Fairy Tale and Myth in (Post-) Modern Chicago Architecture: Thomas Beeby’s (Self-) Critical Histories

By Zachary White

This thesis explores the concepts of myth and fairy tale in histories of Chicago architecture from 1976 – 1980, primarily through an analysis of the work of Thomas Beeby. Within the context of post-modern architecture’s broad return to narrative, and rediscovery of history, I use the theories of myth outlined by structuralists Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes to understand how contradictory aesthetic and political agendas in Chicago were reconciled via the modern, mythic, operative histories of Sigfried Giedion and Nikolaus Pevsner.

Engaging the legacies of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright in his writings, drawings, and buildings, Beeby launches an ironic critique of modern historiography. He writes myths based on myths (“mythologies” as Barthes calls them), that flaunt their ideological distortions, achieve a kind of textuality, and frustrate traditional notions of historical subjectivity. Fairy tales in particular, hold great potential for Beeby because they are “profane” versions of myth; they can freely and credibly appropriate elements of myth, while hovering at the margins of legitimacy. In particular, fairy tales offer a way to extend the self-critical project of modernism while maintaining a mutability and a connection to “the familiar” that invite the (re)integration of post-modern themes such as regionalism, the vernacular, irony, and typology.

Beeby was more interested than many of his contemporaries in suspending and representing the tensions between modernism’s positivist, Utopian motivation and the desires for memory, history, and narrative. The fairy tale—as theorized by Fredric Jameson and Jack Zipes—became an effective tool in this pursuit (in part) because it allowed Beeby to posit new patterns of history beyond the classical (cyclical) and modern (linear) frameworks. Implicit in this thesis is a broader defense of architecture’s right to write its own (self-)critical histories, borrowing elements from other disciplines—anthropology, literature, and cultural studies, art history, and so on—without being subsumed under their broader historical and critical discourses.