Exploring Contemporary Art’s Love Affair With The Skyscraper

A new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago looks at why the skyscraper has become a symbol for both utopian and dystopian views of urbanity.

As the birthplace of the modern skyscraper at the turn of the 20th century, it is fitting that Chicago should be the home of a museum exhibition devoted to the subject. But Skyscraper, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, isn’t your typical architecture show: Rather than displaying models and plans, it presents artistic interpretations of the skyscraper as a potent symbol of our urge to reach ever higher into the skies.


“At the beginning, I did think of having architects involved in some way,” says Michael Darling, who curated the exhibition with Joanna Szupinska. “That disappeared when I realized how much material I had to work with if I just concentrated on artists.” He whittled his choices down to more than 50 international artists, spanning film and video to painting and sculpture, and organized them according to several themes: verticality, reflecting the optimism embodied by skyscrapers; personification of architecture, in which the works blur the line between human and architecture; urban critique, exploring dystopian themes; improvisation, showcasing playful takes on modernist forms; and vulnerability of icons, summing up our changing relationship to structures of power after 9/11.

Of course, one of the unavoidable themes is phallic imagery, exemplified by Vito Acconci’s High Rise (1980), which invites viewers to hoist a 25-foot translucent structure into the air using ropes and pulleys until a tower (and, on one side, a spray-painted penis) is erected. More than 140 years since its arrival, the skyscraper remains a male plaything. It’s worth noting that a female architect hadn’t built a skyscraper in Chicago until Jeanne Gang won the commission to build the Aqua Tower, completed in 2010, and one is hard-pressed to think of other women who have enjoyed such opportunities in other parts of the world.

Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity is on display until September 23. To buy the catalog for $27, go here.

About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.