Twenty-First Century Skeletons | Art Feature | Chicago Reader

Twenty-First Century Skeletons 

Stanley Greenberg's intimate portraits of buildings in progress, at the Art Institute

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Stanley Greenberg: Architecture Under Construction Art Institute of Chicago

Commercial architectural photographers tend to focus on that Edenic moment when a building is brand-new—primped and lit and perfect. Fully realized, but not yet cluttered with people. Stanley Greenberg's photographs of high-end contemporary architecture are also depopulated, but the buildings in them are far from realized. Steel beams are still covered in chalk directions for the construction crew and vast Slinkies of rebar wait to be entombed in concrete.

In his new book, Architecture Under Construction, Greenberg records the prehistory of an eclectic array of recent buildings by big-name architects, providing a corrective for the kind of photographs that eventually presented them to the world. As it happens, the last building included in the book is the Art Institute's Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, in which a dozen of Greenberg's 30-by-40-inch black-and-white prints are on display through September 6 in a show called "Stanley Greenberg: Architecture Under Construction." Greenberg's 2007 view of the new wing shows its open stairwell ringed by girders, scaffolds, and ladders—hardly a pristine space for art. Yet the photograph makes a work of art of this mess, turning its pattern of crosses and circles into something resembling a painting by Mondrian.

The pictures in the book and show were shot between 2001 and 2007, at the height of the real estate boom. Big budgets and innovations in computer-generated design allowed architects such as Frank Gehry—whose 2004 band shell looks back at Piano's AIC addition from across Millennium Park, its swirling metal proscenium blaring like a cartoon horn section—to create forms that couldn't previously have been built in structural steel, buildings that ripple and billow, appearing weightless. "Blob architecture," it was initially called. Greenberg gives us a backstage view of Gehry's Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in New York, with the sunlight pouring in around the curving uprights that will support the building's undulating skin. We are standing in the wings, peeking out at the world, sharing the architect's performance anxiety—a dazzling experience.

Greenberg also takes a look inside two of Daniel Libeskind's recent works: his Denver Art Museum, with its witch's hat pointed out and up, looking like something out of a giant silver Lego set, and his addition to the Royal Ontario Museum of Art in Toronto. Both feature gravity-defying "crystals" attached to more traditional forms—a play on I.M. Pei's glass pyramids at the Louvre and Washington's National Gallery. Libeskind's tetrahedrons are hardly classical, bursting out of the sides of buildings. Yet Greenberg shows us that even these wild constructions are built on rectilinear frames.

By arriving before anyone else—except the builders, who are nowhere to be seen—Greenberg is able to study the guts of these iconic constructions. It's a matter of political principle for the New York-based photographer, whose two previous books, Invisible New York (1998) and Waterworks (2003), explore the seldom-seen infrastructure of his home town. "During the Bush years, everything was hidden," he told me in a recent interview. "I wanted to look beneath the surface."

Greenberg's photographs are a testament to the architect's craft, but they also show a world of vast computer-generated spaces for which the human body no longer appears to be a useful reference of scale. The buildings he explores resemble oversized architectural models, playthings for utopians and mad scientists. The roughness of the spaces reminds us that our civic life is always under construction, and more fragile than we may think. Consider what became of the boom that made these ambitious skeletons possible. "That was a moment in time," Greenberg says. "I couldn't make those pictures today."

Gallery visitors who want to identify the buildings in Greenberg's pictures will have to check the book, since the captions on the wall don't provide the names of the architects or their projects—a coy move that leaves entirely too much to the imagination. Fortunately, there's a copy on display in the room. See the credits at the back.   v

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