Photographer Lee Bey Honors Chicago's South Side Architecture with an Immersive New Monograph

By Stephen Ostrowski | October 10, 2019 | Culture

With an auteur’s lens and a passionate pen, photographer Lee Bey salutes the architecture of his native South Side.

Pride Cleaners, a personal favorite of Bey’s, adds unexpected funk to the streetscape of Chatham.

Chicago is known the world over for its architecture—parts of it, at least. That’s evident from photographer Lee Bey’s forthcoming monograph, Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side (Oct. 15, $30, Northwestern University Press), a sweeping tour of the places, spaces and structures on the city’s South Side that typically receive little attention compared to their North Side counterparts. And Bey, a former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic and current senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is straightforward in explaining why: “I think it boils down to the very ugly, but very real, issue of race and class. Once a neighborhood or area of the city becomes predominantly black, the city turns its back on it.” Accounting for over half the city’s landmass— comparable to Philadelphia, Bey notes—the South Side is “too big to ignore.”

The ornate Pullman Colonnade Apartments

Indeed, the tome—a spinoff of Chicago: A Southern Exposure, an exhibition at the DuSable Museum that Bey conceived for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial—reminds us that architecture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What we build, and how we treat it thereafter, is inherently tied to considerations political, cultural and economic. What should we adaptively reuse? Why do some structures receive landmark status while others don’t? The Pullman resident considers himself a staunch critic of “ruin porn” photography, which simply chronicles abandonment and neglect, preferring to show structures in their intended use when possible.

The D’Angelo Law Library, Eero Saarinen’s unabashedly modernist imprint on the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus.

In the book, he showcases numerous fascinating buildings, a celebratory spirit enriching the pages as they honor works as varied as Eero Saarinen’s D’Angelo Law Library at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park (“He takes the box and pushes in the sides and makes it like an accordion”); Pride Cleaners, whose soaring, angular shell cuts a laser-sharp figure in Chatham (“This spaceship of a building pops up out of nowhere... it’s striking, it leaves an impression.”); and the grand Chicago Vocational School in Avalon Park, deeply affecting with its stately facade (“[They made] this building look like a palace. As a result, it ennobles the task that’s inside”). And while Bey’s eye for the built environment impresses, perhaps the most resonant image is of Mell and Angela Monroe, sitting in their Welcome Inn Manor in Bronzeville, sharing a smile that conveys more about architecture than any finished structure can: the binding, connective power of design, and the importance of nurturing it.

Photography by: Photos by Lee Bey