Friday, September 19, 2014

Luftwerk's Film Noir Redemption in Couch Alley - only through Saturday

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Flow/IM Fluss continues in Couch Place from 5:00 p.m. to midnight through Saturday, September 20th.  The weather project for Friday, warm and rainless, looks to be especially perfect.
When you think of the black-and-white photography of the great film noir thrillers of the 1940's and 50's, you think of the striking interaction of shadows and fog, and of night pierced by dramatic shafts of light.  It's a prototypical expression of the city and its snares, the allure and danger of the only partially seen.
The passageway bridging State and Dearborn midblock between Lake and Randolph is called Couch Place.  In Old Chicago, it was a street, the southern boundary of the Tremont House, one of the city's early high-end hotels.  Long ago, however, it became nothing more than a narrow alley, a place where deliveries were made, garbage was kept to be picked up, and rats scurried across the pavement, unseen but heard.  The fine facades along Randolph Street may have been of gleaming terra cotta, but at the stage door end of the building, it was plain, homely alley brick, often with cheap paint flaking off of its surface.  The bright marquees out front spoke to our hopes and illusions, the claustrophobic, menacing alleys to our fears and darker realities.  It was kind of place you could imagine Elisha Cook, Jr. skulking in a doorframe, or Humphrey Bogart emerging rubbing his head after being hit from behind by someone who thought he was getting too close to the truth.

And then they went and cleaned it up. As a part of the attempt to revive Chicago's theater district, Couch Place was gussied up in 2007.  The dumpsters went away, new paving installed, and vintage posters mounted evoking the days when the alley held the stage doors to movie palaces such as the Oriental and State-Lake.  The tall neon sign for the new Goodman theater lined up as the alley's visual terminus to the west.
Even with all that, Couch Place remains very sparsely traveled.  Thursday night, however, it was wall-to-wall people, as it was premiere of FLOW/Im Fluss, a new light and water installation by Luftwerk, a/k/a artists Petra Bachmeier and Sean Gallero, creators of such striking temporary artworks as Luminous Field at Cloud Gate, and this past winter's Spring Light for the Chinese New Year, at the Chicago Cultural Center and McCormick skating rink at Millennium Park.  In October, the pair will mount INsite, lighting up Mies van der Rohe's iconic Farnsworth house.
Petra Bachmeier and Sean Gallero being photographed
by Public Art in Chicago's Jyoti Srivastava

Flow/Im Fluss celebrates the 20th anniversary of Chicago and Hamburg being named as Sister Cities.
Inspired by the element of water and its all-encompassing connectivity, Luftwerk’s FLOW/Im Fluss visualizes the characteristics of the Chicago River and Hamburg’s River Elbe through video compositions projected on water screens. 
Based on scientifically collected measurements like oxygen levels, currents, contamination, and chemical compounds FLOW/Im Fluss interprets data from the two rivers to create a visual experience. 
The projected video will illuminate screens made of water - inviting viewers to immerse themselves into the flow of data collected from both rivers. 

The event, which also includes music, is sponsored by the Goethe Institut and Chicago Loop Alliance, as part of its sequence of events Activating spaces in the Loop with temporary art installations.
The best way to experience Flow/Im Fluss is to walk through it, from State to Dearborn and back. Step into the lines and swirls of light piercing the darkness, and walk through the fine mist that both provides the screen for the projected geometric forms and imparts to you as a visitor an almost baptismal cleansing of the dirt and squalor of the “dark alley”  of the soul. 


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flip City, Prelude: the End of St. Dominic's

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Flip City is a story about how a city and the architecture that defines it evolve over time.  The more I explore, the more epic it becomes, so I'm breaking it into multiple chapters to explore more aspects of the theme, and make the whole thing manageable, both for myself and for you as a reader.
For all but the youngest of us, the story of the neighborhood north of Chicago and east of Goose Island is one of the rise and fall and death of Cabrini-Green, the massive and increasingly troubled public housing complex that dominated the area for decades.
It's latest chapter is one of gentrification, personified in the massive New City shopping center now rising at Clybourn and Halsted.  Yet in, in fact, the story is far larger and much longer, one almost as old as Chicago itself, beginning with the first settlements on open land and how they became a dense ghetto, a close-knit community of first generation Chicago immigrants and the institutions that served them.

In other areas of the city, important remnants of that immigrant history remains.  The old buildings may have completely new uses, but they endure.  At Cabrini-Green, however, there are no surviving markets, no theaters, or settlement houses.  All that remains is a handful of old churches, and one of them, St. Dominics, is about to meet its end.
According to a story by architecture critic Lee Bey, the church was consecrated in 1905, designed by architect William J. Brinkmann at a cost of $60,000.  It was built to hold 1,000 worshippers, something it had little trouble doing in its early decades, when the area around it was a dense slum of Swedish, Irish and, predominantly, Italian laborers.  Is was so tough a neighborhood, it was actually referred to as Hell.
St. Dominic's Church, located at the corner of Locust and Sedgewick Streets, was founded by the Reverend E.M. Griffin in 1905.  The style of architect of this fine church is a pleasing combination of Roman and Gothic.  The parish being located in a large manufacturing district, the congregation is composed almost entirely of Italians.  The 400 children who attend the school are taught by the Sisters of Charity of the B.V.M . . .  Illustrated Souvenir of the Archdiocese of Chicago, 1916
Beginning in the 1942, the slums became the object of “urban renewal.”  The old buildings were demolished in favor of public housing.
At first it was the low-rise row houses of the original Frances Cabrini homes.  They still remain, behind chain link fencing, on borrowed time.  Then in the 1950's came the now infamous high-rises, over 10,000 people herded into a succession of towers that began in optimism and devolved into gang infestation, crime and endemic violence.

For the bureaucrats, it was far more difficult to pursue actual solutions than simply blame the architecture. The Chicago Housing Authority initiated a Plan for Transformation whose primary impetus was to make neighborhoods close to downtown safe for gentrification, cleansing the area of the poor, collecting subsidies from the feds for units kept vacant, and accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars in reserves, even as the waiting lists for public housing grew.
Today, huge swaths of empty land remain the primary legacy of the CHA's “transformation.”  Once seven to ten story CHA high-rises were right across the street from St. Dominic's.  Now there's only empty lots.  St. Dominic's was closed in 1990, and since then the building has been used to store items received from local or closed parishes.  The photograph below is from the bulletin of St. Joseph's Church, on Orleans near Division.  In it, Father Lawrence Lisowski writes . . .
When I stepped into the dusty and musty church, it felt like I wa stepping back into a sacred time and place, like walking into an ancient ruin in Rome.  .  . 
St. Dominic's has now been sold and the site rezoned.  The old church will be razed for a new seven-story, 40-unit condo building designed by Axios Architects for Conlon and Company, scheduled for completion in 2016.
Not everything can be saved, and truth be told, despite the craftsmanship of its brickwork,  St Dominic's is a rather heavy design.  I've previously argued against the demolition of churches that represented a continuity of community.  In the case of St. Dominic's, however, that continuity has long since been yanked out from under it; the community that once surrounded it smashed to bits, force-depopulated, and replaced by featureless lawns that deny it ever existed.

There's a new Target on Division where Cabrini Green once stood.  A new apartment tower is now rising right across the street.  If everything goes as planned, the new condo building where St. Dominic's now stands will form the foundations of a next chapter.  New development may well eventually fill in all those empty lots, but that new city will be an engineered tabula rasa, expunged of history.
This building is on Larrabee, just a few blocks from St. Dominic's, with half-million dollar condos and a $6,000 a month penthouse.  Anonymous and dispiriting, will this be the face of the new Hell?  Are buildings like this one and the one that will replace St. Dominic's our new tenements, housing not the working poor, but the upwardly mobile?  With our lives growing increasingly inward and virtual,  will the new landscape be devoid of the kind of architectural expressions of larger community that St. Dominic's represented?
 One idea of an alternative mediation will be the subject of our next post in this series.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Along Chicago's New Skyscraper Row: One Rises, One Descends, and One Just Spreads it Around

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Saturday seemed a good day to check out the progress and three large construction projects that have made the bend of the Chicago River big development central.

See the complete photo-essay, after the break . . .

Chicago's Public Riverwalk a-Building; Public/Private Riverwalk a-closing

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Going for a walk downtown along the Chicago River these days inevitably is dominated by the massive, ongoing construction site that's the new Riverwalk being constructed along the south bank.  Just last week, the passage that will allow pedestrians to walk beneath the Dearborn Street bridge was put into place.

Maybe it was just bad timing, however, but on Saturday the story along the northern and western banks - where the riverwalk consists of a sequence of private walkways open to the public - was a decidedly different story, as if the property owners league had decided to give a big middle finger to the Chicago public.
At the Reid Murdoch building, the passage from Clark to LaSalle remains closed.
. . .  as was the riverwalk next to Riverbend across fromWolf Point, but perhaps the management of 300 North LaSalle put it most succinctly . . .

Monday, September 01, 2014

Division Street Bridge gets Old Bailey Runaround

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It was only this past July when we wrote of the quick demolition of the 1903 Division Street bridge over the North Branch Channel at the eastern edge of Goose Island.  Within a few short weeks, nary a trace of the structure remained.
Map: Chicago Department of Transportation
Now it's temporary replacement is being put in place just north of where the old bridge stood, with completion scheduled for next month.  $6 million was budgeted both for the demolition and the temporary span.

The provisional structure is a Bailey Bridge, named after its inventor, Donald Bailey.  An employee of the British War Office during World War II, Bailey liked to create model bridges as hobby, but the design he created for a bridge constructed out of lightweight, precision-made modular steel components was anything but a toy.
The pieces could be transported on ordinary trucks, and assembled by hand into ten foot-long 5 foot-high cross-braced rectangles that weighed only 570 pounds and could be lifted into place by six, probably burly men.  No heavy-duty construction equipment was required, yet the bridges were strong enough to carry a convoy of tanks.  The Bailey Bridge became the western allies' standard military bridge.  Over 2,000 were constructed, with 700,000 Bailey panels providing 350 miles of bridging.  Field Marshall Montgomery credited the Baily Bridges with helping speed the path to victory by creating the ability to quickly construct crossings that sustained an aggressive forward movement of troops and supplies.  Bailey Bridges remain in use today throughout the world, with the longest spanning 2,585 feet, and the highest rising over 18,000 feet above sea level.
Nothing quite so spectacular is at play at Division Street.  The standard roadway width of a Bailey Bridge is 12 feet, and the temporary bridge at Division Street will consist of two twelve-foot vehicular lanes, and another pair of roadbeds split between a 6-foot-wide bike lane and 5-foot wide sidewalk.  Skipping over three spans, the interim bridge will be 261 feet long, and will remain in place until the anticipated completion of the permanent replacement directly in line with Division Street in December of 2017. New concrete moorings have already been put in place on the western embankment . . .
. . . soon to support Bailey's tinkertoys as they begin to creep across the English North Branch Channel.
With commercial traffic on the river a tiny sliver of what it was when it functioned as a major industrial thruway, the new bridges at Division Street are part of a continuing city initiative to replace Chicago's historic bascule bridges, whose spans can be raised to accommodate tall vessels, with fixed span tied-arch bridges.  The 1909 Halsted Street bascule bridge, less than a block south of Division, was already replaced with one of the fixed span prototypes in 2011.
The new Division Street bridge looks remarkably similar, but in red rather than blue.
Rendering: Chicago Department of Transportation

Read More:
photograph: Bob Johnson

Short Division

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Architecture of Chicago's Labor Movement

Chicago has always been known as a labor town, and for this Labor Day we'd thought we look at three Chicago structures whose role in the city's labor history is often overlooked.
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The Forum on 43rd Street, designed by architect Samuel A. Treat in 1897 was not only a ballroom and performance center, but also a regular home to political, civil rights, and union organizing events.  After nearly being demolished in 2011, Urban Juncture has began securing the structure and is working on a plan and building a coalition to bring it back to life.  And for the first time in recent memory, you'll be able to see it, as well - it's one of the sites for the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Open House Chicago in October.

Another key structure in Chicago's labor history is Pond and Pond's Chicago Commons building at Morgan and Grand, from 1901, which we hope to be writing about in far more detail soon.  The Chicago Commons Association was founded by Graham Taylor in 1894, patterned after Jane Adams' Hull House to serve the area's poor immigrant population. 

The Commons was home to pro-labor organizing activity, including a 1902 mass meeting to reduce retail worker's 14 hour days.  Although only 100 clerks showed up for the meeting, one speaker noted that the clerks had formed 13 unions and gained 2,000 members, and their efforts secured the reform that “nearly every store from Belmont to the Chicago River had been induced to close evenings.”
After the Chicago Commons merged, it moved its operation and sold off the building in 1947.  It's had an often-troubled past since then, but that may now finally changing with AJ LaTrace of Curbed Chicago reporting in July that the structure is to be restored as the centerpiece of a new campus for the Bennett Day School.
Finally, there's the building at Sheridan and Diversey that, since a late 1970's/early1980's renovation and expansion, has housed offices for medical professionals affiliated with St. Joseph Hospital. Originally, however, it was the proud, modernist headquarters for the Amalgamated Meat Cutters International, chartered by AFL in 1897 to consolidate seven Chicago unions.

A 1904 strike saw 18,000 meat cutters go out on strike for higher wages.  Although joined by most other major unions in the city, national leadership refused to support the strikers.  Employers turned to the city's large population of unemployed African American workers to serve as strikebreakers, which resulted in union members attacking the strikebreakers, police rallying to protect them,  4,000 union workers rioting, and the strike ending in total defeat.  Jane Adams interceding with stockyards magnates to procure a contract that would save face for union members, and keep the union, itself, from being destroyed.

image courtesy The Chuckman Collection
At it's peak, the union had over 200,000 members, but centralizing processing and work rule changes - remember when you couldn't buy meat after 6:00 p.m.? - decimated their ranks.
Today, the only surviving remnant of the original union presence is Egon Weiner's Brotherhood, an identical pair of sculptures positioned at either side of the entrance.  According to Jyoti Srivastava's essential Public Art in Chicago blog, each bronze grouping of Brotherhood depicts four “kneeling figures whose extended arms are interwined  [to] represent unity of people of Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Each grouping bears a different set of inscriptions  . . .

. . . Brotherhood. Liberty. Tolerance. Equality. Peace and Unity. Justice.  Friendship. Knowledge.

Happy Labor Day

Also Read:

 Worker Spaces, In Fiction and Fact

The Architecture of Chicago's Unionville

Monday, August 25, 2014

An Affectionate Last Look at a Building Not Worth Saving: Wreckers descend on the Downtown Court Club

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Looking at it from Wabash Avenue last Saturday, the looming presence of the former Lake Shore Athletic Club building at 441 North Wabash appeared almost normal.  It's only when you walked down the block to view it from the east that you got a true picture of what's going on.
What's in store for this prime square-block site is still a closely-guarded secret - until the first dispiriting renderings are released, we can always imagine it will be something fresh and wonderful - but what's totally clear is that the former Lake Shore Athletic Club is on the road to nowhere. 
The six-story building was originally constructed in 1978 - to a design by Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz - as the Downtown Court Club.  According to our indefatigable correspondent Bob Johnson, who was working at engineering firm Benesch at the time, the site was originally intended for a 20-story Howard Johnson's Motor Hotel, 95% designed by time a major recession finished it off. 
 At 60,000 square feet and a cost of $3.5 million, the Downtown Court Club was created as a state-of-the-art facility, with four tennis courts, four racquetball courts, two squash courts, a swimming pool, exercise room, saunas, whirlpools.  Two levels of parking were stuffed beneath the entrance level at upper Wabash, with cars entering and exiting at the lower service street level along Hubbard.   Furniture was upholstered in beige with “Gucci strips.” The lounge was decorated with the large ferns that were hallmarks of the age, as was the emerging racquetball craze that saw one add proclaim “Try Racquetball. It's Fun.  It's Easy.  It's Great Exercise.” When an indoor running track was added the next year, ads proclaimed the facility “the most complete Racquet Sports-Physical Fitness Center in Chicago.”  The club hoped to draw upon the nearby population in nearby residential highrises, and both secretaries and the executives of the district's office towers.
A elevated walkway over Hubbard Street ran by the side of the building to suck in patrons from  Michigan Avenue.  Memberships started at $55.00 a month.
The Downtown Court Club building and the square-block, 1.5 acre site it partially occupied at its southwest corner were owned by the William Wrigley Company, whose clock-towered, cream-colored terra cotta Michigan Avenue headquarters was less than a block away.
In 1992, operation of the sports facility was taken over by the parent firm of the Lake Shore Athletic Club.  A major renovation followed, but the company allowed its lease to expire in 2007.  The building has been vacant ever since.   In 2009, Wrigley hired a real estate heavyweight  to try to find a new tenant, without success.  By 2011, Wrigley, itself,  had been swallowed up by candy-maker Mars, Incorporated, which promptly began moving all of the Wrigley employees out of the namesake Michigan Avenue landmark that had been both the company's home and a gleaming trademark ever since its construction in 1921.  Finally, as reported byAlby Gallun in Crain's Chicago Business, both the Lake Shore Athletic Club structure and the its larger, full-block site were thrown in as sweetener to a $33 million deal that saw BDT Capital Partners LLC acquiring the historic but emptying Wrigley Building.  With the right development, that sweetener could prove more valuable than the Wrigley Building itself.

While there's still some of it left to see, let's take a moment to appreciate the qualities the Downtown Court Club building brought to the urban fabric.  Brawny and overbearing at the same time, its scored facades, framed within borders that clearly expressed the structure within, were like a Claes Oldenberg-scaled homage to aluminum siding. 
The largest strip of windows was placed at the base of the building, next to a skeletal steel stair painted bright blue, set in a open bay which was the only significant inset from the bunker-like shear walls.
 All at once, it's a visual joke on the order of the metal-clad base beneath two floors of heavy rusticated stone at William Le Baron Jenney's Manhattan Building; it's a bit of early Post Modernist mannerism devoid of the usual neo-classical confusion; and it's an effective anchoring of the building's corner in a way that both clearly demarcates the entrance and provides a mitigating counterpoint to the crushing monotony all around it.
No preservationist's picket lines were thrown up at 441 North Wabash when the bulldozers arrived. The Downtown Court Club may not be a building for the ages, but it's a child of its time.  And that's what architecture should be - a snapshot of an era's attitudes and concerns, priorities and fashions.  I probably won't often think of it when it's gone, but when I do, it will be with a fond smile.