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The towers of the Midwest

The towers of the Midwest
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First Published: Thu, Jun 09 2011. 01 37 PM IST

Monolith: The State Street Bridge, with a part of the Chicago skyline in the background, opens up for boat traffic to pass. Jeremy/Wikimedia Commons
Monolith: The State Street Bridge, with a part of the Chicago skyline in the background, opens up for boat traffic to pass. Jeremy/Wikimedia Commons
Updated: Sat, Jul 02 2011. 03 35 PM IST
Writing about the Arabian Sea, my friend Ajay once wrote in a story during our college years that horizon was the place where the sky became the sea. From the eyrie of the 95th floor of the John Hancock Centre in Chicago one recent evening, the horizon took a different meaning for us: where the clouds blended with the lake, and you couldn’t tell where the clouds ended, where the lake began, and where they touched the sky.
The lake was formidable and huge, looking like a sea without waves: It was still as a summer sky, as if in deep meditation. The clouds ambled slowly and unexpectedly, creating gaps, offering astonishing glimpses of the city’s skyscrapers. When the clouds passed us, we felt as if we were in a low-flying aircraft. But the ground beneath our feet held firm, as did the earth half a mile below, where we could see dozens of cars and hundreds of people walking on the streets, oblivious of the hide-and-seek between the sky, the clouds, and the lake.
Monolith: The State Street Bridge, with a part of the Chicago skyline in the background, opens up for boat traffic to pass. Jeremy/Wikimedia Commons
An hour later, we too walked on the streets in this city of Midwestern cheer and charms. It was my first time there. This was Manhattan without an attitude, without the smell of pretzels, hot dogs, bagels and coffee, without the adrenalin-pumping energy which the Big Apple injects in you, which automatically makes you walk briskly, matching everyone step by step, as I discovered trying to keep pace with my friend. She had lived in New York, and the big city pulse was part of her rhythm. We managed to stay in step.
The following day, we were in the Millennium Park, where every corner, bridge and patch was named after a big corporation, as though Lalit Modi had taken over its management. But the flowers and shrubs compensated for the commercialization. We saw blue giant hyssops vainly trying to hide the skyscrapers behind; ornamental onions slowly spreading their purple tentacles as if waking up from slumber; wild ginger spread out like palms, eager to catch raindrops; blue sea hollies creating the illusion of wetness; Culver’s Root emerging stalk-like; and the Rattlesnake Master dancing merrily whenever light breeze came in from the lake.
In between we spotted several couples getting photographed, with the flowers and skyscrapers standing obediently behind them. We had seen two such couples at The Art Institute earlier that day, where the impeccably dressed and heavily made-up couples posed in alcoves, balconies and on stairs, looking blissfully happy. One enterprising couple stood in front of The American Gothic, the iconic painting by Grant Wood, of a dour, balding man, standing with a pitchfork, his stern daughter a step behind him, looking oddly unhappy even though they were in wholesome Iowa (you would be, if the only exciting thing happens every four years, when Iowa holds its caucuses). The couple being photographed in front of that painting was young, lively, and full of sunny optimism. I took a picture of them being pictured, and I hoped they’d still be together 50 years later when they get photographed with their daughter, and would look happier than the couple in the painting. To talk, laugh, and maintain good cheer together in your 70s as though you are still in your 20s—isn’t that what life is all about?
Water world: An installation at Chicago’s Millennium Park. Divya Babu/Mint
The following afternoon was hot, as we went to the mouth of the river and boarded a boat to explore the city’s architecture. Chicago’s river gives shape to the buildings’ character as it winds its way through the city, the buildings sheltering it from the bustle of the streets.
And how well the buildings blended with the city’s plan. There is the magnificent edifice, 333 West Wacker Drive, with green-tinted glass that curves graciously along the river’s bank, as if it is a vertical tributary of the river, mirroring its green tinge, extending it skyward. There is 330 N Wabash, a minimalist box designed by Mies van der Rohe, shunning the frills and adornments lavished on older buildings, emphasizing its functionality. The Wrigley Building has a clock tower atop, looking like a tall wedding cake, defiantly refusing to melt in the sun, and Chicago Tribune’s building looks as if it is a church pulled to its limits and made to stand, showing its long, functional midriff, with an ornamental Gothic top looking like a cathedral and filigreed feet.
Then there were the two Marina Towers, looking like a stack of coins at first, like Singapore’s Treasury Building, but when we reached closer, they looked like what they were meant to be—giant corn-on-the-cob. The glass windows of other buildings reflected life on the river, occasionally sparkling white, sometimes golden yellow. Even the Sears Tower, now renamed Willis Tower, once the world’s tallest building, had character—from afar, it looked like the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey—once you got closer you saw the edges jutting out of the building, creating corner offices offering awesome views, while the building folded within its blackness when seen from afar. Finally, there was the Aqua, on Lakeshore East, a building designed by Jeanne Gang, with its dreamlike, willowy and wavy balconies.
It had been a warm, sunny afternoon, and it was only the next day that we discovered what the city had done to our skins. My friend wrote saying she had a bangle tan, which was inevitably more delicate than my wristwatch tan.
Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jun 09 2011. 01 37 PM IST