There is nothing finer than riding snug in the belly of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief as it slices a wedge near Ft. Madison, Iowa, crosses the glittering Mississippi, and begins its crawl through Illinois, where the land is mostly flat. The Chief, bound for Chicago, often gives way to freight trains, but that’s okay. It gives me time enough to study the lay of the fields dotted with clusters of modest farm houses and out-buildings. From where I sit in my tiny “roomette,” the geometric clusters resemble bleached and blank-faced pieces from Monopoly games. The land embracing Mendota, Illinois (home of the Sweetcorn Festival and the Union Railroad Museum) is scattered with farm buildings that exist to serve the land. They are the last remnants of what I like to call “The Real McCoy School of Architecture.” Stripped of frou-frou, and devoid of “isms,” you betcha farmers would laugh if their buildings were referenced as “architecture.”
For many years, modernist architects such as R.M. Schindler and Louis Kahn tried to re-invent simplicity by assembling squares and triangles, cubes and wedges, and yes, the finest of their efforts are beautiful in the way that a simple outbuilding on a farm is beautiful. It seems though, that when an “ism” is attached to architecture, the particular movement (for example, modernism), becomes a thing unto itself. It becomes fashionable.
Entering Chicago on a train is a trip through time, and wow! Chicago, glorious Chicago, has a wealth of modernist architecture, much of which can be seen by taking a tour boat ride on the Chicago River. Or you can sit by the bronze lions fronting the Art Institute soak up the diverse wash of humanity toting Nordstrom and Ikea bags while chatting on their cell phones.
Smart folks heading to Milwaukee catch The Hiawatha out of Chicago’s Union Station. Along the route is the compact and smartly designed Prairie-style building (MARS), which serves as a stylish connection to nearby Mitchell International Airport. Milwaukee’s Amtrak Station on St. Paul Avenue is currently undergoing a major re-do, complete with a glassy façade that references the 6th St. Bridge to the west, perhaps too much so, as it tends to detract from the wonderful structure, however the new station is a big leap beyond the dismal wreck it replaced.
The building I live in is defined as “modernist,” and the street I live on, Prospect Avenue, was once a Sauk Indian trail. On a clear day I have a view of the pitched roofs of houses lining Farwell and the Brady St. area. In the distance, if I squint, I can see the outlines of Holy Hill. Beyond that, to the west, my imagination informs me that simple farmhouses and out-buildings (of the genuine kind) are ever more few and far between. The farm fields have been re-configured for McMansions and, and in some cases, cunning faux “farmhouses” complete with a front porch. Park a monster pickup truck in the driveway, and it’s easy to pretend that somehow you are still connected to the land.