Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two points of view

Yesterday I stumbled upon two iconoclastic articles about Chicago architecture, both a little surprising and refreshing in their candor. The tone of each piece is crystal clear from the first sentence.

The first began like this:

"Much modern architecture has grown tiresome to me."

Wow. Chicago architecture boosters love to boast about this city being the birthplace of modern architecture. One hundred fifty years of innovation and struggle only to be summed up in those seven words.

And this is how the second article began:

"No doubt Louis Sullivan made a beautiful building or two in his lifetime."

Ouch. My contrarian personality has to admire the chutzpah of a Chicago writer lavishing such faint praise on Louis Sullivan. It would be like an Italian writing: "Verdi no doubt wrote a few catchy tunes."

The first piece was by Roger Ebert. I've always marveled at Ebert's keen sense of observation and this piece is no exception. He makes the point that to him one of the failures of Modern architecture is that it doesn't speak to history and to the time it was made. More than fifty years after Mies' first Chicago buildings were built, they continue to seem new to him, in Ebert's words, "they seem helplessly captive to the present."

This obviously is not a problem for Madeline Nusser, a staff writer for Time Out Chicago. Her article titled "Sullivan Sullied" asks the question: "is our obsession with the past ruining Chicago's cityscape?"

Obviously neither of these opinions will be heard on any Chicago Architecture Foundation tour.

Nusser's piece was written in response to the two major Louis Sullivan exhibitions in town, "Louis Sullivan's Idea" at the Cultural Center and "Looking after Louis Sullivan" at the Art Institute. She feels that after "the city celebrated Sullivan’s 150th birthday in 2006 with a deluge of activities," all this attention to the architect amounts to hagiography, the "sanctification of his work."

It is certainly true that Sullivan is revered in Chicago more now than ever, more even than during the zenith of his career. Nusser is probably correct in her assertion that the adulation may be a bit overblown. After all, Sullivan's influence on subsequent generations of architects was limited to say the least. She also correctly points out that in Sullivan's own words, he didn't cringe at the idea of his own buildings being destroyed. "Only the idea was the important thing" she quotes him as saying.

Roger Ebert also sites Sullivan's words in his piece and speculates what the architect might have thought of the work of Mies and his followers. He says: "Although Mies is believed by many to have followed in the direction indicated by Sullivan, I doubt Sullivan would have been pleased by many of his buildings."

This may or may not be true but what is certainly without a doubt is the fact that Sullivan reserved the bulk of his wrath for his contemporary Daniel Burnham, whose work and influence Ebert lavishly praises. After the death of his estimable partner John Root, Burnham and his firm in its various incarnations, became the chief exponents neo-Classisism, all that Sullivan stood against.

That said, Sullivan's legacy, like that of any other artist, should be his work, not what he said about it. While Sullivan was eminently quotable, he wasn't a great writer. He was a blow hard. His writing is filled with an unquestioning belief in his own correctness. Often times he is simply unreadable, he painted himself into such a tight corner that he could not find a way out. This uncompromising attitude is what ultimately destroyed his career and led to years of relative obscurity following his death.

It is the profound experience of the eloquence of Louis Sullivan's architecture, the buildings themselves, what little is left of them, and the photographs that document his work by John Szarkowski and Richard Nickel to name only two, that should speak for him. The buildings he made reached for the sky but remained bound to the earth with his glorious attention to detail in the form of ornament.

Of course his use of ornament is quite the matter of personal taste. "Their modern uselessness" is how Nusser describes Sullivan's elevator grilles from the Stock Exchange Building, as seen in Szarkowski's wonderful photograph at the Art Institute. Clearly she has been sucked into Modernist ideology ironically inspired but ultimately misunderstood by Sullivan's own "form follows function" dictum.

Ebert on the other hand provocatively follows no particular ideology, he just knows what he likes.

Like him, my heart soars whenever I cross Edward Bennett's Michigan Avenue Bridge walking north toward the magnificent ensemble of buildings surrounding it, specifically the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. These two buildings may not be at the top of the list of Chicago's greatest buildings as compiled by most ideologically driven architecture critics. Sullivan had he lived to see them to completion would have despised them. Yet they are crowd pleasers along with the bridge, itself a result of the Burnham Plan. Crossing that bridge day or night is an unmistakably unique Chicago experience, one of the truly great urban experiences of the world.

Yet unlike Mr. Ebert, I am also moved to this day by particular works of Modern architecture. Their bold lines clearly expressing two materials, steel and glass, surfaces that reflect sunlight creating beautiful plays of light and shadow, gravity defying structures that appear weightless, are also thrilling to me, dare I say even beautiful. The problem as I see it lies not with Mies and his contemporaries, but with their followers who slavishly held to the dictum "less is more" (which Mies himself never did) to the point of stripping all life out of their buildings. As one of the commentators to Ebert's online article aptly remarked, "less isn't more, it's simply less."

Unfortunately Nusser doesn't make a good case for her assertion that we are bound to the past at the expense of the city. Chicago's cityscape today is a splendid amalgam of architectural styles ranging from those of the 1860s to yesterday. Preservation of historical buildings in fact has always been a struggle, it has been stymied by developers and politicians for well over a century, and continues to be to this day.

She does however tip her hand to reveal a specific ax to grind. It turns out that a couple of her friends tried to build themselves a Modern style home in a neighborhood filled with "Victorian" structures. The residents of the community objected to the proposal and it died. But this isolated case in no way represents the majority of residential neighborhoods throughout the city who for the most part have even fewer landmarks restrictions than commercial districts. Evidence of this can be found here from Robert Powers' wonderfully peripatetic blog, A Chicago Sojourn.

The most appalling part of Nusser's piece is her mindless quibble with Preservation Chicago's placement of Richard Nickel's house on Cortland Avenue on its list of the seven most endangered buildings in Chicago.

For starters, Preservation Chicago is a citizen's advocacy group, not to be confused with the Chicago Landmarks Commission, and is not tied to city government in any way. It has no power other than suggestion. In an era when all but a handful of Chicago's most significant buildings are threatened, Preservation Chicago serves an important purpose in bringing the city's history to the public's attention.

Then this remark: "You might be asking Richard who?", as Nusser snickers at the suggestion that the house of the man whose personal struggle to bring justice to our architectural legacy which ultimately led to his tragic death, is worthy of preservation.

"Actually, Nickel was neither architect nor artisan." she adds. "He was a photography student turned preservationist." The omissions from this statement are cruel and stupid. Richard Nickel was an artist of the highest caliber. He and his work may not have the same cache as artists in Nusser's own limited sphere of knowledge, but are important just the same. As I wrote in this space a few weeks ago, were it not for Richard Nickel, (and may I add, his collaborators, namely John Vinci and Tim Samuelson), and for a handful of other people who were voices crying out in the desert in the days when nobody else cared, Chicago might have completely lost all traces to its past, and today might be just another big American city, undistinguishable from Houston or Denver.

These past two weeks I brought my son to art camp at the School of the Art Institute. He has just developed an interest in architecture and every day we would take a different route to point out some of my favorite buildings. And every day we would pass the entrance of Sullivan's Old Stock Exchange Building which was saved from destruction during the building's demolition through the efforts of Messrs Nickel, Vinci and Samuelson. It now stands isolated, completely out of context in the midst of Renzo Pianomania. Instead of being the backdrop for yellow cabs and fedora wearing gents smoking cigars, it now serves as the backdrop for a garden of native flowers, with Millennium Park visible through the arch.

Although its power is diminished in its new setting, it is still a grand monument, and a great reminder that the work of preservation of our city's treasures is an important, never ending task that we must pass on to our children.

Chicago is indeed a very special place.

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