Saturday, October 30, 2010

World class mumbo jumbo

I stick by my assertion that any city that takes great pains to point out its qualifications as a "world class city" isn't a world class city. Yet this small post by Aaron Renn and more significantly the numerous comments it generated, is an interesting study of Chicago, its strengths, and its viability.

Funny, where else would you see leader in freight transportation (comment #2) as a qualification for world classiness?


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Things change

It was a blustery bike ride home this evening. I had to go out of my way to run an errand and in doing so decided to take the opportunity to take a different route home. I had no idea that this little divergence from the routine would make my life flash before my eyes.

Ok not really flash, as it might for someone crossing railroad tracks and realizing that a speeding train is just a few feet away. Rather I should say episodes of my life slowly revealed themselves to me like the peeling away of the layers of an onion.

Autumn is after all the time of contemplation, the falling leaves and first brisk winds of the season remind us that things change, that the life we have settled into will someday disappear, that nothing ever stays the same. My contemplative spirit began earlier in the day when I paid a visit to a camera store in the Loop where I went to buy developer for some film that I shot last week while on a much needed one week "stay-cation" from work.

It had been a long time, shooting film that is, and paying a visit to one of my favorite locations in the Loop, that venerable old shop, set the tone for what was to come. The store which was once a beehive of activity was today, as it is most of the time now, quiet as a tomb. The shelves that were one time stocked to overflowing with at least ten different brands of photographic papers were practically barren save for one shelf. The film counter, with its once steady stream of customers was deserted, even the salespeople at the camera counter had only each other to talk to.

The errand I mentioned earlier was to drop off color film at a lab which once proudly occupied several floors of a building in the trendy River North. Gradually they took up less and less space in that building and ended up in the basement. A couple of years ago they left altogether to cheaper digs in the less glamorous West Loop. Necessity forced them to branch out in other directions and now frames and other bric-a-brac related to the display of photographs dominate their customer area. It was a lesson of survival actually, either adapt, or give up the ghost.

As I was in the West Loop, instead of heading home my normal way along the relative serenity of the bike path along the lake, I decided to take the direct route up Desplaines and Halsted Streets. Serene they were not, the streets were torn to shreds and filled with rush hour traffic. The snarly urban landscape of this route, was dotted with signs of a working city, factories, warehouses, railroad tracks. But now sprinkled in between is a college, a huge grocery store, and condominiums. Even the old chocolate factory whose wonderful smell (which the company was forced to eradicate by the EPA) once permeated the neighborhood, now houses a retail shop.

The notorious housing project Cabrini Green is all but gone as is the old Ogden Avenue overpass that provided a startlingly surreal view of the projects to the east and Goose Island to the west. Gone as well are the hookers that used to ply their trade 24 hours a day in front of the old Proctor and Gamble factory and Meister Braü brewery on North Avenue. Once upon a time, those in the know knew that the best place to buy wine in the city was in the basement of a dilapidated liquor store on North and Halsted owned by a guy named Sam. While the clientele upstairs consisted of derelicts buying pints of Jim Beam and Thunderbird, downstairs you'd find the highest of the high browed wine connoisseurs on the north side schlepping around cases of Chateau Lafite Rothschild in the musty, cramped basement. Sam eventually became respectable and moved into the old brewery which became the impetus for the development of an upscale strip mall which in turn inspired much of the turnaround of the neighborhood. He later moved his business into a warehouse the size of an airplane hangar a block away .

It hit me as I passed the brand new Apple Store on North and Clybourn, kitty corner from where Sam's used to be. "Where is Potsdamer Platz" the old man in the great Wim Wenders film "Wings of Desire" says as he walks though a barren landscape strewn with rubble and absolutely no sign of the marvelous neighborhood that once stood there. By contrast, the desolation in this area that I had grown accustomed to (and quietly loved) was gone. What was once one of the grittiest areas of the city, on the north side at least, had swung around 180 degrees. It is now dare I say, warm and cuddly.

And so it went pedaling up Halsted and later Broadway, bits and pieces of my past, old hangouts, some that have gone and some that remain, memories of people long departed from my life, events, some significant, and others hardly worth a mention, all passed before my eyes as the sky grew darker and the cold wind buffeted my face.

The funny thing about living in the same city your entire life is that although virtually your whole existence is contained in that one place, you can easily avoid the past as the city and the people who pass through it, like the waters of a river, continuously change.

Yet today for some reason the accumulation of a lifetime of experiences along that route I seldom take anymore was overwhelming. It was as if I had been thrust upon an epic (if I dare use that word) retelling of my life.

What a long strange trip it was.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chicago 1943

Today I've been looking on line at pictures of Chicago from the 1940's and this one immediately caught my eye. It's of the interior of the late-great concourse of Union Station, looking pretty much as I remember it from my youth in the sixties, dramatic beams of light and all.

Wouldn't you know it, the picture was made for the Farm Securities Administration by none other than Jack Delano, the photographer who made the great images of the Michigan Avenue Skyline which was at the time dominated by an enormous Pabst Blue Ribbon sign.

The pre-eminent scholar of the Chicago School of Architecture, Carl W. Condit, considered this to be one of Chicago's best interiors and one could say that the comparison between those pictures and this one is a trip from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ninety miles to the north

More things Milwaukee...

Here is an excellent comparison of Chicago and Milwaukee by Robert Powers from a couple of years ago found on one of his several excellent blogs.

I could go on and on spouting praises to our neighbor to the north, someday maybe I'll devote a site dedicated to the city. Among other things, Milwaukee has:
  • My favorite grocery store in the world, Sendik's on Downer Street.
  • My favorite bike shop, Ben's Cycle.
  • My favorite chain of cafés, Alterra Coffee.
  • My favorite pizza, Palermo Villa.*
  • Not to mention my favorite restaurant in the world, Karl Ratzsch's, which so I'm told, was also Frank Lloyd Wright's.
Milwaukee also has the Packers. Well, nobody's perfect.

And speaking of Frank Lloyd Wright, here is a photo of FLW's Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, WI, just outside of Milwaukee, mentioned in my previous post. It was taken on a visit there earlier this summer.

Danger Will Robinson.

*Sadly, on our most recent trip to Milwaukee, we discovered that Palermo Villa closed in July of 2012. Hopefully I won't need to add any more additions to this post for quite some time, but of course, things change.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Visiting Frank

One of the great joys of parenthood is following your children's passions and doing your best to encourage them. Architecture has been a keen interest of mine for many years, but I can't take credit for my son's latest passion, Frank Lloyd Wright. That came as a result of a field trip to the FLW Home and Studio in Oak Park at the end of last school year.

Since then he, his little sister and I have made a couple of pilgrimages to Oak Park which has the the world's greatest concentration of the architect's work, and also to the neighborhood of Hyde Park to see one of his most famous and beautiful homes, Robie House.

In that vein, our family decided to devote much of our summer vacation to Frank Lloyd Wright by visiting as many of his works as we could in his home state of Wisconsin.

Any FLW tour of Wisconsin has to revolve around a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Spring Green. It was there, on property owned by his family, that the architect built his home, Taliesin, and his school of architecture, also referred to by that name, which continues on to this day.

In nearby Mount Horeb, my wife found a home designed by one of Wright's Taliesin apprentices, the guesthouse of which is available for lodging. Her touch of brilliance insured that we would not only visit Wright, but also have the first hand experience of living Wright.

This Prairie Style home was built in 1953 for the renowned chiropractor Dr. Clarance Gonstead. Its architect, Herb Fritz Jr. as both student and disciple of Wright, designed the house in what Wright described as "organic architecture," that is to say, built in harmony with nature. This house, like so many of its Prairie Style brethren, does not stand out from its surroundings, but rather blends in, its horizontal motifs echoing the contours of the flat prairie landscape.

Typical to the style is the fireplace which is the centerpiece of the home. As you can see from the picture, this is true even in the guesthouse of the Gaustead home. The hearth, the most important part of the home is where, according to Wright, the family should congregate. It is placed not along an outside wall where it would block the view to the outside, but rather in the center of the room. This is significant because there is a strong connection between the interior and exterior of the house. Wright and his followers took great pains to make this point clear in their treatment of the windows where exterior walls typically extend without a break into the interior. The intended effect is that there is not a clear distinction between inside and outside.

To visit the buildings of the Foundation at Taliesin you need to take a tour from a Foundation member. As we had young children along, the only tour available to us included only the school, not the house.

The house was the center of the most salacious and tragic episode in the architect's life. You can read about it here. Suffice it to say, this is no doubt the reason why children are not invited as discussion of the tragedy that took place inside the house in 1914 is inevitable.

The school, pictured here, evolved from a design which was originally built as the Hillside Home School, commissioned by Wright's aunts as a school for children. Both the house and the school continuously changed over the decades as Wright used them as laboratories where he would work out design concepts before committing them to actual commissions. As the school was intended to be a work in progress, little attempt was made to make the building permanent. Consequently the Foundation has its hands full preserving the building.

The drafting room is the most amazing space in the school. It has a large open space with natural light pouring in from the windows which provide a beautiful view out to the grounds of Taliesin. The students work under spectacular trusswork beams, their now anachronistic drafting tables serving as bases for their CAD enabled computers. T-squares and triangles, other ancient tools of the trade adorn the room, no doubt more as decoration for the benefit of the visitors than for the students who probably wouldn't know what to do with them.

Another great space is the theater where students as part of their curriculum are expected to put on performances. As is typical for Wright, this is an unconventional space with two tiers of seats meeting each other at an oblique angle. A beautiful pieced felt curtain, its design abstractly depicting Taliesin and its environs, was given to Wright by his students. Our guide pointed out that upon receiving the gift, Wright immediately found fault with it, insisting that the region depicting the sky was too prominent. His students dutifully dyed the fabric with coffee, thereby toning it down a few shades.

The deference to FLW given by the Foundation guides borders on the obsequious. My wife and I have taken this tour before as well as the tour of the school's winter home in Scottsdale, Arizona, and noticed that Wright has developed what could be described as a cult following. He is reverentially referred to as "Mr. Wright" and seldom is heard a discouraging word about him. This time however our guide let slip a few good ones, dealing mostly with the architect's gargantuan ego. "Mr. Wright..." our guide pointed out, "not only claimed to be the greatest architect who ever lived, but also the greatest architect who will ever live." She went on; "I guess we'll have to come back in 500 years to see if that's true."

One thing is certain, considerable work will have to go into them if any Frank Lloyd Wright building will be around in 500 years. It is said that FLW didn't believe that his buildings needed to survive him. The cost of maintenance alone on one of his homes is staggering. He was an innovative and radical architect who was not afraid to take chances, employing building materials and techniques that were often impractical and unwise.

Despite his countless clients, the person Wright seemed the most driven to please was himself. Anyone who stands taller then Wright's 5'6" stature, certainly understands this as it is not uncommon for ceiling clearances to be well under six feet. Here is a deliciously iconoclastic post about the architect from the 2 Blowhards blog.

Later in our trip we visited Wingspread just north of Racine. Built in 1938, the magnificent home of H.F. Johnson, president and C.E.O. of the Johnson Wax Company, was Wright's last home to be built in the Prairie Style. Outspread wings (giving the house its name), radiate from the central core of the home which consists of the family room, centered of course by an enormous fireplace. In fact there are no fewer than nine fireplaces in the home.

The room is lit from daylight filtering from hundreds of window panes in the ceiling. The centerpiece of the tour of Wingspread is a video featuring Sam Johnson, the son of H.F., who moved into the place during his early teens. Sam recounted a particularly amusing story of a dinner party in the house with several prominent guests. The sound of thunder began to rumble in the distance, and father and son Johnson looked at each other with trepidation as their worst fears were about to come true. The roof leaked, badly. As rain drops dripped on the elder Johnson's bald head, he told the maid to bring over the phone. In front of his guests he picked up the receiver and demanded the operator connect him with Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright in Scotsdale Arizona. Much to the amazement of the guests, Wright picked up the phone at the other end. Johnson in a stern voice said, "Frank, you've built me a beautiful home, my family and I are in love with it, but the roof leaks. I am at this very moment sitting at dinner with the governor, and several prominent members of our community, and rain is pouring in above my head." At this point there was dead silence in the room as every word of the response could be heard by all. Without missing a beat, Frank Lloyd Wright told Mr. Johnson: "Well why then don't you move your chair?"

Sam Johnson also recounted a story about a visit by Wright to Wingspread. This was after H.F's second wife, the one for whom he built the house, died suddenly. His third wife understandably was never in love with Wingspread. When she moved in she brought her furniture with her. Wright woke up early in the morning on the second day of his visit. He proceeded to move all of Mrs. Johnson's furniture out and brought up the original furniture he designed from the cellar. When Mrs. Johnson awoke, she was astonished to find FLW sitting in her re-furnished living room. Wright said to her: "now isn't this better?" Mrs. Johnson in no uncertain terms told Frank Lloyd Wright to leave her home immediately.

He never returned.

It was H.F. Johnson who commissioned Wright to build his company's famous headquarters in South Racine. Again, unconventional is the rule. Wright designed the administrative building to be another great open space with a roof comprised of glass (currently being replaced by acrylic) tubes, which bathe the working space with diffused natural light. The roof is held up by the building's most distinctive feature, its lily pad inspired columns. As photography was not allowed inside the building, here is a link to a photograph of the interior. You can see from the photograph that the Wright designed furnishings still are in use. The open workspace was a break with the traditional office design of the time and is a testament not only to Wright's design skills, but also to the innovative thinking of H.F. Johnson whose company continues to this day to set standards for corporate ethics and civic responsibility.

Unfortunately, another innovative design as well as the most prominent building on the Johnson Company campus, the Research Tower is no longer in use as its provision of only one stair well is no longer up to building code.

Wright was the paradigm of the idiosyncratic, difficult, creative spirit. He led his life as he alone saw fit, which resulted in scandal, forcing his departure from Oak Park. Oak Park has long since forgiven, they've in fact made a cottage industry out of him. But in his home state with the exception of the Wright sites, there seems to be little love lost for its native son. Indifference was mixed with tales of Wright's egotism and his misplaced sense of entitlement all during our vacation. Part of the trip included an unscheduled stop in Milwaukee to see one of the Wright homes featured in my son's book on Wright. Since we hadn't planned visiting the city, we didn't look up the address of that particular house. No problem we thought, we'd just head to our favorite bookstore and find a book on Milwaukee architecture. If that failed surely someone at the store would know where it was. Unfortunately we failed on both counts, no book, and most surprisingly to me, no knowledge of the house.

Undaunted we headed to the nearest branch of the Milwaukee Public Library where we found a very helpful librarian who was impressed with and eager to participate in our nine year old's quest. She found out all she could for us about Wright in Milwaukee. Not only did she locate the house we were looking for, but also a block consisting of Wright's American System Built Homes on the city's south side, as well as the flying saucer inspired Greek Orthodox Church in the suburbs that was to be the architect's last design. She even added a story of her own about a long deceased aunt from Spring Green who, like many of her neighbors, did not approve of Wright's penchant for being above the trivialities of everyday life such as paying his bills.

Our intended destination, the 1916 Frederick C. Bogk House turned out to be only a few blocks away. It was designed during the same period that FLW worked on the Imperial Hotel in Japan. In contrast to his Prairie Style homes, this one has an imposing presence on the street and, as its owner describes in this interesting article, is strongly influenced by Japanese and even Mayan design, a marked departure at the time for the architect.

The south side homes are closer to the Prairie Style Wright with their exaggerated, cantilevered eaves and strong geometric lines. These were built as affordable middle class homes, an early incarnation of his much later "Usonian" designs. As the self-appointed architect for the ages, Wright clearly had his sights on bigger and better things to do than simply build homes for the wealthy. He wanted his influence to spread across all society and was convinced, like so many architects of the 20th Century, that he had a better idea of how people should live. Unlike the Swiss architect Le Corbusier whose famous plans for the city of the future would have had people stacked on top of one in other in cities that would be made up of clusters of glorified housing projects, Wright's idea for the ideal city gave each family an acre of land to tend as they saw fit, as long as they did it Wright's way of course. In FLW's "Broadacre City" there would be no political administration. It would be (not surprisingly) the architects who planned and organized the way people lived. Wright saw the automobile as the great democratizing force and even looked forward to the day when private planes and helicopters would be as prevalent as cars.

As much as Le Corbusier's vision lives on in the long discounted notion of high density public housing, Wright's vision will forever be tied to suburban sprawl, another idea whose time has come and gone, or at the very least, has been discredited.

Today we are left with as this picture depicts, the irony of perhaps the quintessential expression of suburban life, aluminum siding, cladding a house by the greatest proponent of suburban life, Frank Lloyd Wright. It's kind of fun to think that this sublime indignity may have been in some way the third Mrs. Johnson's final revenge on the Master.

All that said, there is much to admire about Frank Lloyd Wright's work. He was a radical thinker, thoroughly original, an innovator whose ideas, far fetched as many of them were, prompted to us to re-think the way we live and how we relate to the world around us. Most important he crated a body of work that is unique and stunningly beautiful.

I think it is no accident that there is something immediately appealing to children about Wright's work. Sam Johnson lovingly described in the Wingspread video the joys of growing up in a house with a crow's nest from which he could command divisions of armies of friends attacking each other from the grounds of the estate divided by the wings of his fabulous house.

My son was completely swept away by the whimsical design of the children's room in the Home and Studio. He, as I was some forty years earlier, was struck by the design of a house, the likes of which neither of us had ever seen before. Clearly, someone was responsible for creating this wonderful space and, eureka, the idea of the architect suddenly became apparent. It is not surprising that when most Americans hear the word architect, the name they are most likely to conjure up is Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright was by all accounts a fantastic teacher who had a great fondness of children, if not particularly, adults. Blue Balliett in her novel The Wright Three, about the fictional near demise of Robie House (which takes on its creator's cantankerous personality), suggests that Wright was perhaps atoning for the sins of abandoning his six children in Oak Park.

In any case, my son is completely enthralled by the architect and his work, and through this interest has developed a new found appreciation of architecture. One can certainly do worse than teach a nine year old boy that there are worthwhile things in life besides baseball and football.

And for that, all I have to say is, thank you Mr. Wright.