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.

No comments: