Thursday, February 28, 2019

Ten Years

Who woulda thunk it, as of today I've been writing this blog for ten years.
Happy anniversary to me!

Photographs of the Month

State Street Subway, February 11

Illinois Institute of Technology, February 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Back in the Day

The other day while looking at a Facebook site devoted to Chicago, I came across a post accompanied by this picture. The post's author asked if anyone recognized the building on the left of the frame. "Ooh, ooh..." I said to myself "...I do I do". I scrolled down the responses to see if anyone else recognized the building with the distinctive tower. One person suggested it was the iconic Wrigley Building on the north bank of the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue. Another suggested the London Guarantee Building directly across the river. Still another thought it was the Jewelers Building one block to the west. The wisenheimer in me was ecstatic as I would get to tell everyone they were wrong.

Don't get me wrong, I don't always take delight in correcting people, but truth be told, sometimes I do. However many years ago I learned from a close associate that that behavior is unbecoming, especially when it is accompanied by smug overconfidence, which apparently I exhibited when I corrected him one too many times. These days whenever I'm with friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues or perfect strangers, I usually keep my cards close to the vest, not interrupting all but the most egregious factual errors, and sometimes I even let those go. But online is different. While I appreciate my friend's advice, there is still satisfaction every once in a while to come out and say that someone is, pardon the expression, full of shit. That's probably why social media has become so damn popular, the anonymity it provides gives us the opportunity to act like a jackass without being publicly outed as such. If you don't believe me, just check out the comment section of any YouTube post.

Anyway, the confusion about the building is understandable, given that it, like the three Facebook suggestions was built in the Beaux Arts style which was popular in the first decades of the 20th Century when these buildings were created. What threw everybody off no doubt was the assumption that the building is in Chicago. It is not. It is the Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan. I know that to be true because I know the building well, as it was from the cupola at the pimmacle of the Municipal Building where I made the original cover photogaph for the book, The Architectural Guidebook to New York City, written by Francis Morrone.

Here is the picture I made from the top of the Municipal Building, you can see the shadow of the cupola where I was standing at the lower right of the frame:

You don't have to know anything about New York City architecture to realize this picture was made before September 11, 2001. It was in fact made in September, 1992, one year before the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center via a bomb placed in a rented truck parked underneath the North Tower (in this picture, the tower on the right) in 1993. That attack took the lives of six people. Engineers at the time speculated that had the truck been parked in a more strategic spot when the bomb was detonated, there was a chance the blast might have weakened the structure to the point where it could have brought the building down. My photograph took on a new meaning after that. The truth is, before that first bombing, I never much cared for the World Trade Center; in fact for the sake of the picture at the time I shot it, I would have preferred if the two towers had not been there at all, leaving the frame dominated by that great work of early 20th Century architecture, the Woothworth Building, and New York's glorious City Hall, built in the first half of the 19th Century, seen at the bottom of the frame.

But the thought that one of the towers could have collapsed, taking with it the lives of tens of thousands of people, rocked me to the core and I never looked at that complex the same way again. I'll never forget the last time I laid eyes on the WTC. I was in a taxi en route to Newark Airport. We had just emerged from the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel, the sun was setting and its bright rays reflected off the towers making them glow like two enormous golden beacons. For the first time I saw those buildings as beautiful and I resolved to photograph them from across the Hudson in exactly the same light when I returned to New York. Needless to say, that never happened.

Life for everyone, everywhere changed in both enormous, and infinitisimally small ways after that dreadful late summer day in 2001. I was reminded of one of the small ways when I decided to respond to that Facebook thread.

I didn't have a readily available picture of my own of the Municipal Building to provethat I had the right building, so I asked Google to come up with one for me. It brought up a site that not only showed the building, but described the remarkable privilege of being able to set foot in the "off limits" Municipal Building cupola and view what is certainly one of the most spectacular vistas in the city.

Here is a link to that site.

I did feel incredibly privileged to experience that amazing view, but it certainly was not off limits 28 years ago. In fact I was flabbergasted at how easy it was to get up there. Here's how I did it: I walked into the building, hopped aboard an elevator and took it as far as it would go. I got off and found another elevator that said, "tower elevator" and rode to its  top floor. Then I walked up a few flights of stairs, saw a door, opened it and there I was. There were plenty of people around, but no one said boo to me. Once outside, making sure I had something in place to prop the door open, (as didn't want to be trapped out there),  I had Manhattan, Jersey City, and part of Brooklyn all to myself, or so it seemed. It was one of the most exhilerating experiences of my life.

I knew immediately that I wanted a photograph of the view toward the the WTC and Woolworth Building, just one of many amazing views from that spot, to be the cover of our book. So I returned on a subsequent trip with a large format camera and holders filled with color film. The rig necessary for the cover photograph included a tripod, a camera bag, and a large box containing the camera. This I was sure would draw stares but once again I walked into the building and boarded the elevator with no one paying the least attention to me. Like most photographers in the days before 9/11, I felt that in order to get the picture, it was usually better to ask forgiveness rather than permission. Today that cavalier attitude can get you into serious trouble. But even then, the ease with which I was able to access this amazing place, left me feeling a little uneasy. So I told a building engineer what I planned to do and asked if was OK. He couldn't have been nicer and told me that workers in the building go out there for lunch all the time, just make sure the door didn't lock behind me. I didn't let on that I already knew that, and went about my business.

I don't know exactly when the cupola of the Municiapl Building became "off limits" to regular folks. I'm guessing that after the first WTC attack just a half mile away, at the very least my closed bag and big box would have drawn the attention of security.

After the 9/11 attacks all bets were off, everywhere. Here in Chicago, buildings that had always opened their doors to the public, ceased to do so. Even the magnificent lobbies of architectural gems such as the Rookery Building, hands down the highlight of any tour of Chicago's Loop, were inaccessible to all but officially sanctioned tour groups.

Things have loosened up a bit 18 years since the attacks, but I'm guessing we'll never have the same access to buildings, even ones considered public, that we once did.

I'm not going to trivialize the memory of the lives of people lost to terrorist attacks by complaining about not being able to wander around buildings the way we used to back in the day. It is a small price to pay to help keep people and our cities safe. But along with the hightened security, something significant has been lost. I'll give one specific example.

The US Capitol Building in Washington DC is probably the most important physical symbol of American Democracy. It's no coincidence that Pierre L'Infant placed this house of the people, not the house of the Chief Executive, precisely at the center of his design for the nation's capital city. Thomas Walter's magnificent dome was constructed during the Civil War as a symbol of the continuity of the republic, despite the great cost and grave situation that was taking place at the time. And despite a number of violent incidents that took place in and about the building over the years, from its original construction in the late eighteenth century until quite recently, this people's house used to be open to the general public to wander about for the most part, as they pleased.

I have fond memories of visiting the Capitol, walking up the same steps where presidents traditionally were sworn into office*. Once at the top of those stairs the public could walk through the doors of the East Front (in later years through metal detectors) directly into the Great Rotunda where the bodies of presidents from Abraham Lincoln to George H.W. Bush have lain in state, as well as a very small handful of significant Americans such as Rosa Parks who have lain there in honor. From the Rotunda you could wander into National Statuary Hall where each state contributed two likenesses of its favorite sons or daughters. There you could stand upon a marker on the floor and if you listened closely, hear conversations taking place on the opposite side of the great hall. That unintentional echo chamber was an architectural feature that early 19th Century congressmen took advantage of, listening in to the private conversations of their unsuspecting rivals on the other side of the hall, back when the room severed as the chamber for the House of Representatives.  

If you kept moving south, you could enter the current House Chamber even when that legislative body was in session. That chamber is one of the most recognizable interiors in the United States as it is the setting for all joint sessions of Congress including the president's annual State of the Union address. 

When I first visited the Capitol over thirty years ago, it was a little more complicated to get into the Senate Chamber on the other side of the building as you needed to obtain a pass from one of your senators. But that was hardly a problem as you could descend into the basement and hop aboard the Capitol subway which would shuttle you to and from the Senate office Building a few blocks away.

Granted it is still possible for the general public to visit the US Capitol Building, but access is greatly limited. Not only can you no longer enter the building from the East Front, but if you so much as attempt to climb the stairs leading up to it, you will be stopped by security personnel. To gain access to the building, ordinary folks have to enter the US Capitol Visitors Center a half block away. 

Here is a link to a video produced by the CVC as an orientation to what you can expect, and what you cannot expect when you visit the Capitol Building. 

As you can see, the CVC is a user friendly place that educates as well as serves as an entrance portal to the House of the People. Today, it is much like a museum with a plethora of exhibits, a cafeteria, and of course a gift shop. Naturally you can also visit the Capitol Building, but only under the watchful eye of a tour guide, no more wandering about on your own.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that access to the Capitol has been restricted, albeit in a palatable, even enjoyable fashion. After all, the building was likely the target of hijackers who commandeered the fourth airliner during the September 11th attacks, and was spared only by the quick thinking, selfless and heroic actions of the passengers of United Flight 93 who took out the hijackers, crashing the plane in the process just outside of Shanksburg, PA.  One shudders to think of the profound psychological damage the loss of that building would have been to the American psyche, especially on top of the carnage that already took place in New York, and just across the Potomac in Arlington, VA. No greater monument to the victim/heroes of Flight 93 could possibly exist than the Capitol Building itself. 

But constructon of the CVC (which had been on the drawing board for years) was put into action in response to another attack, one that took place at the Capitol in 1998, when a gunman stormed through the metal detectors and shot and killed two Capitol police officers. The bodies of the two men, Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson were themselves laid in honor inside the Capitol Rotunda.

Clearly the creation of the CVC was a prudent move to control crowds and provide security to the Capitol Building and the people inside it. From all appearances (I have never set foot inside), the Visitor Center seems to be a tremendous success from a design standpoint, as well as a crowd pleasing tourist attraction.

However I wonder how well it truly serves the Capitol and its role as the symbolic house of the people. My most memorable visit was in the mid-nineties when I had the opportunity to show a friend from Germany around. As I had already taken the official tour, I played guide and showed him the Rotunda, the hall of statues with its echo chamber, and the House Chamber which he recognized from internationally televised speeches. What truly impressed him was that despite this building being the center of government of a great nation, anyone, young or old, rich or poor, black or white, powerful or meek, could walk right in and make themselves at home, and if they so chose, rub elbows with a law maker and offer him or her a piece of their mind. 

Which come to think about it, is what participatory government is all about and what made our Capitol unique.

That part has been lost.

It's true that the CVC provides convenience, creature comforts and a meaningful visitor experience. As the orientation video points out, visitors to the Capitol no longer have to wait in long lines braving the elements just to get in, and have plenty of ammeneties to entertain themselves while they wait to get inside the Capitol. When they finallly make to the great building, they don't have to worry about figuring where to go, their guide will take care of all that for them.

As as attraction, the US Capitol has become another item on the bucket list of Washington attractions to check off.

What we no longer experience there, is the feeling of ownership. While the building belongs to the people of the United States, limiting its access to officially sanctioned tours means the public has been relegated to the role of casual observer, rather than active participant. In that sense, the US Capitol might just as well be another museum, the Kremlin, or a brewery,

More concerning is that limited access means legislators get to do their work in more seclusion than than ever before. It's no secret that our particpatory government has always been subverted by money, special interests, and less than scrupulous politicians. But by constantly bumping into everyday Americans at their place of business, be it in the hallways, eating places or the Capitol subway, lawmakers at least would be reminded to whom they ultimately have to answer. Well, not so much today.

They say that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. There are always tradeoffs, and in our world we are faced with the constant choice between freedom and safety, two ideals which are mutually exclusive. We can have a perfectly safe world but not without giving up our liberty. Likewise a perfectly free world would be impossible without unacceptable risks. Therefore a balance must be struck.

As I said, the growth of terrorism, both foreign and home grown, has affected us in big and small ways. Limiting access to our government by restricting public access to the Capitol may seem like a small price to pay for helping keep us safe. On the other hand, if we keep whittling away our liberties in small inperceptable pieces, bit by bit, everntually there will be none left.

Just something to think about.

*Presidential inaugurations (not including intra-term ceremonies following the death or resignation of a president)  took place on the East Steps of the Capitol Building from the swearing-in of Andrew Jackson in 1829 until the 1980 inauguration of Ronald Reagan when they were moved to the West Front which faces the National Mall.