Monday, March 23, 2009

Buildings and memories

They put a parking lot on a piece of land, where a supermarket used to stand. Before that they put up a bowling alley, on the site that used to be the local Pally... Come Dancing -- The Kinks

If there is one consistent in the urban landscape, it's that nothing is consistent.

We Chicagoans love to complain about change. Sears Tower changing its name, the Berghoff closing then reopening with a new agenda, Marshall Field's becoming Macy's.

Hey I never forgave Field's since they got rid of their toy store on the fourth floor years ago!

I'm currently reading a compendium of writings about the natural aspects of the Chicago region. One can mark every change here with a certain amount of regret, going all the way back to a time when this area was unfit for human habitation, but teaming with life of the non-human variety.

Once a city stops changing, it stops being a city and becomes either a museum or a theme park.

I read a post the other day on another blog about Medina Temple, the wonderfully wacky former home of the Shriners on Chicago's near north side.

The blogger noted "the plethora of Islamic and Middle Eastern ornament" and boasted for what it's worth, that it is "considered one of the nation's finest examples of a Middle Eastern-style Shirine temple."

(Another example of Chicago, the city of big distinctions.)

To me Medina Temple will forever evoke images of guys wearing fezzes and shoes with the toes curled up tooling around on motorized flying carpets, but that's just me.

Back in the late seventies I attended a recital there by Luciano Pavarotti. He was originally scheduled to perform at Orchestra Hall but there was a problem with the hall so the recital was moved to Medina Temple. In addition to having a beautiful interior, the auditorium had magnificent acoustics, so much so that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded there on occasion.

The concert was an incredible experience for me in many ways, I was just beginning my love affair with opera, was a huge Pavarotti fan who at that time which was the height of his career, and hadn't set foot in Medina Temple since my parents took me to the circus there when I was a small child.

I wanted to share this experience in the comment section of the blog. But the blogger took my comments to be an indictment of Bloomingdale's, (who bought the building in 2000 and converted it into a store), which certainly wasn't my intent.

In brief, Medina Temple which did not have landmark status, was put up for sale by the Shriners. There was concern among preservationists that it was in danger of being demolished. Bloomingdale's purchased the building, preserved the exterior, restored the distinctive onion domes, and gutted the interior to make room for its home furnishing store.

The building did receive landmark status after the purchase and its conversion, in 2001.

This brought up a couple questions in my mind.

The first is that a building is not just bricks and mortar, ornament and style. The wonderful thing about buildings, especially ones that have been around for a while, is the life that goes on, in and about them. They evoke indelible memories in the people that experience them. That of course is what makes the difference between a house and a home. Architecture critics can go on and on for hours about the former, but can't come close to addressing the latter, unless of course they have their own experiences of a place.

The other question is what happens to a building's significance when its function has been altered? In some cases there is no question that the building's function has little effect. I can't imagine anyone arguing that Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott building on State Street has been diminished now that it no longer functions as a department store. It is still one of the two great jewels of State Street, along with the Reliance Building, whose original function has also changed.

I'm not altogether sure that the same holds true of Medinah Temple. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that the facade still exists, it contributes a sense of life and whimsy that is sadly lacking in virtually all contemporary architecture. But like any building designed for public gathering, so much of that building's meaning is tied to its function.

Imagine heaven forbid, the Cubs leaving Wrigley Field. What would be the point of keeping that building if it no longer functioned as a ballpark?

The same holds true for a place of worship. Once a sacred space becomes secular, all bets are off. This ties in to the discussion of the wonderful St. Boniface Church in West Town whose future is seriously in doubt.

Once the function of these buildings has been removed, they become well, facades.

Buildings themselves are not living things but they do have lives of their own and sometimes those lives are limited.

I read something this weekend that touched me very much, it went something like this:

To be human you have to realize three things.

First that all mortal creatures are special.

Second, to take them into your hearts and cherish them.

Third, when the time comes, to let them go.

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