Chicago: Old Town & new art

We knew all about Chicago’s skyscrapers and Frank Lloyd Wright houses, about its gangster days and speakeasies, about Obama’s role as a community organiser in the 80s in the housing projects, about Kapoor’s 110 ton entrancing silver sculpture, ‘Cloud Gate‘ in Millennium Park (see opposite) and about the magnificent Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) nearby.

We did not know however about the influence the Institute’s School of Art had on shaping from the 1920s features of the houses and environment of the Old Town – the neighbourhood just north of downtown Chicago – where we spent last month.

In 1927 two AIC students Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller set up the Carl Street Studios there in Burton Place, off Wells Street, to provide workspace for artists and to promote modern art. Its influence on the neighbourhood and its buildings has been considerable.

Walk round the streets of Old Town and you’ll come across murals, mosaics, stained glass windows, multi coloured tiles in odd settings and intricate doorways, many of which were created or inspired by Edgar Miller, who was a talented artist, metal worker and designer.

We encountered this first in the interior of a 1930s small block of apartments where we were staying. Open the front door and immediately at your feet in the small tiled lobby was a large mosaic with a humourous self-referencing title ‘Mosaic’ (see photo above).

Walk up the narrow stairway to our first floor apartment and there’s another surprise. Attached to the iron bannister and rising to the next floor is a 15 feet tall hardwood ‘totem pole’, with a series of detailed carvings. At the bottom (see opposite) a deftly carved figure of a standing nude woman with long flowing hair hits you in the face . What joyful exuberance on a winding stairway!

Fortunately the City Council has recognised the contribution made by the Carl Street Studios to the area’s charm and bohemian character with some plaques and two contrasting sculptures – a powerful male figure in burnished steel in a bed of flowers and a striding woman with rusting chains on the pavement (see photos below).

Street art and sculpture adds to the quality of any city or town, whatever the continent. It’s a humanising force and a great eye catcher as I showed in the case of Valencia in Spain.

It makes me think that Keswick our mountaineering capital of England would be a great venue for some bold new sculptures. Perhaps the Town Council could be persuaded to give some thought to the idea. Let us have your views in the comments section below.