward the “old Sun-Times barge,” as he called it. He’d worked there as a copy editor for a few years, and the piece is a love letter to the newspaper (as it was then, when it was a quality paper) and to “ugliness” in general, with which he then sided. 


Baitul Ilm Mosque, Streamwood, Chicago. Courtesy of the Baitul Ilm Academy

To quote: “Was it ugly? Yes. Is your grandma ugly? And if you answer that question, what does that say about you?”  And this: “I liked it there, and I thought the building was just right, a dumpy little news factory with a good product. If it lacked the gothic awesomeness of the Tribune Tower, so much the better. People don't get their news in church.”


When I tried to make my own list of beautiful places in Chicago, though, I faltered. I tried to accept the parameters Baer set, excluding sites chosen for natural beauty alone and focusing on the man-made, but I finally decided to toss out architecture altogether. Baer covered that. And that wasn’t what came to mind when I tried to think of something in Chicago, other than the lake, that takes my breath away. Then I did and it wasn’t even a place exactly. It’s an experience, a convergence, triggered by vehicles in motion. 

Unattributed, “The Spirit of Progress,” 1929, cast bronze sculpture on the Montgomery Ward Company headquarters building, Chicago


Chicago Sun-Times Building, Chicago. Photo: David Klobucar/Chicago Tribune

My current favorite beautiful “thing” in Chicago is this: the moment an L train passes over the street as I approach in a car driving at the same speed as the train on an east-west street in late afternoon, observing how the tracks slice the city in two. Then, as the approaching train passes overhead, I drive beneath it. That’s it — pure pleasure — the sight, the sound, the sensation of crossing and merging paths. The blend of function, form, and motion. 


Trains are metal tubes full of people going somewhere. Like Downes’ assessment of the old Sun-Times barge, L trains get a job done. There’s a pragmatic beauty in that. They travel at just the right speed when they’re leaving a stop, not so fast that you can’t sometimes catch a glimpse of a face but not so slow as to ever tempt you to think this is a permanently situated object you’re viewing, let alone some fancy artwork you have to study. When stopped in stations, the trains are not so beautiful. It’s the interactive motion that ignites the chain of delight, the ethereal moment, a twirl of connection and release like a dance, as you pass below and the train and its human cargo pass above. Then you part. It serves as a reminder that this is a city that leaves you alone when you want that. The trains sway a little as they travel and at night they’re lit. They’re like moving, horizontal buildings, offering rows of silhouetted faces that flash by on their way to who knows where.  


L Train passing over a streets in Chicago

Timing is crucial to this experience. When I see a train coming, I time my approach, hoping to pass below the tracks just as the train passes above me. As I get close, I like to see the way the moving train slices Chicago in two. I most like the view driving west on Chicago Avenue, approaching Franklin, late in the afternoon. For a brief moment the train splits the city in half — below are cars, people, storefronts, and above is the glowing sky, and against that there is the peak of the Montgomery Ward building. And on top of that building there is “The Spirit of Progress,” a 1929 sculpture of a girl. She holds a caduceus and her skirt flies out behind her. When the sun is low in the sky and you’re driving west, she’s in silhouette.


Of course, the full experience only happens when all the parts of the dance are in sync. Traffic has to be moving at just the right speed ­and the lights must be green so there’s no delay and no truck can be blocking your view and no wobbly bicyclists should distract you as they threaten to fall under your wheels. But when everything is just right and the train full of people rumbles over your head there is a sense of gliding connectedness, of ships passing in the gray light of a Chicago afternoon — add snow for heightened effect — that is a way to be with people while also being alone that is simply exquisite. 

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