ESSAY- Houses and handbags: What Chicago can teach Charlottesville


Oh, I am a sucker for novelty! Eye-catching design is tough to resist.

And there I was, in a shop on Chicago's Magnificent Mile a few weeks ago, surrounded by gorgeous Italian leather handbags. No way could I afford anything in that store. Nevertheless, I hoped to justify walking out with a little something.

Maybe the teensy apple-green evening purse? The one that looks like a miniature doctor's bag– the one with a price tag of $420? Not a chance.

This is what happens when you leave home and look around: Your eyes are opened to what you've been missing, and you wonder how to snag some of that good stuff to bring back.

I have to admit that it wasn't just the exotic leather goods I wanted to bring home to Charlottesville.

As I walked around the city (and I did a lot of tromping around, attempting to cheer on my husband as he ran in the Chicago Marathon) I was in full, neck-craning, tourist mode, gawking in wonder at the fabulous architecture.

I'm no stranger to big cities. I've lived in Paris and London, and made many a trip on the Starlight Express when our daughter lived in Manhattan. But, Chicago! Chicago is something else.

The juxtaposition of styles is stunning: There are graceful old 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, made of brick, or with castle-like details, and behind them shiny, shockingly-shaped 21st-century structures reach for the sky.

I kept thinking that the people who created these buildings – and the city officials who gave them the green light – had to have a sense of humor.

A pair of circular skyscrapers, Marina City towers, look like a couple of spent corncobs.

Another building, across the street from our hotel, appeared to be undulating. It's called the Aqua Tower, which makes sense. It's 86 stories high, the rectangular shape softened by staggered, curving balconies, creating a wavy effect.

(I spent many minutes staring across the street from our room in the Fairmont Hotel, wondering what it would be like to hang out on a balcony on the 86th floor. It's a little scary to even think about it.)

It seemed as though everywhere I turned, there was something to engage and astonish – buildings mirroring the sky and each other, those unexpected shapes rising behind ornate old buildings, like the 1929 Carbide & Carbon Building. That elderly skyscraper, with its Art Deco frosting of gold leaf, stands as a reminder that audacious architecture is nothing new for Chicago.

Now, I have no desire to see enormous towers rising from Charlottesville's skyline. But wouldn't it be great to tool around our little burg and find that you're delighted, again and again, by a playful contrast of styles? We could use a break from the monotony of brick, white columns, and other elements of Jeffersonian architecture that have been imposed on way too many new buildings around here.

Now, I love striding along the brick walkways that ring the Lawn at the University of Virginia, passing the same graceful white columns Thomas Jefferson passed, walking the pathways he walked while looking out at the grassy expanse or catching glimpses of life behind all those louvered doors.

There's a sense of timelessness and continuity that would have been lost, had these buildings not been preserved for us.

But when I think of Jefferson and his colleagues, what they did was, in effect, take a look at the world they had inherited and declare, "We can do better than this." And look what happened!

Surely, that can still happen in Charlottesville. We can do better than this. We can break up the monotony of imitation with a measure of architectural playfulness. Enough already with the bricks and white columns on new buildings.

(But an abandoned and skeletal 11-story building on the Downtown Mall does not qualify as playful architecture. Oh, no.)

There are glimmers of hope in Charlottesville, if you know where to look. There's the City Center for Contemporary Arts building on Water Street (the home of Live Arts), a refreshing metal box topped with a blue upper story and a mysterious yellow room perched on the roof.

And the Transit Station on the Downtown Mall gets points for being fantastically incongruous, what with all that glass, the crooked roof, and being right up in the face of the brick-and-columned former C&O train station right across the street.

Now that I'm back home, I still have a hankering for that adorable $420 evening bag. My question is this: Which is more likely, that I'll one day get that pricey purse, or that Charlottesville will loosen up its architectural act a whole lot more, and go a little crazy?


The author lives in what, by the standards of rural Free Union, might be considered a skyscraper.



Thanks for the nice shoutout, Janis. I have lived in Chicago for 30 years and I'm still as awed by its beauty as I was when I first came here as a college graduate looking for a job.

I totally agree... Charlottesville is beautiful and it's Jeffersonian architecture is great, but like the Live Arts building, it would be nice to see some lively design. After all, there are some great design firms in C-ville. Anything cool in the city's architectural pipeline?

I had the good fortune to attend the Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend and was really impressed by the variety and quality of architectural examples there. What a great city!

Indeed. Thoughtful play with the built environment is a worthy goal. But, for what good purposes? Since, inevitably public monies, resources, and goals are involved in some way ( financing, public roads and sidewalks, public safety, public access, etc) Ms Jaquith's plaint that the community "loosen up" about the built environment and "go a little crazy" needs considerably more teasing out; an object if needed in the sentence: 'go crazy' in the built environment [for what purpose]. Let's hear what the community wishes to fill in about what aims to achieve with a new built environment! How about: communities that are well and successfully integrated by race, age, and income!? communities where persons with diverse abilities/disabilities are equally treated!? communities so affordable that everyone might have the chance to walk to work?! Perhaps The Hook will sponsor a series of essays on those themes.