Ruth Yaro

Lee Bey has lived in Chicago all his life. He’s worn a variety of hats relating to architecture and planning in the city, including a stint in the mayor’s office, leading the advocacy group Chicago Central Area Committee, and serving as architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2019, he published Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side, a book of photography. Lee will be serving as keynote host at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2022 in Chicago, and we chatted with him about the rich architectural history of his hometown and what’s in store for the city’s future.

The Great Fire of 1871 had a big impact on the city’s architecture. Chicago shifted from being a wooden city to being one of brick and stone and terra cotta; the latter was an inexpensive way to clad a building to be more beautiful and more fireproof at the same time. So, you have this emerging city on the prairie, which is looking to Europe and Rome and Greece for architectural inspiration. An affordable way to emulate those cities was to cast decorative pieces in terra cotta and apply them to buildings— everything from lions to gargoyles to columns. It fit the need to make a fireproof city, but also a beautiful city.

The Chicago of my youth was one that was in transition. There was white flight; people were leaving the city. African Americans who had been crowded into neighborhoods south of downtown were beginning to expand throughout the city. In this century, the Black population is beginning to leave, looking for jobs and opportunities elsewhere. The promise that drew African Americans during the Great Migration is, in many cases, unfulfilled, and architecture and urban planning played a role. We built housing projects instead of decent homes; in the 1980s and ’90s, we left schools for these communities in horrible condition. Certainly, Chicago’s downtown has improved significantly in my lifetime. I will say that, as a city, we appreciate what architects and urban planners and engineers have done to improve Chicago, and the critical role that architects played in developing the city. There is a push now to invest in the neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, because Chicago’s claim to be a world-class city is an incomplete claim if we’re not taking care of the communities in those neighborhoods.

For A’22 visitors to Chicago, they’re coming at the best time of the year. Chicago comes alive in the summertime. Walk around downtown, see the lakefront. If you can get a car, get out into the neighborhoods, particularly some of the South Side neighborhoods that may not be in the radar for many people—places like Hyde Park and Beverly and historic Pullman where I live. See the diversity of Ukrainian Village and Rogers Park; experience the restaurants. Chicago is a big city, but it’s also a small town—everyone knows everyone.