By Christopher Shea
The writer John Hockenberry has soured on the postmodern metropolis -- a view he airs, not unironically, in the November issue of Metropolis magazine. "From the ground, megacities have trouble conveying a distinctive skyline," he writes. "Shape and texture are best appreciated from the air. From the foreground, sheer density trumps all other qualities." And he has little good to say about the modern skyscraper-office, which he refers to as "stacks of boxes" and "factories for making to-do lists."
The occasion for this dourness is the publication of "The Transparent City," by the photographer Michael Wolf. Wolf spent a year as the artist-in-residence for U.S. Equities Realty, in Chicago. Wolf set up shop on various rooftops and captured the glass walls and canyons around him.
In some of these pictures, indeed, scale overwhelms all else. But in others, you see form and function merged into something that approaches grandeur, the very goal of the modernists who built the template for contemporary Chicago. Where Hockenberry sees nothing but anti-human scale, the author of MoCo, a contemporary arts blog, sees, as I do, "a transparent and fluid thing of beauty."
Yes, there is a touch of melancholy in the voyeuristic photographs that peer in to the people living and working in the skyscraper-behemoths -- everyone mostly dressed the same, dwarfed by their environment. (Just as there is melancholy in the paintings of Edward Hopper, whom Wolf cites as an inspiration.)
But in part, we're just seeing where and how white collar Americans in urban centers spend their times these days, for better as well as worse. Cubicles and skyscrapers didn't spell the end of workplace creativity, for example, let alone office banter, friendship, or even romance -- and there's a rich metropolitan world to be discovered just beyond those massive, unornamented facades.
The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago is exhibiting works from "The Transparent City" through Jan. 31.
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