Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Photographs of the Month

It's a little hard to recall that far back, but I can swear we were still in the throes of winter when May started thirty days ago, and now as June quickly approaches, we're in the middle of summer. 

From the looks of these pictures, once again it would appear that I didn't venture too far off the beaten path; two of them were taken at home and two more at work. I did make it out to my old stomping grounds, Oak Park, sadly the second time this year for the funeral of the parent of an old friend. There I found to my astonishment, Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in mid-restoration, wrapped Christo style in plastic.

For some of the best pictures of the month, I seem to have been inspired by other photographers, myself included. As Picasso supposedly said, "bad artists copy, great artists steal."

You be the judge:

For starters, here I am copying or stealing from the best of the best, Alfred Stieglitz. Here is a picture to use the more polite term, borrowed, from the series he called his Equivalents:

May 2, Howard and Ridge Avenue
Truth be told, for this picture  I was sitting on the couch watching TV when I looked out the window and saw the late day sun breaking through some heavy cloud cover, illuminating the cupola and some details of our building. A good photographer must always be prepared.

May 4, Casa Bonita, Rogers Park
This time I had to wait for something to happen. Fortunately my train was delayed so I had plenty of time.

May 5, Adams and Wabash Elevated station

In the seventies the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, put together an exhibition called Mirrors and Windows. The idea of the show was to examine the two extremes that photographers take with their work: either self-reflevtive (mirrors), or exploring the world outside of themselves (windows). Most photographers Szarkowski concluded, fell somewhere in between. The following two photographs of mine employ literally both mirrors and windows. Where they would put me on Szarkowski's continuum is anybody's guess.

May 8, Garfield Park Conservatory

May 12, Casa Bonita, Rogers Park

Having trouble coming up with my picture of the day, I came across this zebra crossing in the South Loop which reminded me of the most famous zebra crossing in the world, the one in St. John's Wood, London. "Am I really doing this?" I said to myself as I stood in the middle of a fairly busy downtown street during rush hour, waiting for four people to show up, simply in order to make a send-up of one of the most iconic photographs in history. (If you don't believe me, google the words "iconic photographs"). Finally four people showed up waiting for the light to change and I knew I'd have my picture. I positioned myself accordingly and the three men and one woman on foot unbeknownst to them. cooperated perfectly with my plan. Just as they arrived on their marks, the man on the bicycle showed up and cut in.

Without him, this would have been a really dumb photograph trying to imitate an iconic, albeit kind of dumb photograph. With him well, it's at least a little funny. I titled it, "The Fifth Beatle."

May 23, Plymouth Court and Jackson Street
The epitome of 19th Century Chicago, Louis Sullivan's 1881 Jeweler's Building on the left, a facade that has lost the rest of its building and is now part of a residential-hotel complex on the right, and of course the L structure. The reproduction lamp fixtures in the foreground are the only unauthentic (unless you count the facadectomy) feature in the photograph.

May 24, Wabash Avenue
A very lush mid-spring afternoon in the South Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago.

May 26, South Garden, Art Institute of Chicago
Here's the front of my place of business in some lovely late afternoon light.

May 26, Adams Street
Returning from the wake of my friend's father in Oak Park, I encountered this lovely scene between a mother and her young daughter engaged in conversation. Given the circumstances, the tender moment between the two was especially poignant to me.

May 27, Red Line approaching Howard Street
The following day, Mr. Wright meets Mr. Christo in Oak Park:

May 28, Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois

Here copying myself, the neo-classical portico of the Field Museum building shot obliquely in much the same manner that I shot the Second Bank of Philadelphia about thirty years ago. The one big difference, Ionic orders as opposed to Doric.

May 29, Field Museum of Natural History

It turns out that General John Logan, whom this great Augustus Saint-Gaudins/Alexander Phimister Proctor statue honors, proclaimed that the last day of May should be the day in which the fallen soldiers of the Civil War would be honored. Soon the tradition of decorating the graves of those soldiers followed, hence the name Decoration Day, which would later become Memorial Day. Appropriately enough, I came across the monument to Logan decorated with flags for Memorial Day, 2016. Photographing the scene was my one patriotic effort of the holiday.

May 29, General Logan Monument, Grant Park

Happy summer!

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Walk in the Park

The brouhaha surrounding the Lucas Museum makes it easy to forget that the mission of the so-called "elitist" organization, Friends of the Parks, doesn't end at the lakefront. Rather, Friends of the Parks advocates a commitment to and the preservation of the parks and open spaces throughout the entire Chicago area.

The industrial ruins and decaying residential neighborhoods of the west side are the last place you might expect to find the crown jewel of Chicago's storied park system. But there it sits at the intersection of Central Park Boulevard and Lake Street, Garfield Park and its magnificent Conservatory.

Before the Great Fire of 1871, architect and engineer Willam Le Baron Jenney was hired by the commission who oversaw the parks on Chicago's west side to lay out plans for three major landscape parks and the boulevards to connect them. Jenny is most famous for having designed the first multi-story commercial building whose interior metal skeleton would support the outside wall, or in pure Chicago parlance, the world's first skyscraper. Fourteen years before the Home Insurance Building opened, the parks Jenny laid out would become Humboldt Park on the north. Douglas Park on the south, and appropriately enough, Central Park in between. Central Park would get a new name in 1881 after the assassination of the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield.

A tiny bit of the landscape of the Garfield Park community peaking though
the lush plants of the tropical house of the Conservatory.
One might consider Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas Parks and their connecting boulevards to constitute one greater park, much as you would the south side Jackson and Washington Parks and Midway Plaisance, the wide swath of park and boulevard that connects the two. The idea of a Chicago boulevard system creating a ring of parks that would connect the city and the lakefront goes all the way back to the 1840s and was the brainchild of one John S. Wright, an early real estate speculator and developer. Alas politics and the economy got in the way as they usually do, and no action was taken until the idea was picked up upon by the Chicago Times newspaper who in 1866 published a plan of a park system "one quarter mile wide and fourteen miles long" that would encircle the existing city starting at the northernmost part of the Chicago lake shore and ending at the southernmost.

The three west side parks of Jenny's would be among the first sections of the boulevard system to be realized. Unlike today's emphasis on recreation, the west side parks were designed with the typically mid-nineteenth century principle that parks were intended first and foremost to be a relief from the city, in the words of Lewis Mumford, they provided "refuge against the soiled and bedraggled works of man's creation."

Jenny's west side parks did just that. Curving carraige paths and walkways contrasted sharply with Chicago's practical but relentless street grid. Berms and strategically planed flora would wall off the everyday functions of the city from the parks' interiors. Quite the contrast from the typical architecture found in the city, the parks were filled with fanciful, ornate buildings that served as bandstands, conservatories, observation towers and field houses. The limited area set aside for the west side parks inspired Jenny and his associates to import species of plants from all over the world to make up for less than promising land features. Most of all, Jenny's liberal use of water, especially in Humboldt and Douglas Parks resulted in over fifty percent of their respective areas comprised of lagoons and small rivers.

Some of Jenny's plans were realized but yet again, fate, the economy, and a trait at which Chicago particularly excels, political corruption, all got in the way. It would take a scrupulous laborer from Denmark who had a particular talent in horticulture to see the project through to its completion. Along the way, Jens Jensen would become one of the most influential landscape philosophers and architects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It's well known that Jensen began his career in Chicago as a laborer in Humboldt Park then quickly made his way up the ladder to become park supervisor. Just as quickly, he lost that job because he wouldn't play along with the "Chicago way." Soon bygones became bygones and Jensen found himself as the director of the West Parks as well as their chief architect. Jensen, who came to love the prairie landscape of his adopted home, the American Midwest, was a strict advocate of using only native species in his plantings. Unlike his predecessors and many of his peers, Jensen did not believe you could improve upon nature.

"A great Midwestern haystack" The southern facade of the Garfield Park Conservatory
Slowly but surely, Jensen transformed the Humboldt, Garfield, Douglas trifecta into a glorious reflection and tribute to the landscape in which we inhabit. Gone were many of the trappings of Victoriana including the exotic buildings and more exotic flora, replaced by Prairie Style buildings and plantings. Jensen was not only a great landscape architect but he knew his way around a building as well. He designed the current Garfield Park Conservatory along the same principles of adherence to regional influence as his philosophy of planting. In an interesting contrast to the Lincoln Park Conservatory which looks like it could have been plucked straight out of nineteenth century London, Jensen's building, according to Julia Bachrach, author of The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks, is designed "to emulate the simple form of a great Midwestern haystack."

Throughout his career, Jensen had an on again off again relationship with Chicago and the West Park Commission. (The Chicago Park District which consolidated the many different park commissions in the city was not organized until 1934.) During one of those off again times, the baroque style  "Gold Dome Building" was built in 1928 to be the headquarters of the West Park Commission. After the establishment of the CPD, it would become the park's field house. Surely Jensen hated it, despite the fact that it and its eponymous dome are enduring symbols of the Garfield Park neighborhood that has to put it mildly, had its ups and downs over the years.

The Conservatory too has had its ups and downs, but in the last dozen years or so, much effort has been put into its restoration and today, despite being slightly off the beaten path, is one of the premier cultural institutions of this city.

Certainly in my lifetime and perhaps since it was built in 1908, the conservatory and its environs have never looked better. Most recently, several acres of land directly to the west of the conservatory were turned into The City Garden

Bridge spanning the vast lily pond of The City Garden.
As the newest public garden in Chicago, The City Garden, much like the great Palmisano Park on the site of a former limestone quarry in Bridgeport, embraces the industrial landscape surrounding it rather than walling it out. Built upon land that once was the site of tennis courts and a wading pool, The City Garden, according to the Garfield Park Conservatory website,
takes urban greening as its guiding principle, and it gives expression to that principle at multiple levels, from its structure to its materials and plantings. It also provides an important link in an ever-growing lacework of boulevards, gardens, and open spaces scattered beyond its borders.
City Garden in front of reminders of the west side of Chicago's industrial past
It is a little disconcerting to hear the rumbling of the L as you stroll through the multiple "garden communities" of The City Garden, including a grove of hawthorn trees supposedly planted by none other than Jens Jensen. But as Elwood Blues told his brother Jake when he spent the night at his place whose open window was about ten feet from the extremely busy Loop elevated structure, "you get used to it."

Although not as well known nor understood as Chicago's commercial and residential architectural history, Chicago has a distinguished history of landscape architecture. The legacy of Jenny, Jensen, Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, Alfred Caldwell and others, is one we can be proud of, one worth caring for. The City Garden, the Conservatory, Garfield Park and its sister parks Humboldt and Douglas, remain treasures to behold, no small effort, thanks in part to the tireless efforts of groups like Friends of the Parks.

Thanks folks for a job well done.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Friends of the Parks

The advocacy group Friends of the Parks, has gotten a lot of flack lately for their efforts to block the building of the much ballyhooed George Lucas museum on Chicago's lakefront. They've been called an elitist organization out of touch with the needs of the city, chastised for their (in the views of some), myopic view that the lakefront is to remain forever inviolate at all costs. It has even been suggested that the organization is racist because of their perceived obstructionist stance against development and the possible opportunities that development would bring to, in the words of Mellody Hobson, the wife of George Lucas, "the black and brown children of Chicago."

I expressed the opinion in my previous post that the construction of the museum on what is now the Soldier Field parking lot would not be so horrible as the stretch between the Field Museum and McCormick Place is already loaded with institutions that intrude upon the lakefront in one form or other, so what harm would there be in one more.

I also stated that FoP is fighting a battle of principle here, and that battles of principles are worth fighting, they're just not always worth winning.

Therefore I unequivocally support Friends of the Parks' efforts to do the job spelled out in their mission statement:
...to preserve, protect, improve and promote the use of parks and open spaces throughout the Chicago area for the enjoyment of all residents and visitors.
This is a fact the mayor, the Lucases and all the supporters of the museum need to understand. If they are truly committed to building the museum in Chicago, they need to be willing to sit down and listen to lakefront advocacy groups such as Friends of the Parks, who do in fact have legal precedent on their side, and work out a plan that will benefit all the citizens of Chicago, not just the egos of a couple of billionaires.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Star Wars Wars

Shame on me for having so long avoided the subject of the construction of the George Lucas vanity museum known officially as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Frankly it's a subject that hasn't exactly piqued my interest. Unlike the Obama Library which I think would be a tremendous asset to the city and the people of Chicago, I'm lukewarm about the Lucas venture. And unlike the plan to build the presidential library in an existing historically significant park, a move I strongly oppose, plopping down the Lucas museum in the Soldier Field parking lot, or on the current site of the old McCormick Place building, doesn't irk me much at all.

Plop away I say.

The real problem as I see it, is that the controversy surrounding the construction of the museum has become yet another symbol of the dysfunction that has come to define the way this city has been run for the past several years.

In an article written in Friday's issue of Crain's Chicago Business, Greg Hinz asks the question: "Who gets the blame for the Lucas Museum fiasco?"

According to Hinz, just about everybody involved is to blame and for the record, I couldn't agree more.

Hinz's list begins with Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his failure to make a convincing case to build a privately owned venture on Chicago's most valuable public land. He also scores very low in Hinz's book either for not anticipating the inevitable dispute over that land, or his sheer arrogance in believing that by the power vested in him, he could just steam roll over a century's worth of opposition to building on the lakefront.

According to Hinz, Lucas and his wife, Chicago investment banker Mellody Hobson are to blame because they also failed to properly sell the museum to the public, acting as if their "philanthropy" alone were just cause to grant them their every wish, including the location and choice of the design of the building. That design, to my eyes resembles a headless Jabba the Hut, clad in gleaming white Storm Trooper garb. Oh I forgot, this is not supposed to be a Star Wars museum so any resemblance must be purely coincidental.

Rahm-bashers come next on the blame list; you know them as the folks who according to Hinz, believe that anything the mayor supports, "has to suck."

Last but far from least in Hinz's opinion is Juanita Irizarry, the director of Friends of the Parks, the organization who has filed a lawsuit against the city to stop construction of the museum on the grounds that it violates the public trust doctrine, which grants title to all land created out of formerly submerged portions of the lake. to the state whose responsibility is to preserve that land for public use. In this case, one would be hard pressed to view the proposed site, currently the parking lot between Soldier Field and McCormick Place, as public space. In addition to the building housing the museum, the new project would add public green space to the site where there currently is none.

According to Hinz, the intransigence of Irizarry and Friends of the Parks, whom he claims, bear the biggest responsibility for the impasse, is due to their arrogance and myopia. They are according to Hinz,  "so utterly stuck on their own view of the universe that they ignore any other reality or need." The Rev. Michael Pfleger goes even further. He claims they are racist.

Excuse me?

Pfleger might just be parroting the views of Ms.Hobson, who along with her husband, Lucas Skywalker, has given a substantial amount of support to Pfleger and his church over the years. Hobson claims that the real losers, if her museum is not built, will be the "young black and brown children of Chicago." On the Friends of the Parks' actions regarding the Lucas Museum, Pfleger, not known for subtlety, says:
...it is unacceptable that a group of un-elected, unaccountable elites have the temerity to stand up and say they speak on behalf of our city's "public trust." 
Let me be clear—the Friends of the Parks have proven that they are no friends of Chicago. They have shown that they speak not for my community, not for the people who are dying every day in our city's streets; rather, they speak for a small group of elites obsessed with preserving the past and imperiling our collective future.
Now I buy into the idea that building the museum will provide job opportunities, directly through the museum and indirectly through the added tourists who will come to the city to visit. It will no doubt engage in outreach programs for disadvantaged children, a handful of whom will be inspired by the experience to do great things with their lives, just as kids today who come to similar programs in all the other major institutions in the city. But I'm not clear how the museum would address the needs of the people who are dying every day in our city's streets. Perhaps the Lucas's hired gun Father Han Solo Pfleger believes potential victims will learn self-defense techniques from the museum's proposed Jedi in training program.

As for Princess Leia Hobson, if she were truly concerned about the "young black and brown children of Chicago", one would think it would be of little significance to her on which side of Lake Shore Drive her museum was built. I'm not suggesting as many have to build the museum in disadvantaged neighborhoods on the far south or west sides (as if that would ever happen), which would really have had an impact on the communities that Father Pfleger describes. Rather I believe a good compromise would be to build it just a few hundred yards to the south and west of the currently proposed site, say on the recently cleared site of the former Michael Reese Hospital, a patch of land ripe for development. There the Lucas Museum would be a tremendous anchor to a burgeoning new community. 

Some claim that since it's the Lucas's money, they should get to choose where their museum goes and what it should look like. Well perhaps, but then please don't call the "gift" of the museum an act of philanthropy, call it an act of self-aggrandizement. 

On the other hand, while deep down I respect the Friends of the Parks and their mission, I do believe that in this case, they are going overboard with their assertion that the museum violates the public trust doctrine in any practical way. Since 1960 with the construction of the original McCormick Place (an egregious violation of the public trust doctrine), the ten block stretch of lakefront between the Field Museum and the south point of McCormick Place has blocked the view of Lake Michigan if not access to it. There are many who believe this unfortunate situation can and should be rectified by the demolition of the underused second McCormick Place building, built after the first was destroyed by a massive fire in 1967. The problem with that plan is the cost of tearing down the enormous structure, which would be borne by the taxpayers, would run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps more. That would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially during lean times for the city and state coffers. If the Friends of the Parks win their lawsuit and prevent the construction of the Lucas Museum, it's more than likely that the site in question will remain in all its lackluster glory, barely distinguishable from the desert planet of Tatooine, for the foreseeable future.

Personally I believe the Lucas Museum would be a welcome if not particularly essential addition to the cultural landscape of Chicago. Judging from its PR conduit, its slick website, the Lucas people are bending over backwards to distance the museum from the Star Wars franchise. No, it is to be a museum featuring the vast art holdings of the Lucases, displayed with the intent of using them within the context of telling stories. The web site is vague in explaining how they intend to pull it all off, the only clue is the catch phrase: "this is to be a 21st century museum designed to change the way we think about museums."

All this talk about the cultural value of the joint is sure to sway some of the "elite" folks  derided by Father Pfleger. However I'm not so sure keeping Star Wars at an arm's length is such a good idea. If stimulating job growth and opportunity in this city by drawing as many visitors as possible to the place is the city's main concern, perhaps a Star Wars theme park would do a better job than a museum of narrative history. After all, George Lucas's place in history is as the creator of one of the most successful entertainment empires of all time, not as a museum curator. I'm sure name recognition alone will draw people to the place at the outset, but once word gets out that once there you can't participate in a mock light saber battle, enter a sound booth where you can change your voice into Chewbacca's, or experience hyperdrive behind the wheel of a virtual Millennium Falcon, people might lose interest.

If that were the case, it wouldn't be the end of the world if the museum doesn't get built in Cbicago. But as always, nothing is ever so easy. The failure of Mayor Obi Wan Emmanuel and the city of Chicago to secure the development of what should have been a no-brainer of an asset that would benefit many and harm no one, would send out to the world the unequivocal message that this city is an impossible place to do business. 

If that happens, rest assured the Friends of the Parks will bear the blame and their chairman, the dark lord Darth Juanita, will be placed in the unenviable position of being known throughout town as the person who crushed the hopes and dreams of the "young black and brown children of Chicago." Furthermore, the entire conservation/preservation community of Chicago will be held guilty by association for being impractical, unyielding, and an unwelcome obstacle to this city's development and progress. Rest assured that whatever credibility there exists between most of the people of Chicago and these groups will be lost.

For the Friends of the Parks, this is a battle of principle. To them, every inch of the lakefront must forever remain inviolate, regardless of the current status of the area in question. If the Lucas museum is built as planned, nothing of value will be lost, no dangerous precedent will be set, and if anything, the lakefront would gain public green space. If Friends of the Parks succeed in preventing the construction of the museum, the open lakefront movement would gain little if anything, other than bragging rights. I have nothing against fighting battles purely out of principle, but there are times when those battles are simply not worth winning.

In a short while. a federal appeals court will decide whether or not to proceed with the Friends of the Parks lawsuit to halt construction of the Lucas Museum. For the sake of the entire conservation/preservation community of Chicago, all the landmark parks, buildings and institutions in desperate need of our help saving, and especially for the sake of Friends of the Parks, I hope they lose this battle.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Jane Jacobs at 100

This past week we celebrated the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, the writer, urbanologist and activist, who challenged both the ivory tower's and city hall's notions of how to design and care for our big cities.

I wasn't aware of the big anniversary when I wrote it last week, but by happenstance, she appeared in my last post as she has numerous times in this space over the past seven years.

When I heard the news of her centenary, I planned on commemorating it with a post of my own, until a piece written by my friend, the architectural historian Francis Morrone was brought to my attention yesterday. For my money, short of her own writing, it's the best thing written on Jane Jacobs.

So the only sensible thing I could do was steal it.

From the September 20, 2007 edition of the New York Sun, here is "The Triumph of Jane Jacobs", written by Francis Morrone, the man who first taught me about Jane Jacobs, and so much else.