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Visionary Cities and the Phantom City App

See a city's spectral skyscrapers and plug into the city’s architectural consciousness with an interactive iPhone app.

Article By Patrick Sisson, September 13, 2013

History—and city skylines—tend to be constructed by the winners, but that's never the whole story. Alexander Eisenshmidt, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, discovered the truth of this maxim while researching unfinished Chicago building projects and collecting a dossier of grandiose proposals, eccentric dreams, and impossible ideas that form an alternate skyline, a city that “exists in our architectural consciousness.”

"Visionary Cities", now on display at Chicago’s Expo 72 Gallery, fuses this fantastical landscape with the city of today. A 160-foot panorama showcases incomplete projects superimposed onto the current street grid, such as a recreated Sears Tower from Greg Lynn, a massive, 1,500-foot-high lakefront obelisk proposed for the Columbian Expedition and Adolf Loos’ alternate Tribune Tower. The companion Phantom City iPhone app, which focuses on the same lost projects, lets you pull up images of the buildings while touring the city. 

Chicago's not the only city with this handheld view of speculative proposals. CHENG+SNYDER designers Irene Cheng and Brett Snyder previously created the Museum of the Phantom City app for New York in 2009, showcasing unrealized projects such as a Midtown dome dreamed up by Buckminster Fuller and an alternate World Trade Center site. 

 

The outlandishness and provocation of these types of conceptual constructions helps push architecture forward, says Eisenshmidt, an important lesson for today.

“I’m more interested in releasing those visionary projects into the public ether to steer a kind of discussion about visionary thinking within architecture and urbanism,” said Eisenshmidt. “It’s also a critique of the city at its current state. It’s not that I want those buildings built, but you have relatively little vision now. Decision makers and high-stakes players are less fascinated about them. It’s very much a city that gets excited about planters on the street sidewalks, and as nice as it is, I think Chicago can aim much higher than it currently does. It’s about thinking back to a time when Chicago was a city that was doing it. Chicago is only what it is today because risk was taken.”  

"Visionary Cities" can be found in the "City Works: Provocations for Chicago's Urban Future" exhibit at Expo 72 in Chicago’s Loop through September 29. The Phantom City app, produced in collaboration with Cheng+Snyder, can be downloaded here, along with their app for New York architecture.