Friday, April 30, 2010

Mies on the cheap

Here is another so so Chicago creation of Skidmore Owings and Merrill that replaced a magnificent building. This is the Bank of America, formerly the LaSalle Bank, formerly Talman/Home, originally the Home Federal Building. It's located on the southeast corner of State and Adams Streets and it was built in the early sixties to replace the Republic Building (pictured below), built in 1905 by the firm of Holabird and Roche.

H & R could very well have been the S.O.M. of its day, certainly it was one of the most prolific architectural firms in Chicago when it was cranking out dozens of well respected, highly functional office towers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The firm's successor, Holabird and Root is responsible for many of the great Art Deco towers in Chicago and that firm is still in existence. Like S.O.M., some of Holabird and Roche's buildings were bona fide masterpieces. The Republic Building was one of them.

Louis Sullivan and John Root may have been the geniuses and spiritual forces behind the Chicago School of Architecture, but none of their buildings adhered to the ideals of the movement as closely as the work of H&R. With its high window to wall ratio, its narrow, extended piers and recessed spandrels that expressed the building's soaring height, the Republic Building could very well have come the closest of all Chicago buildings to expressing Sullivan's dictum that "form follows function". It was perhaps the quintessential Chicago School building.

The photograph below from the Historic American Buildings Survey was made not long before the Republic's untimely demolition in 1961. You can see from the picture that the building appears to be in excellent condition, its beautifully detailed cornice intact and its terra cotta facade still white, free of the grime that covers many of our older buildings. At nineteen stories (expanded from the original twelve in 1909), the Republic was four stories taller than its successor. It is indeed a curiosity why this great building was destroyed to be replaced by a smaller, unquestionably inferior building.

Also visible is the sign on the building on the right edge of the picture, indicating the former home of Home Federal Savings. That building stands today, currently in transition. It too is a wonderfully vertical building, its narrow windows divided by tightly spaced piers are a marked contrast to the Chicago style windows of the Republic Building.

I have no specific information about the details of the transition so I can only guess that the brass of Home Federal deemed the Republic simply too old fashioned for its purposes. The prevailing wind at the time was Modernism and the company that built the current building was building itself an image. Tearing down a perfectly serviceable building in order to build a smaller one made the statement that the bank's resources were solid enough to be able to make a seemingly impractical business move. And it made the statement that it was thinking about the future, which at the time meant Modern.

The architects of the International/Modern Style elaborated on the idea of form following function with an axiom of their own, "Less is More". The term was adopted by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (from a poem by Browning) to define his own work. At the center of the International Style, Mies along with Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier created work that was clean, elegant, and deceptively simple. Their best work was defined by transparency and the illusion of lightness, by the expression of structural components and the lack of obvious ornament. Whether they succeeded in the last point is a matter of serious debate.

These architects achieved their ends in part with the extensive use of steel and glass instead of masonry. When they were new, International Style buildings glistened and sparkled in contrast to the stone facades of older buildings which in the late fifties boasted a patina of years worth of soot and grime that gave the Loop a dingy atmosphere.

A distinctive technique of Mies and his followers was to weld narrow I-beams to the piers which served no functional purpose other than to create rhythm and break up the flat plane of the surface of the facade. These "ornaments" if you will, gracefully emphasized the verticality of the buildings as did the extended piers in the Republic Building.

Another feature that fits into the language of Modernism is the architectural promenade that invites people to be within without actually entering the building, by placing an open walkway created by recessing the walls of the first floor or two from the piers that support the structure of the building. This feature also contributes to the illusion of lightness as without a solid base, Modernist buildings appear to almost be floating in space.

As mentioned above, Skidmore Owings and Merrill is responsible for many of the iconic buildings of International Style Modernism in Chicago and elsewhere. Manufacturer's Hanover Trust at Fifth Avenue and 43rd and Lever House on Park Avenue and 53rd in New York City, and the Inland Steel Building at Monroe and Dearborn in Chicago are three highly influential, enduring landmarks of Modernist architecture.

The Home Federal Building falls far short of any such distinction. While it employs all the vocabulary of the Modernist language, the whole does not add up to the sum of its parts. As a result Home Fed does not appear weightless but dark and ponderous.

Its black glass facade sucks more light out of State Street than it reflects. The I-beams welded to the facade, instead of creating a graceful rhythm, appear superficial and tacked down. The architectural prominade is not inviting at all as it is extremely narrow, allowing room for only one person, and a somewhat thin person at that.

It is very instructive to study how these elements of style can be used to great effect one short block away in the Federal Center of Mies van der Rohe. Mies was a master of creating rhythm and texture by using a minimal bag of tricks. His attention to detail is unsurpassed and as similar the style of Home Fed and the Fed Center are, the contrast between two is striking.

Today, Home Fed is almost the age that the Republic Building was when it was destroyed.
With its clean lines, emphasis on structure and the technology that made it all possible, the style of Chicago School buildings like the Republic were clearly precedents for much of Modernist architecture. The Republic Building was graceful, appeared light and transparent and used ornament sparingly, compared to its contemporaries. As such it satisfied most of the goals of International Style architecture in ways that its successor did not. From our point of view in the year 2010, a first rate one hundred year old building gracing one of our most significant streets certainly would be preferable to a less than second rate fifty year old building.

Most telling I think is that had the Republic Building survived for another decade it would more than likely have achieved landmark status all but insuring its continued survival, while its successor does not even merit a mention in the extremely comprehensive AIA Guide to Chicago Architecture.

Given all this, Home Fed did have one redeeming aspect. The banking floor on the ground level was the paradigm of sixties sleekness and elegance. Warm wood paneling and abstract art from the time evoked that period as few other interiors in Chicago. They could have filmed the sixties period piece "Mad Men" there. The room conjured up memories of hair sprayed bouffants, fedoras and three martini lunches. Unfortunately, the one endearing feature of this Modern building was apparently not modern enough for the new owners who decided to update it last year. They made the new room as impersonal, uninspired and indistinctive as a fast food restaurant. Like any chain establishment, this new banking room could be located anywhere, which I guess is precisely the point.

Perhaps this is a fitting legacy for a building whose very creation hinged upon the destruction of a magnificent building, but the room's loss is a shame nonetheless.

Fixing a Hole

Dig an enormous hole in an industrial area in the middle of the city for over one hundred thirty years. Then fill it with garbage for thirty more years. What would you do with such a piece of land after it is used up? You may not think this would be a promising site for a city park but that's exactly what has been done in the Bridgeport neighborhood on Chicago's south side.

Stearns Quarry provided the limestone blocks that shored up the city against the lake, as well as lime and crushed stone for concrete and other purposes from 1833 to 1970. When the quarry closed, the site was used as a dump for construction refuse and ash from a north side incinerator. This activity created a landscape of ridges and valleys, not exactly of Grand Canyon proportions to be sure, but quite unusual for a region whose natural topography has all the contours of a Formica counter top.

The creators of Stearns Quarry Park, which opened in 2006, took advantage of this unlikely site and created one of Chicago's, newest, most unusual, and in my opinion most spectacular parks.

Chicago parks traditionally place landscape at one end of the functional spectrum and recreation at the other. Most of the city's larger parks combine carefully designed landscapes emulating nature in one guise or other in one part of the park, and recreational amenities such as ball fields, playgrounds, and field houses in another.

The former Stearns Quarry is located directly north of McGuane Park, one of only a handful of parks in Bridgeport. Its location could not have been more serendipitous when it was turned into a park as it provided the landscape counterpoint to the strictly recreational McGuane. As a landscape, SQP is not a traditional landscape park which in Chicago implies a design that attempts to be as invisible as possible. By contrast, here the human element is ever present employing an elevated boardwalk and arrow straight trails that lead you through the park under the architect's direction. One may be put off by this highly regulated style of landscape design but in the context of this particular park, it works to stunning effect.

The centerpiece of the park is what's left of the quarry at the northwest corner of the park. Here the limestone bedrock of Chicago is exposed forming at 25 foot cliff surrounding a pond that is stocked with game fish. This corner of the park resembles in miniature the canyon area of Matthiessen State Park about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. The pond is fed by a stream that flows down a terraced rock bed from a fountain which is fed in turn from runoff rain water diverted from sewers in the neighborhood. This is just a small part of the push toward sustainability, which is an integral part of the park's design.

Another "green" feature of the park is limiting the introduction of plants to species native to this region. Apart from a specific philosophy of landscape architecture, this eliminates the need for any excessive fertilization or irrigation.

From the depths of the quarry, the paths lead you up to the heights of the mounds, the highest of which is 33 feet above street level. While not exactly a dizzying height, the mounds do provide a fantastic view of the neighborhood and the Loop some five miles away.

Bridgeport was settled by immigrants from diverse cultures, attracted by the employment opportunities made possible first from the construction of the Illinois-Michigan Canal, then the stockyards and dozens of other industries. The number of church spires visible from the tops of the mounds attest to this fact, as do the modest, well kept homes that surround the park.

The genius of the Stearns Quarry Park is that it does not hide the industrial legacy of the neighborhood but embraces it. From the mounds on the east edge of the park you gaze upon the small manufacturing companies that continue to do business across Halsted Street. The larger panorama from up above provides a view of miles and miles of residential neighborhoods mingled with industry. The view is peppered with smoke stacks, water tanks, power lines and the Stevenson Expressway. Beyond the expressway is a terrific view of the skyscrapers of the south Loop skyline. Jets frequently pass above making their way to and from Midway Airport, about five miles southwest of the park. While the industrial features may not be enticing to all, anyone with an interest in Chicago, its history, and the city environment in general will truly marvel at the magnificent view.

Most significant of all is that this is a neighborhood park serving the needs of its community. The day I was there, a beautiful Saturday in early spring, the park was populated with a diverse crowd, all seeming to get a terrific charge out of strolling through this unique park. And virtually everyone I encountered smiled and said hello. Not bad for an old pit in the middle of a big city.

The Chicago Park District has put together as one in a number of a series of audio guides, this excellent tour conducted by my friend, CPD's official historian Julia Bachrach. In the tour you will also hear the voices of the park's architect Ernest Wong, and Park District project managers Claudine Malik and Bob Foster. From the linked page there is another link that will take you to a PDF map of the park.

By all means go and experience this amazing view of Chicago's past, present and future.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Northwestern Station

I've never been much of a fan of the architect Helmut Jahn. I find that his work typically conveys bombast over quality and sensitivity. But his buildings are always interesting and often a notch or two above much of the work of his contemporaries.

In the Eighties, Chicago's second grandest railway terminal, the Chicago and Northwestern Station, was razed to make way for this office building of Jahn's. The tower was christened Citycorp Center and the terminal portion has been recently renamed Ogilvie Transportation Center in honor of one of the very few Illinois governors who did not end up in jail after serving his term in office.

Not bound by the purist (and false) Modernist dogma of pure functionalism, Jahn designed a building of arches and monumental spaces, all the hoopla that defined Art Deco revival. It casts a striking silhouette on the skyline.

The old Northwestern Station designed by Frost and Granger and built in the Renaissance revival style in 1911 was magnificent. Like the original Union Station concourse, it made a great first impression on travelers who arrived from far and wide until the mid-sixties when its namesake railroad discontinued long distance passenger service. Unlike its larger counterpart down the street, all those entering Northwestern Station would pass through the grand waiting room under the building's most imposing feature, its beautiful Guastavino tile ceiling, common elsewhere but rare in Chicago.

In its later days, as the clerestory windows of the waiting room had been tarred over, the waiting room was not bathed in natural light. But the lack of natural light was made up by the warm tones of the tiles and the massive green marble columns holding them up. By the time of its demise in 1984, the interior was filled with so many kiosks and illuminated signs, it was difficult to see its true beauty which was revealed one last time by the wrecking crew.

The old station is truly missed by all who knew it. It was a great building that harkened back to the golden age of travel in America, and was a landmark that was well worth saving.

Given that, its replacement is frankly not all that bad, especially if you compare it to the other commuter rail terminals in town, all built in the last forty years to replace much better, older stations. Faint praise indeed. Yet at OTC there is still the sense of having arrived after getting off your train from the suburbs and entering the impressive steel and glass interior. The building is at its best at rush hour when the throngs are hurrying to or from their trains. It is then that the beehive of activity that marks the urban experience is most evident.

Unfortunately this place is all business. While there are lots of places to buy stuff or to eat and drink, save for an uninviting and embarrassingly small waiting room trackside, this is no place to sit down to watch all the activity.

Efficient use of valuable property I suppose, the entire reason for the building's very existence and the glorious old one's demise.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Union Station

The tour of my list of unfortunate architectural contributions to our city continues with this uninspiring box that sits above the concourse of Union Station in the West Loop. The tower in the photograph on the right is Gateway Center III and the squat black building on the left is the MidAmerica Commodity Exchange. Both are the work of the inescapable firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill.

In a previous post I listed two criteria for truly awful buildings. This one meets both. Any building fronting the river sits on a prominent location and as such the architects have a responsibility to respond in kind with a building of at least some distinction. Can't see much in the cracker box tower. The Exchange Building at least has a trace of relevance, the estimable AIA Guide to Chicago describes it as "a supine version of the John Hancock Center."

And any building that replaces a beloved building faces the inevitable comparison to its predecessor that is more often then not, negative, often to the extreme.

I have a particular ax to grind with this one as I had a history with the original concourse building of the Union Station complex. When I was a small child, my grandparents would often take me Downtown on Sunday afternoons. One of our favorite haunts was Union Station which at the time consisted of two buildings. The headhouse still exists west of Canal Street. You can just barely see it in this photograph peeking over the addition on the left. The great waiting room was there as it still is, without a doubt one of the finest extant interiors in Chicago. East of Canal in a separate building was the concourse building.

As great as the waiting room is, the interior of the concourse was arguably better. This was the first experience of Chicago that travelers from all over the country had as they disembarked from trains that had names like the Hiawatha, the Broadway Limited and the California Zephyr. And what an experience it was. The roof as you can see from this postcard rendering, was held up by arched trusses that were supported by iron posts, inspired by the concourse of the late, great Pennsylvania Station in New York. Chandeliers suspended in mid air illuminated the great space when golden beams of sunlight didn't stream through the windows. When you got off your train and walked into that space, you knew you had arrived at someplace special.

This wasn't the only train station in Chicago by a long shot, but it was the grandest. It was the place where I fell in love with trains. While Union Staton was more often than not our Sunday destination, every once in a while we'd actually hop on a train, usually one of the commuter lines, the Burlington to Aurora, or the Milwaukee Road to Elgin. Then there was our annual summer trip to Milwaukee aboard the Hiawatha with its beautiful skytop lounge car designed by Brooks Stevens. Here it is from the inside.

I remember coming back from those trips, getting off the train and the great concourse welcomed us back home like an old friend.

The end came around the time the railroads gave up on passenger service and the national passenger service Amtrak was born. Everything became stripped down and the grand concourse was deemed superfluous as there was no revenue generating possibility in it as was the case with the offices across the street in the headhouse.

I don't remember how I felt when I heard the news, as a child I was probably swayed by the propaganda of the time that you can't interfere with progress. There was an allure back then that I succumbed to of the new, the shiny, the modern, as opposed to the dingy, old buildings that symbolized the dark ages to many. I do remember my last few visits, disembarking from the Elgin train, seeing the place illuminated by the fading orange light at the end of the day and realizing that it soon would be no more. And I remember watching from the Adams Street bridge as the headache ball rammed into the clerestory window above the columns of the east side of the building as the grand old building stubbornly gave up her ghost.

The construction of the new building lasted a year or two, and during that time you'd get off the train and be guided through construction tunnels that led either to the street above or to the waiting room which back then looked a little threadbare . Eventually the new building opened and it didn't appear much different than when it was under construction. Instead of great vaulted ceilings that reached forty feet up or more, you had dropped ceilings, 10 feet high if you were lucky, covered with acoustic tiles. The new joint was designed to be functional and efficient, but was neither, and the once grand arrival into Chicago was replaced by a whimper, or more tragically a whatever.

The destruction of Union Station mirrors that of Penn Station in a few ways. The two buildings were state of the art train stations built toward the end of the golden age of rail travel. Both had similar architecture, Union Station being greatly influenced by the design of Penn's a decade earlier. And both were replaced by buildings that were so bad they had to be reworked several times during their existence. Penn Station's replacement itself has often been threatened with demolition. We're not so fortunate here.

The interior of the Union Station concourse was remodeled in the nineties. While it doesn't come anywhere close to the magnificence of what was lost forty years ago it is much more palatable today than it was when it first opened.

As for the exterior well...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Location, location , location

Great buildings are great buildings, period. Lousy buildings are like wrong notes in a symphony, it all depends on where they are.

Chicago has many great buildings that are great for many reasons. I wouldn't put together a list my ten favorite buildings because I like different buildings for different reasons. We have lots of bad ones too but most of them can easily be ignored because they are set amongst other bad buildings. It's all about location. The truly bad buildings are the ones that bring an otherwise wonderful neighborhood or street scene down a notch or two simply because of their presence.

I mentioned in my previous post the Perkins and Will building at 444 North Michigan. All in all it's a dull but innocuous Modernist building, not terribly offensive apart from the fact that it towers over the Wrigley Building, cutting off that great building's silhouette from the sky, sucking the life out of a once breathtaking view up Michigan Avenue. It's the architectural equivalent of a squeaking clarinet in the middle of the slow movement of a Mozart concerto.

An other criterion for the road to architectural perdition in my book is based upon what the bad building replaced. An ironic tradition in Chicago is that the better the building torn down, the crappier the replacement. More than one unquestionable masterpiece of Chicago architecture was replaced by a parking lot. Some replacement buildings were so insignificant, they disappeared without anyone taking notice. Others live on in infamy, constant reminders of the failures of our stewardship of architectural heritage.

Making a list of ten or so examples of architectural malaise based upon these criteria will be easy, something I plan to do over the next couple of weeks in this space. By contrast I'll also look at some of the great buildings of this city that have taken full advantage of their prominent locations.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The view up the street

We live on Ridge Boulevard in Rogers Park three blocks short of Evanston. If you drive south on our street in the direction of the Loop, the prominent building of the city skyline is Trump Tower, the new 92 story Skidmore Owings and Merrill giant, now the second tallest building in Chicago. From our neck of the woods, it appears that Ridge leads directly up to the building some 11 miles away. (It does not as the street merges into Hollywood which in turn feeds into Lake Shore Drive).

The other evening as the kids and I were on a little adventure driving into the city, the late day sun filtering through a thin cloud cover bathed Trump Tower in glorious yellow-orange light. The tower's glass surface reflected the light back at us making it shine gloriously off in the distance. The kind of light that time of day makes everything beautiful but this was particularly magical. Picture the Yellow Brick Road leading to the magical city of Oz, minus the Munchkins of course and you get some idea.

Cities with grid shaped plans typically afford few opportunities for buildings to be focal points at the end of streets, as most streets just lead off into infinity, or so it seems. Fortunately the Chicago grid plan is occasionally broken up by diagonal streets, like Ridge that once were trails before the street plan was conceived. The grid is also broken up on occasion when a street will jog one way or other, or will dead end to create the opportunity for a building to be the focal point of a street vista. Two of the most famous examples in Chicago are pictured here. The Wrigley Building on the left dominates the view of Michigan Avenue south of the river, and the Board of Trade building pictured below, terminates the canyon of office buildings on La Salle Street north of Jackson.

As you can see, the view of the Wrigley Building has been greatly compromised by the construction of the massive, box like office building just to the north at 444 N. Michigan. This brings to mind one of the most egregious destructions of a street view anywhere, the building of the Pan Am (now Met Life) Building in New York which forever changed the magnificent Park Avenue vista featuring the glorious New York Central (now the Helmsley) Building and Grand Central Terminal. By contrast, in the case of the Michigan Avenue view, the later construction of the 900 N. Michigan, and the Park Plaza Buildings nearly one mile to the north, with their elaborate rooflines peeking over 444 N. Michigan, celebrate the exuberance of the Wrigley Building, if not entirely liberating it from the banality of a vastly inferior building.

Fortunately the Board of Trade Building has not suffered a similar fate. It's hard to imagine a project that would dare to interfere with this classic view of Chicago, although one never knows.

The aforementioned Trump Tower is now the focal point of Wabash Avenue, both to the south and the north, as the street jogs west as it crosses the river, then back east on the other side of the Tower. Its construction added a new dimension to this view up South Wabash Avenue which has remained relatively unchanged since this poster was created for the Chicago Elevated Lines* in the 1920s.

There are many examples of buildings in prominent locations commanding a street view, The Art Institute, where Adams Street dead ends into Michigan Avenue, The Field Museum, which dominates the downtown stretch of southbound Lake Shore Drive , and of course Chicago's most iconic building, the Water Tower, where Michigan Avenue jogs east at Chicago Avenue. These three are all examples of streets built to accommodate buildings, not the other way around.

Then of course there is the entire wall of buildings on Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Roosevelt Road which front Grant and Millennium Parks, the most prominent location in Chicago.

Architects have used prominent locations in town to great advantage creating some of the magnificent cityscapes that define this city.

Perkins and Will, the architects of 444 N. Michigan, dropped the ball on that one. More on the highs and lows of exploiting location to come.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Another opening day

I failed to mark the first anniversary of this blog last February but today provides me the opportunity to continue a yearly tradition of sorts, one I began exactly 364 days ago marking opening day for Chicago's baseball teams.

It is a special day especially for baseball fans in this town as it is the one day every year when in the morning at least, the Cubs and the White Sox are assured to be in first place. Hope indeed springs eternal as both teams are good enough this year to have a chance at least to make the playoffs in October, and perhaps beyond.

It is that hope that makes this day so special in a city whose professional sports teams, especially the ones that play baseball, have very little to show for their combined 256 years of existence.

That point was driven home as we watched two TV shows that aired consecutively last night, "What it Means to Be a White Sox" and "What it means to be a Cub". Both shows brought back fond memories for longtime Chicagoans such as myself, featuring memorable, if not great players from mostly second place teams.

The exceptional Chicago team of course is the 2005 White Sox who not only made it to the World Series but won it in impressive fashion by sweeping the Houston Astros in four games. Unfortunately it was the only World Series win of a Chicago team in the 51 years I've been on this planet, and only the second appearance in a World Series of a Chicago team in that time. It was also the only Chicago baseball championship in my mother's life although she lived through six Chicago World Series. I doubt if she remembers most of them however as three of them occurred before she was seven years old.

Making a point of the futility of being a Cub fan, long time radio broadcaster Pat Hughes speculated what it might be like someday to be the first Cub announcer to ever say over the air; "The Cubs have won the World Series". The last time the North Siders won the Fall Classic was in 1908, long before baseball games were broadcast on the radio.

But today is not a day to be negative, it's one hour or so before Mark Buehrle's first pitch on the South Side, and about three until Atlanta where the Cubs will open against the Braves, and all is definitely well in Chicago.

As I did last year, I am providing links to two of my favorite pieces of writing on the greatest game ever invented, two pieces that bespeak of the bittersweet essence of the game that perhaps today only a true Chicago Cub fan can understand fully. They are the late A. Bartlett Giamatti's lovely "The Green Fields of the Mind", and Ernest Thayer's famous poem "Casey at the Bat".

Here's to opening day and the two happiest words in the English language:

Play ball!

June, 19, 2009, the day my boy fell in love with baseball.

Post script: Mark Buehrle pitched seven brilliant shut out innings and added an incredible play of his own in the field to lead the White Sox to a 6-0 win over the Cleveland Indians.

Meanwhile the Cubs lost 16-5 against the Atlanta Braves marking their worst opening day performance since 1884.

But hey, it's a long season.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Urban renaissance

In of all places, Charlotte, NC.

The rebirth of the city hits the mainstream media. It's about time.