Architecture in Chicago is no small thing. It stands more prominently in the public conscience than arguably any other American city. And now, regrettably, so does one sign.
The recent installation of nearly 20-foot-6-inch-high letters spelling "TRUMP" on Chicago's Trump International Hotel & Tower is hard to miss. It has sparked controversy in Chicagoland.
As many Chicagoans can recite, Daniel Burnham, the planner of this modern metropolis, exhorted, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." Indeed, Donald Trump responded to this call with the successful construction of America's tallest building since 9/11, completed during the Great Recession.
This is no small feat. Numerous other proposed projects in the city could not reach such heights. For this civic commitment and investment, Trump deserves the city's praise.
Nevertheless, the affixation is an affront.
This is not to say that Chicago does not have its signs. Some are iconic and beloved.
Imagine driving south on Lake Shore Drive without seeing the Gothic script of The Drake Hotel. The 12-block Michigan Avenue Streetwall features several signs promoting the Congress Hotel, Essex Inn, BorgWarner, and Ebony and Jet magazines. In 2012, many Chicagoans cried for the preservation of the Santa Fe railroad sign upon its conversion to one for Motorola.
Nor is it to say that signage has no place on skyscrapers in America. In 1931 the McGraw-Hill Building announced itself atop its New York skyscraper. In 1932 the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society emblazoned "PSFS" on the City of Brotherly Love in 27-feet tall neon rooftop letters. But such lettering was part and parcel of their respective art deco and modernist design. Trump's lettering may now be part of architect Adrian Smith's design, but it will never be parcel.
In Tribune architect critic Blair Kamin's June 6 article, Trump offered a comparison for his signage: "As time passes, it'll be like the Hollywood sign." This comparison is unfair and of the "If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck" type of reasoning. Context is key.
The Hollywood sign in the hills of Los Angeles sits on a natural formation oriented toward the urban sprawl that has come to define the city below. In a place with views framed from and for vehicles, the Hollywood sign makes sense in Los Angeles. Any relative of it does not in Chicago.
Ironically, Chicago may be more artificial than Los Angeles. Despite mythic foundation on the open prairie of the Middle West, Chicago has reversed the flow of its river, pushed into Lake Michigan, and, most noticeably, formed a tectonic mountain range with white broadcast antenna peaks.
The Chicago skyline is my strongest memory of the city from growing up in Arlington Heights. I remember driving in on the Kennedy Expressway, peeking past my parents in the front seats, and peering through the windshield to catch a glimpse of it. To my young, untrained eyes, I could easily read the city without any words to aid me. Its profile ran ragged between the bookends of the black sibling towers named Hancock and Sears (now Willis).
Everything in this prospect is how I came to love Chicago and architecture, separately and together.
When I was able to drive myself down the Kennedy, I welcomed seeing Trump's silver-blue skyscraper grow as a counter and stand as a midpoint in the skyline.
What is offensive about the application of signage on the river facade of Trump Tower is that it is out of place. The riverfront is not Times Square and Chicago's skyline is not Hong Kong's. It is out of character for the building type.
Louis Sullivan, father of the skyscraper, demanded of the tall building: "It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line." Trump's dissenting lines of lettering mar this proud and soaring thing.
Moreover, imagine how such signage would have ruined my younger self from an architectural awareness and pride that is instilled in budding Chicagoans. With citizens so literate in architectural history and its forms, this identifier is an insult.
Actions, I thought, always spoke louder than words. What greater act is there than building toward the heavens? And in no less than the city that first scraped the sky?
Anything else, in comparison, reads rather cheap.
Craig Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of art history at the University of Delaware, is focusing on the history of modern architecture and design.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun