text by:
Hennie Reynders

Dr. Hennie Reynders is an architect and tenured Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects. His research interests and academic advising benefit from the interdisciplinary opportunities of the art, design and science nexus at SAIC and focus on uneven development in the urban field, ecological urbanism, cultural landscapes, social infrastructure, the social shaping of technology and the relationship that exists between structure and agency.

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The earlier Scherzer bascule design State Street Bridge, Chicago

The once fluid, quiet landscape of Chicagou has been permanently overlayed and transformed through opportunistic desire wrapped in the cloak of infrastructural logic and curatorial obsessions in the control over natural ecologies and of communities. Becoming the city that we know today, Chicago exists with a river reversed, waterways tamed or re-directed, topographies altered and border lines inscribed. The zero-zero point on the Chicago grid that once was the busiest intersection of the industrialized world and the gravitational center of commercial activity, has migrated west into newly claimed territory as native lands were claimed and infrastructural innovation materialized in response to prior contingent speculation.

The ability to claim territory through violent displacement of systems and communities were being made possible by first, quasi legal agreements posturing as law and second, by inscribing the landscape with infrastructural systems and technologies which argued for a city building enterprise as a necessary step in the improvement of lives. By the middle of the 19th century Chicago had the most bridges of any industrialized city in the world and became the innovation hub of bridge design and bridge building technology. This coincided with the expansion of rail infrastructure and warehousing as a crucial link to an already established commercialization of the water ways linking the old world with the new through Chicago. The first half of the 19th century saw a triangulated relationship between political power, material flows and innovative technology – modernization as capitalist strategy, material extraction and material assembly.

This short essay responds to the three provocative and performative 2021 actions by artist Friederich Andreoni at a rail crossing in Skokie north of Chicago and at two bridges over the Chicago river. The videos and images capture the action, the soundscapes and the altered perception of the context induced by the actions. Anyone that has visited Chicago will be familiar with the precarious on-grade level rail and road crossings and the many spectacular steel bridges and bridge tender houses. We have inherited 7,720 public, on-grade rail-over- road crossings, over 50 railroad companies, including 6 class 1 companies demanding preferential access to the 7,000 miles of railroad in the State of Illinois.1 In addition, more than 180 bridges in Cook County alone that span the roughly 150 mile stretch of the Chicago River system – with a first wooden bridge across the river at Kinzie Street built in 1832, a first draw bridge at Dearborn Street in 1834 and the first swing bridge constructed in 1856.

Subsequent designs were influenced by French engineers who have played a role as early as 1902 in the establishment of the Army Corps of Engineers and with bridge typologies that experimented with jack-knife, vertical lift and rolling lift solutions in an effort to allow for waterway navigation and road and rail infrastructure to co-exist.

Most bridge designs were competitive and patented and the trunnion bascule2 designs by American engineer William Donald Scherzer with a complex system of gears and counterweights became the iconic design of choice with two leaves connecting and being able to lift from the center of the span across the river. Six bridges across the Chicago River system have received historic landmark designation.

The State Street bridge as site of one of the performative actions by Friedrich Andreoni was completed in 1949 after a delay in construction during WWII and is a large scale, sophisticated version of a trunnion bascule bridge and elaborately enhanced tender house.

State Street Bridge under construction, 1941 (completed in 1949), University of Illinois at Chicago Archive

The short detour into the history of bridge design in Chicago and a sideway glance at rail, road and water crossings in the larger urban landscape of the city do not reveal the more complex relationship that we have with such infrastructural artifacts and systems. Questions about formal spatial responses to this infrastructure, the need for maintenance and repair or questions of neglect, and the particular characteristics of these sites and systems inform concerns about affordances, soundscapes, appropriation and subversion by users, and the increasing density of technological overlays through surveillance and networked artificial intelligence. Infrastructural interventions – when becoming the de facto landscape of contemporary urban life – have the potential to control, marginalize and under certain conditions, enable meaningful social, economic and political participation for all. The enabling potential of infrastructure is however suspiciously fraud when inscribed into a landscape by forces from outside the communities who are being served. Benefits are often not shared in equal measure and argued for under complex layers of tactical political maneuvering.

An opportunity presents itself when imagining a future in which bridging technologies and system crossings in the urban environment and bio-regions around our cities become enabling frameworks that operate beyond an on-off modality. Such an approach can produce intelligent layers that are tunable, interactive and folded into, rather than inscribed into the environments we inhabit. We certainly can learn much from past city building processes and epistemologies and more so when observing the fractures in our social and urban fabric that have resulted directly or by default. What does seem clear is the fact that much of what past politicians and designers have organized, categorized and kept apart if not all-together ignored, are in fact coexisting and surprisingly successfully so. The formal and informal, the natural and cultural, the global and local and all those arbitrary binaries bridged and crossed in our past visions of what a city should be.

Understanding the concept of coexistence and the potential of the in-between and contingent conditions of infrastructural landscapes – physically and virtually coexisting as complementary intelligence – may produce new formats of collaboration with productive outcomes. This is also the disciplinary territory in which artists, designers and scientists find themselves surrounded by individuals and communities already in place.


1 In the United States railroads are designated as Class I, II or III according to size criteria first established by the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1911 and now governed by the Surface Transportation Board (STB). The current STB Class I railroad is designated to any carrier earning annual revenue in excess of $504,803,294. *(2019 adjusted figures)
2 A bascule bridge is a movable bridge with a counterweight that continuously balance a span, or leaf throughout its upward swing. Either single or doubled leafed. The name originated from the French term for balance scale and sometimes referring to what is meant by the English term “see-saw”. Trunnion is a French term meaning a pivot point.

1. Leon, Anna Maria and Andrew Hersher. Mapping Chicagou / Chicago – a living atlas, Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2019. *(Founders of the Settler Colonial City Project)
2. Holth, Nathan. Chicago’ s Bridges, Chicago, Shire Publications, 2012.
3. Mattern, Shannon. “Maintenance and Care,” Places Journal, November 2018.
4. Reynders, Hennie. “Gestural Topographies - a framework for the practice of reflective and critical disruption”, Swiss Design Network (SDN) Conference 2012, Lugano, Switzerland.
5. Sassen, Saskia, “Bridging the Ecologies of Cities and of Nature”, The 4th International Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism (IFoU) 2009 Amsterdam/Delft The New Urban Question – Urbanism beyond Neo-Liberalism.
6. Wilhelm, Gerold. Otankik - On the Edge of the Land that Bore Chicagou, Conservation Research Institute, 2018.

© Ch-6