Who Were the Chicago Seven?

The Chicago Seven was a first-generation postmodern group of architects in Chicago (not the Chicago seven anti-Vietnam War activists who were tried for inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.).


The original Seven were Stanley Tigerman, Larry Booth, Stuart Cohen, Ben Weese, James Ingo Freed, Tom Beeby and James L. Nagle. The Chicago Seven architects had an rebellious streak, though they directed their attacks against aesthetic authority — principally the design demigod, Mies, who had died in 1969, and his acolytes. They expressed their viewpoint not with a building, but with an exhibition, the now-legendary “Chicago Architects” show of 1976. That was fitting because the Vietnam War and the energy crisis of the early 1970s had so debilitated the economy that young architects had plenty of time to think.


The show came about in response to another exhibition, “100 Years of Architecture in Chicago” that opened in Munich in 1973 and was due to run at the MCA in Chicago in 1976 as part of America’s bicentennial celebration. Despite the inclusive approach suggested by its title, “100 Years” was exclusive to a fault. It focused largely on Mies, his followers and forebears, ignoring the diverse stylistic strands of such Chicago architects as David Adler and George Fred Keck. All had played major roles in shaping the city and its suburbs since the 1920s.


In turn, Tigerman, Cohen and two other architects, Laurence Booth and Benjamin Weese, created a counter-exhibition in the lobby of the just-completed Time-Life Building. The dueling shows opened simultaneously in 1976, drew huge crowds and attracted national attention. The “Chicago Four,” as the quartet became known, had made its case: The city’s design past was eclectic, not monolithic. They revealed, as Illinois Institute of Technology architectural historian Kevin Harrington put it in his fine introduction Tuesday, “that the architecture of Chicago is not the work of half a dozen heroes whose names are somewhere up in lights.” The Four quickly became the Chicago Seven with the addition of Beeby, Nagle and James Ingo Freed. Helmut Jahn joined the informal alliance, making it the Chicago Eight. Then, it became the Chicago Eleven with the addition of Gerald Horn, Kenneth Schroeder and Cynthia Weese, the lone woman in the group. The group continued to press its attack against conventional thinking with symposiums, exhibitions, even a national design competition to redesign Tribune Tower. All this was occurring against a backdrop of great ferment in architecture.

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