THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Chicago’s best-known architects tend to be from somewhere else. Daniel Burnham was born in upstate New York; Louis Sullivan in Boston. Frank Lloyd Wright’s formative years occurred in southwestern Wisconsin; Mies van der Rohe came from his native Germany when he was 51. This hasn’t changed in recent years: Helmut Jahn is from Germany, and Jeanne Gang is from Belvidere, Illinois.
John Vinci, the 81-year-old subject of John Vinci: Life and Landmarks ($65, 272 pages, Northwestern University Press) is a notable exception. Born and raised in Armour Square on the city’s South Side, he has lived in just three houses—all within the city’s limits—over the eight-plus decades of his life.
Vinci would seem an unlikely hero of Chicago architecture, yet he has left a substantial, if often overlooked, mark on the so-called “Birthplace of Modern Architecture.” Architects tend to be best-known by their creative work. But how does one properly evaluate the work of a designer who is best known for his strong preservation advocacy and the renovation of other, better-known architects’ work?
That’s the Vinci dilemma. His six-decade-long career stands most publicly on his physical rejuvenation of masterworks such as Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room (now installed within the Art Institute of Chicago) and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park.
Vinci’s architectural education is a product of his provincial upbringing. He attended the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) because it was within walking distance of his parents’ home. The fact that he would study under modern master Mies van der Rohe (and be one of the first students to occupy the Mies-designed, now-Chicago Landmark structure S.R. Crown Hall) was something of a fortunate accident.
Landscape architect Alfred Caldwell taught an architectural history class at IIT that opened Vinci’s eyes to the importance of Louis Sullivan’s work, which was rapidly being destroyed in the neighborhoods bordering where he lived. Documenting these structures, and saving pieces of ornament from them, awakened Vinci to their importance—and began his considerable efforts as an advocate of historic preservation.
When the pioneering Richard Nickel—who Vinci had befriended while still a student in the 1950s—died in 1972 excavating the wrecked remains of the old Chicago Stock Exchange, the then-35-year-old Vinci became de facto head of Chicago’s nascent preservation movement.
And despite his distinctly local background, Vinci has been an unlikely player in Chicago’s art scene. His involvement began early in his career through luck and happenstance. Working for architect Dan Brenner in the early 1960s, he would meet his boss once a month at 5 AM at the Blackhawk restaurant on Wabash Avenue, where they’d hang art exhibits, which Vinci recalls included a Francis Bacon “screaming” pope. He also hung Warhols at the Standard Club and Ravinia. Eventually, he was asked by a curator at the Art Institute to do an exhibition, “The Art of the Sepik River,” which established Vinci’s bona fides in the art world. He has now designed over fifty exhibitions, including the recent, well-received “Wiener Werkstätte, 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty” at the Neue Galerie New York.
The book’s clear and thoughtful text, which covers most of biographical territory noted above, is by Robert Sharoff and is an informative supplement to photography by William Zbaren. Architectural photography is an art unto itself, and Vinci has found a real collaborator in Zbaren. The core of the book is the portfolio, which documents 20 individual projects spanning 1971 to 2005. Seen through the single lens of Zbaren, the consistency of Vinci’s architectural approach quickly comes into focus—a sensibility that stresses clean, elegant, and rational solutions, regardless of style.
Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by William Zbaren.
The best known, not surprisingly, are the preservation projects—Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange and Carson Pirie Scott Building, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Wright’s Peter A. Beachy House, and Burnham & Root’s Monadnock Building. Vinci’s most publicly known work of his own design is the 1997 Arts Club of Chicago, which not only re-uses the iconic stair from the club’s Mies van der Rohe-designed previous home but recreates many proportions and finish materials from the same. While Mies’ dictum “Less is more” is clearly articulated, it is easy to feel that Vinci’s original work is almost self-negating.
The art world has had an enormous impact on Vinci’s work. Vinci ticks off his artist friends— Daniel Buren, Dan Flavin, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Keifer, and Aaron Siskind among them. And many of Vinci’s private commissions have been for Chicago area collectors, including the Manilows, the Buchbinders, and John H. Bryan. His clear IIT-inspired personal preference for clean lines and white walls has been applied to new construction and renovation alike, provided neutral backgrounds for a wide variety of art. Even his own home, a modest structure built in the 1800s, features art—a bold graphic decal that Daniel Buren applied to Vinci’s refrigerator.
The book concludes with a catalogue raisonné featuring 228 individual projects by Vinci, including the 20 featured projects in their broader context. Some are documented by postage stamp-sized illustrations, suggesting that this already weighty tome could have been much bulkier than it is.
“I like to think of my architecture as coming from me, not books,” Vinci told me shortly after the book was released. But that doesn’t mean that his work—and the accompanying book—can’t provide inspiration and instruction for others.
Ed Keegan is a contributing editor at Architect Magazine and Principal at his namesake Chicago architectural firm.
Modern Elliptical Staircase in an 1880s Lincoln Park Residence. Photo by William Zbaren.
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