It’s hard to explain Tim Samuelson’s significance to the cultural vitality of Chicago. The fact that the city created a job for him — as its official Cultural Historian — probably says it all. But if you want to understand why he’s such a an important force, take a look at “Sullivan’s Idea,” the show he’s curated about Louis Sullivan at the Cultural Center.
Actually, you might call the show “Tim Samuelson’s idea, as executed by Chris Ware,” because the quality of the show has much to do with the graphic and spatial sensibilities of Ware, the celebrated comic book artist and creator of “Jimmy Corrigan” and The Novelty Acme Library series as well as increasingly regular contributor as a New Yorker cover artist .
Samuelson’s encyclopedic knowledge of a dizzying array of topics, usually [but not necessarily] related to Chicago, is nothing short of astonishing. Beginning in the late 1960s, he would routinely scan the lists of demolition permits filed at the city’s Building Department and, more often than not, know exactly what was being demolished on the site. This enabled him to dash over to the property and see what he could salvage from the building, which is why he has such an extraordinary personal stash of important architectural fragments. [All but three of the many fragments in the Sullivan’s Idea show are from his collection.]
Samuelson says he began planning the show in 2005, in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of Sullivan’s birth in 2006, but really, you could just as well say he’s been thinking about it for his whole life, given how entrenched he’s been in the subject matter since he was a kid. He says that when he first started planning in earnest, people were already starting to arrange events to mark the 100th anniversary [in 2009] of the Burnham Plan of Chicago, and that he was afraid that Sullivan “was going to be forgotten — again.” He had always been irritated that, if Sullivan was considered at all, it was always as an historical figure. He wanted to give a sense of the architect’s impact during his lifetime.
Part of Samuelson’s motivation stemmed from his personal desire to somehow go back and re-experience what he felt when he experienced a work of architecture for the first time — “the pure emotional power of a building.” He acknowledges that, because you’re typically showing plans, drawings, photos and fragments, most architecture shows fail to convey the sense of the buildings themselves. Here, by using enormous enlargements of photos taken when the buildings were new, ingeniously arranged in the Cultural Center’s triple-height galleries, he’s been largely successful in suggesting actual architecture.