Chicago, The City of Spires (2010)

Chicago, The City of Spires (2010)

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Gazing in wonderment at traffic speeding at 1450 feet below my own two feet makes me dizzy. Is this what they mean when they talk of reaching dizzying heights? I am in what they call ‘skybox’ sticking out of the side of the 108th floor of Sears Tower, the mother of all skyscrapers in North America in the city of Chicago. The skybox is made of glass, not just the three sides, but even the floor is sheet glass. You step onto it gingerly, all the time dreading that singular sound – of splintering glass even as your mind conjures up visions of you flailing through the cold air, limbs akimbo. If you manage to overcome your dread and fight back your vertigo, you will be rewarded with an amazing view of a forest of skyscrapers that constitute the Chicago skyline. Sears Tower, now rechristened Wills Tower dwarfs them all, although in recent years, it has been dwarfed by two other towers, Petronas in Kuala Lumpur and Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Everything about Chicago is towering and larger than life – be it the vertical urban landscape that redefined the rules of modern architecture over a century ago or the revolutionary personalities who redefined contemporary social and political norms.  After all, was it not Chicago which produced  Martin Luther King Jr and more recently,  Barack Obama ?   And even Oprah Winfrey who signifies excess in success hails from Chicago. It was also this city which hosted the famous World Congress of Religions in the year 1893, ironically on another 9/11 (11th September 1893) when Swami Vivekananda held his audience in thrall with his speech on tolerance and acceptance.  Yet, this was also the city that spawned the most dangerous gangsters – Al Capone loved Chicago – hideous hoodlum haunts and venal gambling dens.  And like in everything else, Chicago opted for king-size when it comes to deep-dish pizzas filled with beef and cheese.  The bigger the better seems to be the motto of Chicago.

Chicago is perched on one of the largest lakes on the planet, one that is visible even from outer space! Earlier in the evening, as my plane veered towards Chicago, the setting sun had turned Lake Michigan into a molten expanse of silver.  A cluster of skyscrapers in downtown Chicago was fetchingly reflected in the shimmering waters of the lake making it look like a mini Legoland.  This urbanscape  is entirely manmade and yet as mesmerising as any sculpted by Mother Nature.

While the aerial view, both from the plane and from Wills Tower is fantastic, don’t miss out on the worm’s eye view and the tunnel effect you get as you glide in a boat through the city’s meandering water ways or pedal through its vibrant streets.  I choose to take the architectural tour of the city by boat.  Hemmed in by soaring towers on both banks of the canal, their glass frontage reflecting  psychedelic and contorted images of the buildings opposite, the effect is art nouveau of a unique style.  These boat tours are conducted by Chicago Architecture Foundation and give you an authentic account of the city’s architectural history.

Chicago, like most cities in North America, was once an Indian settlement.  In time they were driven out and the city grew from a population of mere 200 in 1833 to nearly three million today. Legend has it that Mrs.O.Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern and started a fire that soon engulfed the entire city in 1871, razing all buildings to the ground and killing hundreds of its residents. But the resilient Chicagoans rebuilt their city almost immediately and set ablaze a new trail in modern architecture. It also spawned a number of fiery institutions such as the Chicago Fire, a major soccer league, and Flames, an athletic team at University of Illinois in Chicago.

Today, the defining features of Chicago skyline are its acres of glass and reinforced steel, buttressed by tube-frame construction  pioneered by a Bangladeshi enginner Fazlur Khan. In a reflection of its eclectic and inclusive culture, the Chicago art scene seems to have its fair share of Asian and African contributors. For instance, the Millennium Park has a unique contraption called Cloud Gate designed by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor.  Kapoor competed with many worthies to get his handiwork selected. Inspired by mercury, the Cloud Gate is made entirely of reinforced steel. Much like a concave mirror, it contorts and reflects Chicago skyline in its many crumpled shapes and is an eye-catching piece of novel art.

Chicago by night is neon-city .  Millions of lights lend an ethereal  glow to this city perpetually blanketed in fog.  The trendy bars and nightclubs come alive and the mood is festive, forming an electrifying nightscape that holds its own against any in the world. Busy sports bars and pubs including the immortal Murphy’s Bleacher’s and Old World-style Irish Oak Pub entice you with their seductive neon signs.  But I ignore them and head for that quintessential American institution, the House of Blues with its art-deco interiors and scintillating music.  At the entrance, a signboard proclaims B.B.King’s famous line “Nobody loves me but my mother, but she could be jiving too”.  What better way to fight your blues with the collective rhythm when indeed, everyone seems to be jiving as if there’s no tomorrow.  I am only too happy to join them.

(Published in The Tribune dated July 25, 2010)