Major skylines, like ours here in Chicago, are the stuff of collective dreams, reflecting a human majesty that rivals nature’s mountain ranges. Our cameras, personal and professional, swell with their likenesses. But architect Ryan Chester sees things differently, and has created an extraordinary continuous drawing of the skyline from the Chicago River, realistic in some ways but a fantasy in others, and now it’s being published as a book of sorts, but really a one-of-a-kind work of art, an eleven-foot continuous foldout drawing that slides into a handsome cardboard sheath.
It’s the kind of thing that those of us spending time in bookstores this holiday season have not seen the likes of before. I wanted to hear more about its creation, so I reached out to Chester via email.
Talk about the genesis of the project.
In 2017 a group of young architects joined the office I had been working in and began a sketch club where during the summer we would go into the city for one hour a week over the lunch hour and sketch. This opened my eyes to sketching Chicago which I had never done before. When cold months arrived, I began drawing out of the office windows and during subsequent winters I began drawing out of other windows or even other public spaces—private office buildings would, and have, kicked me out for sketching inside. I drew a series of riverfront sketches over three weeks and at that point I thought drawing one side would be a good way to draw all winter without searching for new places. I planned on only drawing the south and east side of the river but it went well so I turned around the following winter and went back to the other sides (west and north).
I only started thinking about contacting publishers after I had finished the first half. The honest truth is that I started in November 2019 and the pandemic sent us all home in March when I was already half done with a quarter of the drawing. This means three-quarters of it was in isolation in COVID days. It was all very rigorously planned; every week HAD to be one foot of drawing in length as it was a personal challenge.
How did Thomas Dyja, who contributed the introduction, come to the project?
Thomas was actually brought to me. Initially, my friend who is an architectural critic and curator from New York was to do the introduction, but the University of Chicago Press thought he was not a good fit because he is not tied to the city and also not a historian. I met Thomas at the roof of the London House Hotel on a very hot July afternoon where we spoke for a long while about all things Chicago and architecture.
Dyja’s essay is a meditation on the intersection of the city and its images; he says you “work at the intersection of real and imaginary,” which I found interesting. At first glance, your drawing looks hyperrealistic, but then the details of fantasy emerge. And, as Dyja points out, the unreality of perspective. I would love to hear more about how you navigated the lines of reality and fantasy.
The drawing is very realistic in some ways but it is a total fantasy. There is no way to see the river in the way it is drawn and it would take hundreds of photos and distortions to make it look the way I drew it. I have been giving lecture presentations on this, as it is a bit complicated to explain, but in simple terms you would need to cut the bridges in half and push the city away from you about half a mile to get it to look as I drew it.
Your background as an architect comes as no surprise given the type of drawings in the book. Are most people in your profession also artists? Any favorites?
Sadly, the art of architecture or at least the hand of the architect in drawing form, is almost nonexistent. I often joke that I am either a dinosaur or simply born thirty years too late. There are others in Chicago I have connected with that do this type of drawing or painting but it is certainly a short list.
The scale of the work is both impressive and spatially intimidating. How do you expect buyers to interact with the work? Spread out on a table and study or hang on a wall?
The original drawing is fifty-five-feet long, which is very hard to display in its original format. The original drawing is so delicate I am afraid to even move it. The book “Chicago Reflected” reduced the drawing in a foldable accordion to eleven feet so it can be spread out or just flipped through. Sections of the drawing could be reproduced at the scale it was drawn at and displayed more reasonably.
Any plans to exhibit this?
I don’t have any plans to exhibit the entire drawing but in my presentations I have full-size prints mounted on boards for viewing. If someone approached me about an exhibit of the entire drawing I would like to see how it could be done. Fifty-five feet is a big room with a blank wall.
Any future projects like this in the works?
I actually went to the top of the Willis Tower two years ago and took dozens of photos with the intent of drawing a twelve-foot-long image representing a 360-degree view looking down on the city. I started working on it but had to stop since life gets in the way. I have plans for others but being an architect with a family makes big plans hard to manage.
Another project I have been drawing is of demolished Chicago buildings in their contemporary context so people familiar with the city can see where these incredible buildings were and what we once had. I have done seventeen drawings so far with the intent to draw another twenty-three. I do want to keep creating images to celebrate Chicago as it is a very special place to me. I try to post a drawing of the city to social media each week so I never really stop drawing.
“Chicago Reflected: A Skyline Drawing from the Chicago River”
By Ryan Chester
University of Chicago Press