Days 26–29, August 19th–22nd: the oldness of the New World, and the awfulness of the Loop

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,157 kilos
Sigurðar saga fóts: 130/252

On the oldness of the New World

I imagine most people likely to read this blog have either seen or been the North American who comes to Europe and says ‘OMG! Everything here is so OLD! We just don’t have anything like your castles/cathedrals/Cambridge colleges back home!’ And if, dear reader, that was you, then fair play: I’m glad you found something to like about the place.

But one of the unexpected consequences of this was that it kind of made me think that everything in America must, conversely, be really new: sort of like the view from the Goon’s flat I suppose, or like the mall in Cheektowaga (I am never going to get bored of that name!). When I found that, actually, my little patch in Toronto mostly feels quite like the well-tended suburbs down towards Cambridge station, I was quite surprised. But, you know, they still have the Queen here too so I thought maybe it was a Canadian thing. But it turns out that a lot of Chicago’s even more like this: basically it’s a big, nineteenth-century industrial city. Which is to say, more or less reminiscent of Leeds or Glasgow. (More like Leeds, actually: more bricky than stoney.) And it’s not just the bricks, it’s the crap plumbing, the creaky sash windows, the basements which somehow have become flats, the telegraph wires that look like they’re going to a fancy dress party as the map of the London Underground. Chicago’s elevated train system is really cool, but more rattly old roller-coaster than twenty-first-century-antigravity-passenger-system.

And notwithstanding York Minster down the road, to me the nineteenth century still feels pretty old. And mostly I like complaining about old stuff. Leeds is jammed with uninsulated, leaky, Victorian hovels which weren’t fit for purpose when they were built, let alone now, and given that we could replace them with stuff like the amazing-looking LILAC project (or the less mind-bending but still, to my mind, impressive Greenhouse), I’m, like, why do we put up with this old crap? But there’s certainly something comforting about turning up in the New World and finding that, actually, it’s not that new after all.

On the awfulness of the Loop

Whew. But then I went to the Loop! This is the flashy middle bit of Chicago, the equivalent of the view from my window in Toronto. And it’s not comforting at all!

So normally, when I moan about a place (which I do quite a lot, in Leeds), I basically moan about its mediocrity. Well, you could never accuse the Loop of that… Never have I experienced a more visceral dislike of a place than the middle of Chicago.

I freely admit that so heartfelt a response to a bit of town must say at least as much about me as about the failings of the architects. Maybe I didn’t have enough protein with my porridge that morning, or, like Marley’s ghost, it was just an undigested bit of beef, a crumb of cheese, or a fragment of an underdone potato. But still…

Looking down the sheer drop from Akrafjall, past the seabirds, to the farms half a kilometre below, is brilliant: no trouble there. But if I’ve ever felt vertiginous anywhere, it’s standing on the ground in the Loop. The buildings go on up so far you lose your sense of what plane you’re on and start to wonder if actually the skyscraper is the ground. A scale which in Toronto is boys-and-their-toys in Chicago becomes monstrous. Now I can see where this scene in Inception comes from. Except in the cinema it looks cool whereas in real life it looks kind of awful.

And the architects clearly know it:

Chicago skyscraper, side

Is it the shining waters and rolling waves of Lake Michigan, somehow captured in glass and concrete?

Skyscraper from below

Or is it the rolling hills and sweeping valleys of, er, I dunno, some part of Illinois that has hills and valleys?



But actually, kind of like the Parisian streets in Inception, it’s the old buildings that are the worst: the big glass things are vertiginously vast, but also just kind of blankly geometric; they have no inherent sense of scale. Whereas the old ones look like real buildings, but are actually real buildings3; the windows just go on and on too far in all directions until you start to lose your sense of proportion and can’t work out whether the buildings are actually normal-sized, but made for thousands and thousands of dolls, and you’re about to discover that you’re Gulliver in Lilliput; or whether you’re one of the Lilliputians yourself, and at any moment a real-sized person is going to come stomping through your city. Which I guess is partly what King Kong or Godzilla are all about: the prospect of what happens to you and your city when someone turns up who’s actually drawn to scale with the buildings.

I mean, I’m sure that with practice you could get used to it. And I normally spend a lot of time holding forth on how English people need to get with the idea of living in flats, like people in Scotland and Continental Europe. If we could just wean everyone off their six feet of English lawn, there would be more space for everyone to share, more efficient buildings, and what in England would be a big splodge of suburban sprawl could be a cosy, leafy, walkable town like Uppsala. But the middle of Chicago is about as far from a cosy, leafy town like Uppsala as you’re ever going to get.

At least I may moan less about Leeds in future…


About alarichall
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2 Responses to Days 26–29, August 19th–22nd: the oldness of the New World, and the awfulness of the Loop

  1. Pingback: Days 40–49, September 3rd–12th: the Rocky Mountains (2) | alarichall

  2. Pingback: Day 60, September 23rd… and the week that followed: back in Leeds! | alarichall

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