Monday, July 28, 2014

What's red and blue and on a mezzanine? CTA's new Division and LaSalle entrance debuts

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If you encounter it in the just the right place, you might feel you've fallen into the blood elevator scene from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The crisp red tiles of the new entrance mezzanine at Division and LaSalle - the first anywhere along the Red Line subway since it's opening seventy years ago - just have a way of burning their way into your retina, a strong navigational focus point that leads you to the escalator, stairs, and elevator to and from the platform.

The station's original entrance at Clark and Division is now temporarily closed as it also undergoes a major rehab for the first time since its opening in 1943.  Back then, it was more of a workaday neighborhood.  According to the station's history on the essential, there was even a direct mezzanine-level entry to the Mark Twain Hotel(!). As the surrounding neighborhood first sank and then went more and more upscale, the original crisp design of the station became increasingly derelict, leading Tribune transportation report Jon Hilkevitch to label it “among the tackiest and most dilapidated on the CTA system.”

A 1999 plan had a $15 million price tag, but the time the issue was revisited a few years later, the budget had exploded to $102.5 million.  A new design was completed in 2011, but $30 million in funds earmarked for Clark and Division were diverted to cover the $67 million cost of rehabbing the Red L stop at Grand. By the time the project was relaunched in 2012, the cost was cut almost in half, to $50.6 million, largely by not trying to keep streets open during construction, but shutting down Division for a year, simplifying the construction staging.
The new 8,800 square-foot mezzanine at Division and LaSalle actually opened two months ahead of schedule, at the end of June.  The worst part of it are those truly abominable giant sea slug street entrances to which the CTA seems addicted.    Lumbering, over-scaled, thick limbed and graceless, anything farther from the classic, spare elegance of Chicago design would be hard to imagine  At least on the northeast corner, there's the lightness of the Richard Haas to provide an ameliorating backdrop.
The mezzanine itself follows the new standard of being capacious and bright, with a light-reflective metal ceiling, and those now ubiquitous light-blue tiles with slightly darker tiles depicting a could-be-anywhere skyline.  (For this kind of money, couldn't we afford something less generic?)
Red appears again in thin banding tiles that makes the navigational signage pop.  
There are escalators and an elevator, which no doubt were cheaper to build here, than trying to insert them into the existing entrance at Clark Street.
At platform level, the previous concrete vaults are given the mosaic treatment to make the space seems appear brighter and more welcoming. 
The original and rehabbed and expanded station are both expressions of their respective times.  The 1940's stations were compact and utilitarian, but with a definite Moderne vibe that was allowed to tarnish and submerge under decades of neglect and hacked revisions.  Platforms, also, were spare, unashamed bare concrete outer walls of the tube or the long perimeter of steel columns that kept the whole thing standing.  Seventy years ago in Chicago, the very idea of a subway was a novelty and the frank design an object of delight, tying together the subway to the great retailers of State Street with dedicated mezzanine-level entrances.   In the midst of a time of war, an austere decor didn't really qualify as a privation.
Today, in contrast, we require everything to be flooded with light, surfaces bright, and spaces large. Where once red painted concrete was sufficient, we now have granite; spare concrete vaults are now covered in mosaic.   You only have to look at one of surviving L stations - such as at Chicago or Fullerton - to see how a commuter load as large - or larger - than today could be accomodated in tight, functional spaces that even had room for restrooms and a newsstand. 
Original Fullerton station.  Image courtesy of the Chuckman Collection
Today, we demand more, and the Clark and LaSalle mezzanine provides a sharp, attractive upgrade.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Firewood Mountain, and other Scenes from a Saturday walk through Chicago's Near Northwest side

Subway Aurora Borealis
Chinese Finger Trap, Claes Oldenberg style
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Goose Island geese
Submerged dock (more geese)

Blue Factory on North Dayton

Chicago Firewood on Halsted
Kendall College vegetable garden bunny

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summer in the City: The Bride Wore White; the Bagpiper Plaid

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It's the kind of thing you encounter in a city big enough to serve as backdrop to the theater of life.  It began with the sighting of a bride and her groom walking past Quigley, in front of a bag-pied-piper leading the wedding party from an unknown church down Gold Coast streets.

 To a reception at the the Drake . . .

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mr. Trump, meet Mr. Loew

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And no, there is no Mr. Loews, but there was a Mr. Loew - Marcus Loew, to be exact - the source of all things Loews, co-founding in 1904 the theater chain which went on to create powerhouse movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  When the Tisch family acquired the company in 1969, they killed the possessive apostrophe and Loew's became just plain Loews, which Tisch brothers Laurence and Robert merged into their growing hotel business, forming the conglomerate still known today as Loews Corporation, which sold off the theaters in 1985.

Photographs taken on the evening of July 16th, 2014, the 10th anniversary of the opening of Millennium Park . . .

Gehry's Web - On its 10th Anniversary, How the visual music of Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion binds together Millennium Park and the City around It.

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In the early 1930's, Chicago built a bandshell in Grant Park just north of the Field Museum.  Its scalloped shape was a direct crib of the new Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.  Unlike at The Bowl, set in nature, the curving form of the Grant Park bandshell was a visual counterpoint to the angularity of the skyscrapers in the background.
Grant Park bandsheel c. 1936 photograph by Fred Korth, courtesy Calumet 412
The Grant Park concerts proved enormously popular, but the original “temporary” bandshell endured into the 1970's.  As it literally began to fall apart, there were proposals for a new, more ambitious concert facility in Grant Park, including a spectacular design by Gene Summers that would have been constructed over the Monroe Street garage.  Advocates for an open Grant Park carried the day, however, and the depressingly desultory Petrillo Bandshell at Butler Field was the only thing to make its past the censorious protectors of the park. Another “temporary” facility, it would remain the home of Grant Park concerts for nearly three decades.

It's no small miracle that we didn't wind up with something similarly underwhelming at Millennium Park.  The master plan by Skidmore, Ownings and Merrill followed Chicago's accustomed Beaux Arts-styled park template, with a modest concert facility penci1led in near Randolph Street at the north end of the park.
But in 1997, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley enlisted John Bryan, the CEO of Sara Lee and the city's most effective philanthropic rainmaker, to raise the $30 million in private sector funds that was what Daley thought would be needed to realize his dream of a new park replacing the decrepit north end of Grant Park and gaping ditch of railroad tracks next to it.  Then all hell began to break loose.

Bryan started to go all millennial, seeing the beginning of a new 1,000 years as the perfect opportunity to create a Chicago institution that would be worthy of such an epochal transition.  Soon, in partnership with the Park District's Edward Uhlir, Bryan was dramatically upping the ante on the park's ambitions, and getting Chicago's philanthropic elite to buy into their vision.  Key among them was heiress Cindy Pritzker, who hated, hated, hated the modest, traditional design proposed for the bandshell.

In 1999, it was announced that the Pritzker Foundation would be contributing $15 million for a new Millennium Park concert pavilion to be designed by Frank Gehry.  Gehry's first attempt was a respectfully austere homage to the tradition of Mies van der Rohe  “We started off with a very simply cover which was a very functional shed,” recalled Gehry partner Craig Webb.

Gehry's Chicago patrons, however, were having none of it.  Just two years before, Gehry, pushing 70 and after decades of innovative work,  had exploded onto the world architecture scene with the opening of his Techno-Baroque Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.  Chicago wanted its own version of Bilbao, and the Pritzker Pavilion was going to be it.  The final cost would be somewhere north of $60 million.
Pritzker Pavilion before the ribbon-cutting, opening day July 16, 2014
The design was not entirely new.  In Los Angeles, Gehry had proposed a new design for the deteriorating Hollywood Bowl bandshell, in which billowing metallic forms would envelop the stage like MGM's Leo the Lion's mane.  Transplanted to Chicago, the “mane” became “sails” or “ribbons” making up a “headdress” proscenium.  Its epic sweep of cool, shiny titanium both envelopes and provides counterpoint to its soft, chewy center, the tall stage area faced in warm Douglas fir.

At the time Millennium Park opened ten years ago, Tribune architecture crtic Blair Kamin compared the Pritzker Pavilion to the follies - faux classical ruins - with which the wealthy decorated their estates.  I talked about it as a non-functional “garnish.”  Now I've come to see it as something much more. 

I had written how the bottom half of the proscenium was functional - pushing the sound out over the seats - while the top was purely decorative.  In fact, that's how Uhlir and company got the thing past the height restrictions on buildings in the park.  The proscenium was simply classified a sculpture to circumvent the ban.
The design of the Pritzker Pavilion was Gehry's response to the monotony of the grid.  A modern glass box skyscraper seems less of an expression of the energies of the people working within it, as a cage containing that energy.  “That's how some modernism failed,” Gehry said in his book Gehry Talks.  “when it started getting used by the developers, it became faceless . . . what was missing was human scale.”  By breaking the Pritzker Pavilion into a maelstrom of swirling, interlocking forms, Gehry not only rebels against - and provides counterpoint to - the streetwall of modern skyscrapers along Randolph Street just to the north of the park, but the restless forms the the pavilion's proscenium appear to capture the energy of the music being made on stage and thrust it out into the park.
The Pavilion is also two-faced, delightfully so.  While the side surrounding the stage is all smoothly curving forms, the opposite side, along Randolph Street, is - literally - what's behind the curtain, expressing opening and proudly the structure that makes possible the beautiful forms.  “Some people have objected to the backside,” said Webb, ”but we always imagined it to be a structure with a face and a backside, and the pipe and structure that support the proscenium related in a way back to the trellis.”
The pavilion's back stair becomes a tour-de-force expression of falling into the belly of the great animal.
The Pritzker Pavilion is the visual anchor of Millennium Park.  Wherever you are in the park, it's form is almost always lurking somewhere in your field of vision.  While there's a second formal entrance to the park lining up with Madison Street, it just sort of peters out at the south end of the great lawn.  The great promenade to the north ends at the spectacular forms of the Pritzker Pavilion.  Unlike the park's other two great attractions - Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain, which are located mid-block - the massive proscenium and its support structure conclude a vista directly down Washington Street that's a calling card for the wonders of the park visible all the way west through the Loop.
To the south, it seems to float about the flowers of Millennium Park's Lurie Garden . . .
And to the east, from the site of Michael van Valkenburgh's under-construction Maggie Daley park, it almost seems an extension of the Gehry-designed BP bridge . . .
Even on the horizontal plane, the pavilion marks it territory as king of Millennium Park, both with the great swell of green lawn, and the almost endless sea of red seats that burn into the retina even in the the most frozen midst or winter.
The stage, hibernating behind the massive glass doors, seems almost to breathe in its sleep, a rough beast waiting to be reborn.
As materially dense as is the Pritzker's stage structure, its other half, the great trellis soaring over the seating and the lawn, is a Miesian “almost nothing”that nonetheless contains an entire world.  It  begins in Miesian utility, supporting the hundreds of speakers that make up the outstanding sound system designed by acoustical consultant Rick Talaske .  Gehry rejected the standard approach used at the Petrillo bandshell to unsatisfactory aural results - speakers perched like vultures on a sea of sightline-stealing supports.  “You would have had a yard full of vertical poles with speakers on them like lollipops,” is how Frank Gehry described it, “and that would have been kind of cheesy looking.”
Instead, Gehry drew again on his Hollywood Bowl proposal, for a “distributed sound system” that could recreate a natural soundstage throughout the pavilion and lawn.  Just as the speaker system defines an aural space, the spider's web structure of the trellis redefines a physical space, sprawling 600 feet from stage to back of the lawn, as a contained room, imparting an almost shocking sense of intimacy to what otherwise would appear to be bounded only by distant buildings and the sky.
To underscore the illusion, the slender curving tubes of the trellis terminate in thick, tall metal anchors like shimmering exclamation points.
The trellis not only defines the space in which the audience finds itself, but frames the city around it, most especially the Michigan Avenue streetwall to the east, a landmarked stretch of buildings including everything from the 1890's Chicago Cultural Center, to Art Deco 1920's setback skyscrapers to, in the distance, the tower of Adler and Sullivan's Auditorium Building, the fire-engine red steel-and glass CNA Building and cool blue notched tower of VOA's new Roosevelt University dorm.  The infinite again becomes finite, the city a giant stained glass window leaded in the frame of the trellis.
Much has been written about the interactive aspects of Millennium Park's two great art pieces - the 1,000 faces of the Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, and infinitely changing reflections of Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate - of how, unlike the unmoving traditional sculptures carved in stone, they are always changing.  Strangely enough, however, it's Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion that's the most dynamic of it all.  Immobile itself, it radiates an energy of movement that sets the all-too-solid city around it to dance.  Even with an empty stage, the emotions of its music sets ear and eye to delight.

Flashback: From Millennium Park's Opening . . .

Frank Gehry and his new Pritzker bandshell

Frank Gehry, Millenniun Park and the development the Techno-Baroque

Photo-Essay on the Construction of Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion

 After the Hype:  A Millennium Park Post-Mortem

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Celebrating Millennium Park's 10th Anniversary - with the bark off

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This Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of Chicago's Millennium Park.  It's a cause for celebration, and I definitely want to join the party, with multiple posts as the week goes on.  But  while it's considered bad manners to raise touchy subjects on such occasions, I'm going to start by taking up a few of them, as the critics at the Chicago Tribune seem less interested in reasoned assessments than in breathless schoolgirl prose that makes it look like they've taken on a side job writing PR brochures.

In his piece, Millennium Park's impact on summer classical scene, Trib Music critic John Von Rhein  praises (rightly) the acoustics of the Pritzker Pavilion, but can't be bothered to mention the people who designed it.  (For the record, it was Oak Park's Rick Talaske).
Von Rhein also is spot-on in comparing the adventurousness of the Grant Park Music Festival at the Pritzker compared to the increasing marginalization of the CSO presence at Ravinia.  Then, inexplicably, he starts winging off on how “there no longer is a major price differential between a a ticket the CSO at Ravinia and a seat in the reserved section of Pritzker Pavilion”.  He argues that 25 bucks gets you a seat (not very good) in the pavilion at Ravinia, with lawn seats - most of which have a very poor view of the stage - at only $10.00, less than the $100.00 Grant Park charges for the best guaranteed seats for 5 concerts.  Really? 

Von Rhein is willfully blinding himself to the most basic fact of the Grant Park Music Festival.  It's free.  At Ravinia, there are zero free seats, none, zilch, nada. At the Pritzker, the bulk of the seats in the pavilion - and the entire lawn - are free.  It is a free music festival in which some seats are allocated to contributors.  Von Rhein's truly bizarre non-sequiter can only be explained as a sop to Ravinia, a major Trib advertiser.
More egregious is the puffery of Trib architecture critic Blair Kamin.  Despite a seasoning of "and so are they all honourable men" disclaimers, Kamin's piece reads less like as an architectural analysis than a real estate report.  While writers most often don't compose their own headlines, the one attached to Kamin's piece pretty much sums up its perspective: Millennium Park: 10 years old and an economic boom  - Chicago's dazzling urban space also proves a good investment.
Kamin dismisses the massive overruns that took the parks cost to nearly half a billion dollars, comparing the original budget to a Ford Fiesta and the final to a Ferrari.  In fact, the additional costs of the park, many of them traceable to rework of hasty construction rushed along by then Mayor Richard M. Daley's underlings to make the original turn-of-the-century opening date, were a canary-in-the-mine-shaft warning that no one cared to heed, of Daley's burgeoning fiscal mismanagement, which would flower unimpeded in the parking meter fiasco, his corrupt TIF system skimming billions from the city's general tax revenues, the financial sinkhole of destroying the Michael Reese campus in an inept quest for the 2016 Olympics, and the use of gimmicks such as interest-rate swaps that are now threatening to backfire to the tune of $200 million.  The story of Millennium Park shows what made them all possible, but, hey, Millennium Park is great, so we get to stay stupid.  Who wants to look behind the curtain, right?

Kamin quotes one of those risible academic studies (or TIF reports) that starts with a conclusion and then back pedals to assemble data in support, inferring that without Millennium Park, $2.4 billion of development would never have happened, and Chicago itself would have sunk to the bottom of Lake Michigan.  But why stop there?  Shouldn't we also credit Millennium Park for all those new residential towers in River North, Streeterville, and the booming Fulton Market district?

Kamin writes how Millennium Park was “praised as a departure from the 19th century model of parks as nature-inspired refuges from the industrial city's polluted air and packaged streets,” as if that concept were some kind of antiquated relic rather than continuing to be an essential resource for any dense city.
The downside of Millennium Park is the idea that every successful urban park now has to be some sort of manufactured fun factory, which, itself, is a distortion of MP's high level of artistic achievement and sense of balance (see: Lurie Gardens).  Its most immediate influence in Chicago was the way it encouraged Richard M. Daley to follow up MP by trying to ram a new museum into the protected “Open, Clear and Free” park just west of Millennium Park.  If he had not been thwarted, we would be seeing a lot more construction cranes above Grant Park right now, and that wouldn't be a good thing.

Millennium Park sucks in the bodies - nearing 5 million a year - and spins off money, which makes it a media darling, but equally important, I would argue, is the kind of community resource that's to be found in recent neighborhood parks such as Palmisano in Bridgeport or Bartelme on the West side, or the new Maggie Daley Park currently under construction on the site where Daley wanted his museum. Millennium Park had minimal influence on these new parks, and they're all the better for it.
As I wrote just after it opened, the triumph of Millennium Park is founded in “shear consumerist delight”.  Both Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa's contributions arose out of strong aesthetic conceptions, and while the strength of their ideas may well filter down subconsciously to visitors, the fundamental payback is how the public has taken to the Crown Fountain as an urban water park, and to Cloud Gate as a funhouse mirror prophetically custom-made for selfies. 

The triumph of Millennium Park is being plotted on an economic scorecard.  That's only fitting in this, our Age of the Supply Chain, where a value that cannot be monetized or reduced to a mathematical construct has no valid existence.  It's the lie that distorts and hollows out our humanity.  I'm as much a sucker for numbers as the next guy, but I think that what's most interesting about Millennium Park is to be found beyond that lazy and accustomed scorecard, in the realm of sensual experience and emotion, and it's what I hope to address - however imperfectly - in subsequent posts.