In this summer series, RIBAJ’s ‘Postcard from…’ asks architects on their travels to briefly share with our readers their observations on the places they visit. In our first, RCKA’s Russell Curtis tells us what has him looking up in Chicago
A recent studio project has inspired a discussion about external escape stairs. We were originally drawn to New York’s tenement blocks, imagining the lively mess of sliding fire ladders and gangways of West Side Story. But here in Chicago they take on a different character: filigree webs hanging precariously from stone slabs, flimsy enough to brush away were they not tantalisingly out of reach.
The combination of escape stairs and bright spring sunshine casts striking shadows across the flank walls of many of the buildings in the city’s Loop district, often suspended precipitously above the dark alleyways below. Even in unusually warm weather, evacuating the 20th floor this way must be a sobering experience. Doing so in the depths of winter, with icy treads and a biting wind slicing across Lake Michigan, it's a perilous one too.
That most of these structures are later additions to their host building makes them all the more fascinating. But even as an afterthought, there’s beauty in the engineering and metalcraft (and the audacious installation) that makes them a beguiling addition to the skyline. I couldn’t put my camera down.
Feel like more architectural travels? Visit the world via postcards here.