Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Brouhaha

This city has gone into a tizzy the likes of which we haven't seen since "art lovers" were invited to take a peek up Marilyn Monroe's dress in Pioneer Court a few years ago. Unless you have a fetish for hairpieces, this latest scandal may not be as titillating, but highly entertaining just the same. In case you've been under a rock for the past few weeks, a huge sign bearing the letters T R U M P has been placed on the south facade of the building on the Chicago River known as Trump Tower. Since its conception and realization, Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin has waged a one-man crusade against the sign, and the man whose name happens to be spelled out when you put those letters together, real estate magnate Donald Trump. Since Trump became aware of Kamin's objection to the sign, the two have been involved in a bitter, sometimes comical battle of words that has gone viral, even getting the attention of late night comedian John Stewart. Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago has even jumped into the fray,  lambasting the sign and claiming to begin work on an ordinance that would prevent the construction of similar signs in the future, despite having at least tacitly approved of the sign when plans of it were originally presented to him a few years ago.

From what I can tell, the public reaction seems to favor the mayor and the critic over the Donald. Descriptions I've heard used to describe the sign include: "in poor taste", "an eyesore", "a blight", "an embarrassment", and "schlock". One writer claimed the sign "induced a gag reflex." Some people dabbling in Freudian psychology suggest the size of the sign represents compensation for its owner's small penis. A friend of mine whose office sits at the same level directly across the river from the sign told me: "I'm just pissed that I have to look at that asshole's name every day."

I may be wrong but could it possibly be that people object to Donald Trump more than the sign? Let's say those letters spelled out the names of less controversial, more popular folks in town, names like:

T O E W S, or K A N E, or the most famous resident of Trump's building:

R O S E.

Would the reaction be the same?

How about Chicago literary giants like:

H E C H T, or A L G R E N, B R O O K S, or R O Y K O?

Or the folks we claim as our own who helped make this world a better place:

A D D A M S, R O S E N W A L D,  or W E L L S.

Donald Trump inserting himself into a classic Chicago street scene

I bet even names of local politicians would sit easier than Trump's, say perhaps:

a D A L E Y, or a W A S H I N G T O N, or a B Y R N E for example.

In fact I can think of only one name that might be less tolerated than Trump's. That name would be:

B L A G O J E V I C H.

Could be something about the hair.

After reading this I'm sure you're all on the edge of your seats wondering where I stand on this very important issue. Are you ready? OK here goes:

I don't like the sign.

That's all.

No I don't think it's an affront to the good citizens of our fair city. I don't consider it blight, and since I have no personal knowledge of Mr. Trump's endowment below the belt-line, I have no opinion on that issue either.

In addition to the sign, there are lots of other things I don't like about the built environment of this city, but I would not suggest a law to ban such things. I don't like the building recently built on 73 East Lake street that blocks my once cherished view of the Lincoln Tower from Garland Court. I don't like the building at 444 North Michigan which swallows up the magnificent silhouette of the Wrigley Building. Perhaps the worst building in Chicago is the deplorable Doral Plaza at Michigan and Randolph, a building that would be more at home in your typical edge city built around an airport than in the middle of Chicago with its concentration of great works of architecture. Old timers will remember a time before that sad excuse for a building was built, when there was an enormous Coca-Cola sign on the site. At the south end of Grant Park, directly opposite the Coke sign, there was an equally large Pepsi-Cola sign. In my opinion, those two signs were VASTLY better than what replaced them. Where the Prudential Building now stands, there once was a gigantic Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer sign. OK in that case I prefer the Prudential Building which not only has a large sign of its own, but also a magnificent relief sculpture of the Rock of Gibraltar, the symbol of the company that built and named the building.

Forty years ago, many of the buildings bordering Grant Park along South Michigan Avenue had large signs mounted on their roofs. Most of the buildings of Chicago are not temples, they are manifestations of the commercial entities that built and maintain  them. The signs that advertise the goings on inside those buildings reflect that fact which is form following function at its purest.  I have fond memories of those signs from my childhood and unlike Blair Kamin, I don't think the South Michigan Avenue landscape today necessarily benefits from their absence.

Back to Trump's sign, I do think that it aesthetically detracts from an otherwise fine building. Trump Tower, which I'm certain many (but not Blair Kamin) have blasted simply because of its provenance, is in fact one of my favorite recent buildings in Chicago. The architect Adrian Smith gave us a soaring structure that doesn't overwhelm. It's the second tallest building in Chicago, yet it doesn't seem that, unless you are at a great distance and can judge the relative heights of our four behemoth 1,000 plus foot high buildings together. T.Tower's reflective steel and glass facade looks different at all times of the day and in varying weather conditions. It provides a graceful climax not only to Wabash Avenue from both the south and from the north, but even all the way up in our neck of the woods, Rogers Park, where from twelve miles away the building looks as if Ridge Avenue runs straight into it.

Smith is responsible for a number of high profile projects all over the world. In Chicago, he was the principal architect of the AT&T Corporate Center, NBC Tower, Olympia Center (home of the Neiman Marcus Michigan Avenue Store), as well as creating the master plan for Millennium Park. But he is perhaps most well known as the architect of Burj Kalifa in Dubai, far and away the world's tallest building.

Cropped, with a whole new meaning
Adrian Smith has publicly denounced Trump's sign. Of all the inane comments that came out of Trump's mouth since the battle over the sign, the one that takes the cake is this: "I had more to do with the design of that building than Adrian Smith did. The best thing that ever happened to Adrian Smith is Donald Trump."

One of my favorite quotes about rich people is this one from the movie Citizen Kane:

Any fool can make a lot of money if all he wants to do, is make a lot of money.

Now I'm not entirely sure Donald Trump is a fool but one thing is certain, his foolish behavior gets him a lot of attention. And if there's anything that Trump craves more than money, it's attention.

Which is why making a big deal about the sign plays right into Trump's hands. Donald Trump could not care less what you and I think. He cares about what Blair Kamin and Adrian Smith think only insofar as what kind of mileage he can get off their remarks.

Trump reminds me of the leader of an all-harmonica band we used to go to see on the far south-east side of Chicago, under the shadow of the Skyway. At the end of every set he would tell the audience: "Thank you ladies and gentleman. If you liked us, tell your friends. If you hated us tell your enemies. Either way we get the business."

According to the comedian John Mulaney, this is how Donald Trump got to be Donald Trump:
 Donald Trump is what a hobo imagines what a rich man to be. He (Trump) was walking in the ally one day, and heard this.
Hobo - "Oh boy oh boy, as soon as my numbers come in, I am going to put up tall buildings and put my name on em. I'll have fine, golden hair, and a tv show where I fire people with my children."

Donald Trump was like, "That is how I'm going to live my life. Thank you hobo for the life plan."
Donald Trump is a self-caricature, the kind of guy who proudly models himself after the prototypical villain you might find in a Frank Capra movie.

In the end, just another sign on Wabash Avenue
For his part, Blair Kamin also has an agenda. He has his own books to sell and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see his fame and sales of his publications on the upswing because of his tiff with Trump. Heck, unlikely as it may seem, maybe even some newspapers might get sold thanks to the feud. The feud which is now bordering on the insufferable, seems to be mutually beneficial to both men. But as far as I'm concerned, it's much ado about nothing. Signs have been a part of the visual clutter of the urban landscape for better or worse for time immemorial and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Some of them, I dare say, are even beautiful. Yes Trump's sign detracts from Trump's building to be sure, but it's his building and as long as he doesn't hurt anybody, I suppose he has every right to do with it whatever he wants. As John Stewart suggested to irate Chicagoans: "'s Donald Trump for God's sake, haven't you people ever been to New York?"

Someday, the building will no longer be his and the new owner most likely will remove the sign. Maybe the new sign if there is one, will reflect something more uplifting, perhaps a name like this one:

I S K A.

Kind of has a ring to it don't you think?

1 comment:

Michael said...

When about half-way through the blog I decided I would point out that other large and gaudy signage has adorned many a cherished Chicago landmark but then, as I read on, I saw that you too had drawn the comparison. Trump is perhaps the most notable megalomaniac of recent years. I believe he thinks he is serious in his wish to be the republican presidential nominee and crazy like a fox. in the name recognition race he is far and away the leader and this controversy only feeds that fact. Then again, he is almost a sad figure in his zeal to be loved. The source of the controversy is indeed that it is T-R-U-M-P which is emblazoned on his building and not R-O-S-E, or T-O-E-W-S, or I-S-K-A (which, BTW, would be pretty cool).