Thursday, December 11, 2014

It's the Holidays: Time for Gaudi! Sagrada x 2 at the Gene Siskel Film Center

click images for larger view
Holiday traditions?  Sure, the Music Box's always kicks of the season with it's Sound of Music Sing-a-Long.  (And not to be outdone,  U of C's Doc Films has now launched their own Sing-a-Long-Alban-Berg's-Wozzeck.) But how many Christmas traditions revolve around architecture?  Not just in, but about it?

I know of at least one.  The Gene Siskel Film Center has made it it's own holiday tradition to show  Hiroshi Teshigahara's mesmerizing 1985 "cult" documentary, Antonio Gaudi from Saturday, December 20th through Tuesday, the 30th.
And this year, the Siskel is upping the ante with the local debut of Stefan Haupt's new (2012) documentary, Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation, which opens with 6:00 p.m. showing this Friday the 12th, with showings through Monday, December 29th.
Both films foncus on the ongoing construction of architect Antonio Gaudi's masterwork, Barcelona's Sagrida Famila.  While work began all the way back in 1882, it remains unfinished, and while a report several years ago speculated on a completion date of 2026 (the centennial of Gaudi being killed by a streetcar in 1926) or 2028, it remains unconfirmed.  Still, much has been done since Teshigahara's film came out nearly 30 years ago, as can be seen in the difference in the images of the structure between the two films.  A roof was finally over put in place in 2000 with the completion of vaulting over the nave.  Pope Benedict consecrated the church in 2010, but an arson-set fire in April of the next year set back the construction schedule even more.
As the work has progressed, controversy has mounted.  Back in 2008, a group of Catalan architects argued for a halt in the construction to preserve Gaudi's original vision, which many claim has been corrupted, moving further and further from Gaudi's original vision the closer it gets to completion.  It's become a cross between a holy site and a theme park, with 3 million tourists paying over €30 million to take the tour each year, a crush that will inevitably increase when Sagrida Famila's 550-foot-tall sixth tower, complete with elevator to wisk tourists to the top, is finished sometime in the future.
Haupt's film has been getting mixed reviews, but for any architecture buff it remains a must-see, telling many fascinating stories of both the building and the people working on it.  If nothing, seeing the images of the building in both films is the best way, other than in person, to experience Gaudi's grand, crazy work at something closer to the scale at which it can be fully appreciated.

The Gene Siskel Film Center is offering a discount for those buying tickets for both films.  Check out all the details and showtimes on the Siskel's website, Antonio Gaudi here, and Mystery of Creation here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Boom Town: Chicago Under Construction

Hilton Garden Inn on Wacker (click images for larger view)
Leavitt Street Bridge, 606 Bloomingdale Trail
Northwest Tower
Loyola Quinlan School of Business

200 North Michigan


Block 37 Residential Tower
150 North Riverside
former Mulligan school, after slight fire
River Point
Ability Institute of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago
Chicago Motor Club hotel
Wolf Point West
Chicago Riverwalk

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Infinity, Chicago School Style

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Polemically, the second Chicago School of Architecture was based on steel, glass and the grid, a supply-chain cocktail of standardized units repeated and extruded to massive scale.  That key formula was central to Chicago's original subway, expressed in a continuous platform 3,500 feet long, at the time of its 1943 opening a world record.  That continuity was tempered by the supporting columns being painted in a different color for each of the three named stations, and physically sliced up for good when the Washington Station was closed for the construction of never-used connections to the never-opened Block 37 superstation.

Now, however, after a $10 million renovation that was completed this summer, Harrison, the next subway station to the south, has become a striking exercise in standardization, repetition, and extrusion.   In this CTA photograph of the station in its previous state, it's a functional if slightly grungy workaday vision, tan columns, and gray ceiling, mottled with age.
Harrison Street - before
In its freshly renovated state, however, the station, at least for the moment, has been transformed into a singular, Egyptian-scaled vision.  It all builds out of just a few basic elements - classic i-beam columns painted white, stretching, Avenue of Sphinxes-like, into infinity, down a seemingly endless platform, between identical white-metal light boxes, and supporting a great, rounded central vault bisected by a stream of rounded light fixtures and ringed with alternating stripes of light and shadow.

 It's worth a visit, before it starts getting beat up from use.  Go in an off-hour, and wait until almost all the people are gone.  This nearly surreal vision, bleached monochrome, abstracted of all details, is a haunting metaphor for our antiseptic mass-standardized, supply-chain world, beautiful and unsettling at the same time.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Chicago's Second Sun: Twelve Ways of Looking at a Ferris Wheel


click images for larger view
The Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier hasn't been around all that long - less than a quarter century, and at 150 feet tall, it's a shrimp compared to George Washington Gale Ferris's 264-foot-high original at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  It pales next to Las Vegas's High Roller Ferris Wheel, at 550 feet high now the world's tallest.
 Yet it's perfect fusion of minimalist Chicago-style engineering, of geometry, light and form . . .
. . . makes it one the city's most distinctive landmarks, a visual marker visible from the beaches to the north . . .
 . . .  and the windows of all the towers with a view of the pier . . .
By night, it's Chicago second sun.  By day, it's a giant, kinetic wireframe for a star that switches off each break of dawn, a flattened disk with a coin-like edge. It's an architecture of pure desire, with no other function than to thrill, entrance and awe.  It's the thing that flares out the emotion, entombed but latent, in all the more sensible constructions of the utilitarian city.

Just as there many ways to view the city below while ascending in one of the wheel's open passenger cars, there are many ways to see the Ferris Wheel, from far and near, through the tropical forest of the Pier's Winter garden . . .
Reflected like a sunburst in the shiny new elevator structure . . .
In slow reveal from below . . . 
 . . .  and in Full-up eye-poke mode. . .
The Navy Pier Ferris Wheel was part of a 1990's $200 million rehab that transformed the 3,300 foot-long, 1914 Charles Sumner Frost's designed Municipal Pier #2 . . .
Image courtesy the Chuckman Collection
  . . . into what is now Chicago's most popular tourist attraction.  Now owner McPier is in the midst of a new $155 million renovation, designed by James Corner Field Operations.  How well it will turn out is still to be seen, but the Ferris Wheel's new setting atop a grand Spanish-steps-style staircase is one of those rare, happy cases where the promise of the rendering . . .
. . .  may have even have been bettered in the constructed reality. . .

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Lump of Coal in Chicago Architecture's Holiday Stocking: Verizon lands with a Thud on the Mag Mile

Words I never thought I would write: Bring back Lucien!
click images for larger view
This is a photograph of 840 North Michigan.  Dating from 1992, it was another retro special from Chicago architect Lucien Lagrange, who, until he was tripped up by the economic crash of '08, was the undisputed king of a style of architecture that pretended the 20th century - and much of the 19th- never happened.

As detailed on a post on the indispensable Forgotten Chicago website, this was previously the site of Holabird and Root's 1928's Michigan Chestnut Building,  where much of the seven stories were taken by the Chicago outpost of Saks Fifth Avenue, which remained there for less than a a decade before moving to its new store down the street in a building that's currently occupied by Niketown.

Michigan Chestnut was the type of restrained, classically accented, mid-rise architecture that gave the Magnificent Mile its name.  Beginning in the 1980's, however, one by one, those buildings were demolished in favor of mega-projects.  Michigan Chestnut, itself was scheduled to replaced by a 30-story tower, but when that project fell through, we got Lucien Lagrange's low-rise Plaza Escada instead.

His design, complete with clock beneath a mansard roof, stretched the classical vocabulary like silly putty to accommodate the needs of a modern commercial structure.  The surrealism of it all was underscored by the ridiculously large upper window occupied by a massive teddy bear.
The window advertised toy retailer FAO Schwarz.  The store and fashion house Escada were 840's largest tenants.  A lavish Waterstone's bookstore soon opened the basement, but folded after only four years, shortly after a Borders superstore opened just a few doors south. FAO Schwarz closed early in 2002.  Finally, after declaring bankruptcy, Escada exited in 2009.  Eventually H and M took over the FAO Schwarz space, while the former Escada store remained stubbornly empty..

Cover of U.S. Equities brochure
In a slick brochure, U.S. Equities marketed 47,00 square feet of space in what they proclaimed "The most prestigious address on The Magnificent Mile."  Finally, last year, Verizon agreed to take over 27,000 square feet formerly occupied by Escada, split between a "destination" store and offices.
This past spring, scaffolding went up along Michigan and all the way down Chestnut, as Lagrange's elegant if quirky facade was ripped away . . .
. . . .and the building gutted down to its bare bones.
The new undercladding was neutral and featureless . . .
. . . but the finished design soon revealed itself as one of the most heavy-handed and graceless to ever land on Michigan Avenue.  It's best at night . . .
. . . when the funereal granite basically makes the building disappear as it merges with the darkness. leaving only the huge windows giving a direct view into over-lit interiors.
As a sign on the outside of the building, the above-pictured display would be blatantly illegal.  As a multi-story video wall mounted on 840's short side, carried directly to the street through a huge window, it's A-OK.
In the harsh light of morning, however, the new 840 is an architectural hangover.  It's hard to imagine anything so expensive could be more shockingly awful.  It's as if grave robbers had dug up the most oppressively pompous 1960's corporate design and strung up the corpse on one of the premiere facades along North Michigan Avenue.
The building permit attributes the $5 million project to architect William E. Abbot.  I'm sure he was only following orders.  Who in their right mind would have ever thought this design was a good idea? 

Earlier this year, the owners had refinanced 840 with a $52 million loan.  Then, just last month, an East Coast developer paid $144 million for what Crain's Chicago Business called "a stake" in now fully leased structure.  So the original investors got a windfall, the new owners got control of a prime Michigan Avenue corner, but as for the rest of us, all we got was this massive eyesore.
During the day it's like a giant black hole, sucking up all the oxygen off the street.  It's like a giant,  obscene tombstone for the destruction of all the elegance of the 1920's buildings that gave the "Mag Mile" its original character

Friday, November 28, 2014

One of-a-kind: ArchiTech Gallery of Architectural Art closes in December; but last exhibition - Burnham, Sullivan and Wright - closes Saturday


 A city's character is built out of the unique things that raise it above the generic underpinnings common to all.  As of the end of December, Chicago will lose one of its unique things with the closing, after sixteen years, of the ArchiTech Gallery of Architectural Art.  You only have through this Saturday, November 28th, to see the gallery's final show, Burnham, Sullivan and Wright, featuring "drawings, blueprints, photographs and objects" drawn from three of the architects associated with Chicago throughout the world.
The show is typical of those put on by the gallery since its opening in December of 1998, initially drawing on the collection of the short-lived Kelmscott Gallery, which specialized in works of Frank Lloyd Wright and was located in the former Krause Music Store,  whose ornamented facade was the last major design of Wright's Leiber-Meister ("beloved master"), Louis Sullivan.  ArchiTech owner David Jameson was manager at the Kelmscott, and for nine years ran the vintage shop Gallery Kitsch, "known for its outrageous fashion and decor".
Krause Music Store, former home to Kelmscott Gallery
Not long after opening ArchiTech, Jameson acquired the archives of sculptor, architect and designer Alfonso Iannelli, ultimately resulting in the 2013 book, Alfonso Iannelli: Modern by Design, one of
the essential volumes on Chicago's cultural history.  Lavishly illustrated, it covers, often in never-before-revealed detail, the life and work of both Iannelli and his equally talented wife Margaret.  Central figures in their time but then largely forgotten, Jameson's book does major service in restoring them to their rightful position in the timeline of Chicago artists and advocates.
The exhibition archive section of the ArchiTech website is a treasure trove both of amazing images and highly personal and informative essays on a wide range of topics, from Frank Lloyd Wright, to Bertrand Goldberg, iconic photographers Hedrich Blessing, Napoleon's engravings of the monuments of ancient Egypt, lesser-known architects and designers such as Alfred Browning Parker and Henry Glass, and even architectural toys.
I actually had a smaller version of the white plastic Skyline set when I was a kid.
I'm hoping the website will survive even after the gallery closes, but I'm making myself a pdf just to be safe.

As I'll be writing more on next week when I take on the controversy over the Lucas Museum, Chicago's pretensions to being a world-class supporter of architecture are often punctured by its real-life actions, and the way the ArchiTech Gallery has often had to struggle speaks to this fact.

I've never been astute enough financially to acquire enough capital to become a collector, but if you love architecture in general and Chicago architecture in particular, and would some of its history for yourself, there are wonderful things to be found at ArchiTech, and you'll find it well worth your while to stop by and have David walk you through his collection.  December 31st is the gallery's published "final closing", but the last show, Burnham, Sullivan and Wright, is up only through today, Friday, November 27th and Saturday, November 28th, noon to 5:00 p.m.

The ArchiTech Gallery is something quite special.  We shall not see its like again.

ArchiTech Gallery of Architectural Art
730 North Franklin, Suite 200