Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why Lynn Becker is about to disappear

click image for larger view
This week marks the 12th anniversary of my first article being published in Chicago Reader.  What better time to call a time out?

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," Dr. Johnson famously observed.  I have become that blockhead.

So I'm taking a hiatus to vegetate and experiment - fiction, poetry, screenplays, prescription drug disclaimers - so many choices, so little time between naps.

At least until March 1st, I'm also engaging in the radical experiment of swearing off social media.

No Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.

No posts.

No reading of posts. 

Is this even possible, in a time when seemingly every last one of us has been sucked like Alice through the Looking Glass down into our smartphone screens?

Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.

When I look at my life, all my misfortunes are pretty much self-made; the wonderful things the gift of others.  I'm going to do a Trumbo and not name names, but you know who you are.  Except for you, I would have been a irredeemably dull boy, making his home in a box on Lower Wacker.

And thanks to you, my readers and followers, for your patience, generous if misguided attention, and eloquent engagement.

If you should need to reach me, I'll still be checking e-mail.  I'm not a total idiot.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Afters its close, an assessment of the First Chicago Architecture Biennial

click images for larger view
First things first.  Sunday, January 3rd is closing day at the Cultural Center for the First Chicago Architecture Biennial.  If you haven't seen it, make the trip.  The Biennial has not been universally loved, but I'm betting that unless you're Zaha Hadid, you'll find things that intrigue and perhaps even amaze you.

For an opening salvo for what is hoped to be a continuing event, the Biennial can be judged a major success.  According to official sources, by the time it closes, it should have drawn nearly a quarter of million people to the Cultural Center (no, I don't know how they count them either, and as critic Edward Keegan has noted that's only 38% over what the CCL drew in the same period the year before.)
John Ronan at the Chicago Architecture Biennial
Beyond the body counts, the Biennial drew major press attention globally, and spurred a great deal of discussion, laudatory and otherwise.  The event included a wealth of related events, including signature addresses from the likes of John Ronan, and other lectures, panels and presentations which seems to have included the participation of just about every Chicago architect of note, as well a wide roster of distinguished visitors.
Summer Vault - Independent Architecture
and Paul Preissner Architects
The Biennial went beyond the confines of the Cultural Center to create four temporary kiosks for  locations at IIT, the Museum Campus, and Millennium Park.  One, located on the Museum campus, was the result of an international competition; the other three were created in partnership with the city's architecture schools at IIT, UIC, and the School of the Art Institute.  They were all outshone, however, by the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank, created out of a South Side classically-styled, long-abandoned building by Theaster Gates, who, much like Ai Weiwei, is becoming an international superstar for his merging of architecture and design with social activism.
Photograph courtesy: Rebuild Foundation
The Arts Bank is an example of how the Biennial was enriched by a wide range of events other institutions mounted in co-ordination with its run.  Most prominent of these was the Art Institute's major retrospective, Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye, which also closes this Sunday, and a smaller show, As Seen: Exhibitions That Made Architecture and Design History, which runs through May, and may be particularly relevant to the Biennial as it examines "the influence of architecture and design exhibitions years after their closing." 
Grid | River | Landmark, first prize,
Perkins+Will DLC Design Competition
Yanwen Xiao and Silas Haslam

When you consider the influence of this First Chicago Architecture Biennial, a lot of the real meat came not from the "official" events, but from the partnerships that went beyond the usual suspects.  Perkins+Will scheduled its in-house DLC Design Competition, Projects Imagine Sustainable Design Along the Chicago River, to coincide with the Biennial, with the awards ceremony held at the Cultural Center.
Tim Samuelson and Tom Burtonwood
photo courtesy Thorsten Bösch.

Pecha Kucha had an evening in Preston Bradley Hall with, excepting myself, a particularly rich roster of presenters, culminating with a demonstration by Tom Burtonwood and Tim Samuelson of making affordable replicas of Louis Sullivan's ornament in a bound set created by 3-D printing.  The Chicago Architectural Club mounted both a competition and a series of events centered on Chicago architecture's eminence grise Stanley Tigerman, who was both perhaps the Biennial's most vocal booster and an indefatigable participant in many of its events and panels.
The Big Shift
Indeed, one of the most interesting part of Biennial inside the Cultural Center, was a co-exhibition Bold: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago, curated by architect Iker Gil, whose most ambitious proposal came from Port Urbanism: The Big Shift, which envisions transforming Millennium and Grant Parks into a variation of Central Park by enclosing it from the lake with a wall of skyscrapers built on new landfill.  Tigerman labeled Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin "an asshole" for not supporting what Tigerman sees both as the kind of audacious vision we need, and inevitable.  I have to admit that, while I do admire the breadth of vision - and especially the excellent and informative video Port Urbanism made documenting the development of the downtown lakefront - I am as confident as Tigerman, but that the proposal, to the contrary, will never be built and is, in essence, a really bad idea, shafting the larger public by trading the great sweep of Grant Park to the Lake Michigan for a fringe of parkland fronting still another enclave for the super-rich. (But think of the tax revenue it will raise!)

Given Tigerman's commitment to making architecture something more than just "designing houses for the rich", his enthusiasm for The Big Shift is a bit of a puzzler. If we are going to create more landfill downtown, it should be more in line with Daniel Burnham's vision - shifting the huge boat parking lots that now dominate the lakefront to a new island or islands to free up the actual lakefront for beaches and greenspace, with maybe a tower or two in the mix.
The High Life
Far more provocative to me were The High Life, a collaboration between Grant Gibson and SOM envisioning a new tower that allows for maximum differentiation among individual residents, and, most especially . . . 
3D Design Studio entry for The Available City
. . . David Brown's continuing development of The Available City, looking at revitalizing neighborhoods with infill built on some of the 15,000 vacant lots owned by the City of Chicago.  For the Biennial, Brown expanded Available City to include nine specific proposals and models from architects small and large, established and new, from Jahn and Krueck and Sexton, to Ania Jaworska and 3D Design Studio.  I hope to be writing more about these two installations soon.

The key to all of these is they did what the Biennial is supposed to do.  They inspired intelligent debate.  The greatest value of the Biennial was not in itself, but in the response, which came from two opposite directions.
Stuart Cohen and Robert Bruegmann at the Studebaker
Classical architecture proponents mounted their own events, a symposium sponsored by the Driehaus Foundation at the University Club, and a wonderful program put together by the Benjamin Marshall Society, Radical Conservatism: Classical Vocabulary, New Form, at the newly re-opened Studebaker Theater that ranged from architect Paul Florian talking about the individualized classicism of Nicholas Hawksmoor, to John Zukowsky giving a preview of his upcoming book on Marshall.

From the futurist side, Zaha Hadid, recently in Chicago for a long-awaited appearance, dismissed the Biennial as "a cute show."  More detailed dissent came from Hadid Architects Senior Designer Patrik Schumacher who through several Chicago appearances became a sort of counter-Biennial in his own person.
Patrik Schumacher
Schumacher, a tireless polemicist in the cause of parametricism, first appeared at a debate in an ornate ballroom at the Congress Hotel sponsored by ArchAgenda that also included Peter Eisenman, Reinier de Graaf of OMA, Theodore Spyropoulos, and an alternately bullying and just bizarre Jeffrey Kipnis.

Schumacher went on first, electrifying the room with an impassioned critique.  "I have just been to the exhibition yesterday," he said, "and there was virtually next to nothing which I recognize as relevant contemporary architecture." He talked of "an imperative of coherence which implies a rejection of pluralism.  We can only accept pluralism as a temporary sort of condition during periods of crisis-induced paradigm shifts and the last one was the 1980's . . . We have to reject the fabulistic acceptance of a pluralism [as] an insurmountable condition of post-modernity."

"I think we should work from a benign intolerance as I would like to call it . . . The principle of indiscriminate tolerance . . . ultimately denies the possibility of a comparative variation of positions, paradigms and styles.   So that ultimately denies the discipline of rationality, denies the possibility of progress."

Schumacher expanded on his thoughts in subsequent lectures at both UIC and IIT.  His ideas are fascinating and truly provocative in the best sense of the word, even when you see major disconnects between his analysis and conclusions.  This kind of Salon des Refusés insinuated itself into the Biennial in a way that broadened and enriched its scope and cohesiveness.  Which leads me to . . .

Some final Thoughts on the First Chicago Architecture Biennial
1.  The open-endedness of the first Biennial was exactly the right approach, creating an event that was a true exploration, breaking the usual dominance of the usual-suspect best-known firms in a favor of a more eclectic mix of the work and thought of lesser-known architects.
2.  The Cultural Center and the Biennial is a match made in heaven.  The scale and finish of the building proclaims both "public" and "capacious".  The many white-wall galleries provided the accustomed neutral settings for installations, while the ornate interiors of the Yates Gallery and GAR hall provided a surprisingly contrasting and supportive backdrop for the often minimalist modern exhibits.

. . . and Second Thoughts for the Next

1.  If this year's theme was a survey-driven The State of Architecture, perhaps the next logically should be The Future of Architecture, organized around a clear dialectic - pure form versus sustainability, large versus small-architecture as an expression of prevailing power versus an instrument of subversion, etc. - that offers up a coherent foundation for discourse. Or perhaps simply make the next Biennial a symposium of the relationship between power and architecture.
2. Encourage more architect presentations that go beyond "and-then-I-designed" dog and pony shows to talk about the ideas first and then how the work ties into them.
3.  Scout satellite locations that can merge the Biennial within the city's globally-recognized architecture.  The Federal Center Plaza, UIC-West Side, IIT-Bronzeville, etc.
4.  Look for sponsors for regular bus shuttles to remote sites.
Sarah Herda, Michelle Boone
Blair Kamin has already named Biennial co-organizer Sarah Herda and Chicago Cultural Commissioner Michelle Boone as Chicagoans of the Year in Architecture, and, along with co-organizer Joseph Grima, they have, indeed, accomplished a small miracle in creating an exciting calling card that reasserts Chicago's claims to architectural relevance to a broad, global audience.  They dared not only to think big, but to posit a continuity of engagement that expands and deepens in repeated iterations.

Let's do it again

Read More:
Carnival of Possibilities:  A Photographic Tour of the First Morning of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Little Houses on the Lakefront:  The four kiosks of the Chicago Architectural Biennial
Bombs Away! Stanley Tigerman unveils Titanic 2015


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Death and Transfiguration: Louis Sullivan and Richard Nickel Dangerous Years

click images for larger view
(all images from Richard Nickel Dangerous Years,
courtesy Cityfiles Press


Richard Nickel Dangerous Years What He Saw What He Wrote,  Hardcover: 264 pages. $60.00 (Online Price: $50.00, including tax and shipping.)
Ultimately, you buy a book about Richard Nickel for his beautiful, often haunting photographs, and the new book Richard Nickel Dangerous Years: What He Saw and What He Wrote doesn't disappoint.  It includes scores of images never
before published, some - like the photo at the top of this post of a very young John Vinci working on bringing Adler and Sullivan's crown jewel, the Auditorium Theater, back from death's door - in gorgeous color.  If you came out of Christmas with some gift cash or cards, and if you love architecture or Chicago or both, this is an essential volume you'll want to add to your library and pull down from the shelf to revisit again and again. 
Dangerous Years is much a portrait of the artist and his times as a collection of Nickel's photographs.  Authors Rich Cahan and Michael Williams have taken an almost reliquary approach to their new book, including not only the pictures of the buildings, but reproductions of the documents of Nickel's life.   Press clippings, postcards, lists, drafts, angry letters -mundane objects that manage to make the period feel vitally alive - a "To Whom it May Concern" letter written by the Institute of Design's Crombie Taylor to help Nickel get access to buildings; a Western Union telegram from Mayor J. Daley about a meeting in City Council chambers "to discuss the pending demolition on the Garrick Theater building . . . "
Not all that long after he described himself as "completely stupid", there's a piece of lined three-hole punch paper where Nickel explores in a series of small drawings the thought process behind Sullivan's ornament.  There are daily itineraries,  Notes that Nickel took of his 1957 interview with Frank Lloyd Wright  "In his opinion, L.H.S got everything from Adler, [and] if it had not been for Adler, Sullivan might never have made the grade of 'Master'".

There are photos of Nickel himself, an unremarkable-looking man in glasses of unexpressive countenance, often dressed in white t-shirts.  
Dankmar Adler residence
The feeling went into the images he captured, the now classic photographs of a world in anguished death throes, proud and beautiful old buildings spurned and forgotten, hemorrhaging rubble as they await obliteration . . . the gaping maw of the sanctuary of Burnham and Root's Church of the Covenant, split open like a cracked egg. 

There's also revealing images of buildings, not in the usual idealized isolation, but in their actual context, including a photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright's under-construction Price Tower rising out of a abject streetscape with a gas station and used car dealership in the foreground, the perspective placing both Wright's skyscraper and the gas station's vertical sign in a visual equivalency.   There are photographs documenting both the grounds and the cottage Louis Sullivan built for himself in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, destroyed by Katrina in 2005.

You want there to be a take-away, some inspirational message to be drawn.  But history always confounds.  And what is history?  The expression of power through people and events.  And the story of Richard Nickel is a time capsule of a shifting paradigm moment in American urbanism, in deep concentration on the city's South Side.

Richard Nickel and the Remaking of Post-War Chicago
In the 1940's, postwar Chicago had another word for the city's architectural heritage: The Slums.  As Afro-Americans poured into the city during the war, they formed a burgeoning "Black Belt" that swelled to take over former white neighborhoods east of the railroad tracks on Chicago's South Side.

It was among the twenty-three square miles the city had designated as "blight", said to threaten another 56 square miles adjacent, altogether more than a third of Chicago's land mass.    The feds had the money, and the city had the plan:  destroy it - all of it.  Create a tabula rasa for new development so destructed that it reminded a visiting Englishwoman of London after the German bombing raids.

Much of what was destroyed only grew into being slums; proud old buildings built for the middle and upper class, now deteriorated through neglect and misuse.  Within a single half-mile, there were 19 houses designed by the firm of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler for wealthy Jewish families.

In booming turn-of-the-century Chicago, Burnham and Root and Holabird and Roche were the architecture firms of power, getting the big commissions for the huge office buildings that would come to define the Chicago School of Architecture.  They were the brains and the muscle.  Adler and Sullivan were the heart.  Most specifically Louis Sullivan, the iconoclastic genius who had no problem combining high commerce with high art, expressing the compressed energy tightly contained within the new commercial buildings into spectacular ornament bursting forth from the plain facades.

By the mid 20th-Century, however, Miesian modernism had begun its triumphant ascent, and Sullivan was out of fashion, an antique.  He had died in 1924 in a hotel room made out of a broom closet, a broken alcoholic, reduced in his final years to not especially lucrative commissions for small-town banks, works nonetheless so exquisite that their veneration increases down to our present day. 
Mid-Century Chicago had neither the patience nor the interest for such curiousity.  To the planners, what a building had been - or could be again - was unimportant.  All that mattered was securing their antiseptic visions for the future: pristine towers rising from sprawling gardens - or parking lots.
Rothschild Building (demolished)
What took place en masse on the South Side was also taking place in Chicago's commercial core, building by building.  Chicago's globally recognized architectural heritage was being decimated landmark after landmark for new, often numbingly mediocre towers.   Or worse.  Adler and Sullivan's spectacular Garrick Theater building, which combined an auditorium with a soaring early skyscraper, was proposed to be destroyed for a parking garage.

Into this mix came a young man born in Chicago to working class second-generation Polish Americans - his father drove a delivery truck for the Polish Daily News.   Like most young men of the era, Richard Nickel joined the army after high school, and afterwards returned to Chicago with a Rolleiflex camera he bought while serving in occupied Japan.  He enrolled in the Institute of Design, founded by László Moholy-Nagy, a refugee from the famed Bauhaus in Germany.

Nickel learned photography from Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan.  Eventually he would earn both bachelor's and master's degrees.  Around 1953, he was asked to join a Siskind project to create "a 'definitive' study of the architecture of Adler and Sullivan. Nickel probably didn't realize it at the time - he described himself as having "no feelings about architecture - knew nothing about Sullivan - in shirt, was completely stupid", but joining that class would define - and control - his short life.

The study was shopped around to potential publishers as a book, The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan.  But the records of the firm had been destroyed, the scope of the work unknown, with individual buildings disappearing almost weekly.  Although he would never complete the book, Nickel threw himself into the research, scouring old architectural magazines and engaging building owners in correspondence.
Obsession or habit, Louis Sullivan became Richard Nickel's life.  And it began to go beyond documenting to advocacy.  Almost single-handedly, Nickel jump-started the architectural preservation movement in Chicago, organizing picket lines protesting the demolition of the Garrick.  He developed relationships with owners and wreckers to salvage ornament from buildings being bulldozed, often in physically hazardous circumstances, often only with the help of an equally young John Vinci and Tim Samuelson.

Nickel became a ruthless archivist, forcing himself to rise again one lost battle after another.  He broke through a sixteen-foot wall of an Adler and Sullivan building under demolition to get at a vault he was told might contain photographs and blueprints.  Finding only real estate plans instead, he remarked, "The story of my life, struggling over nothing."  Nickel lost the battle to save the Garrick, but the city created the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to make sure it didn't happen again.  And then let it happen again when it cleared the way for the destruction of another extraordinary Adler and Sullivan masterpiece, the Stock Exchange Building.  Nickel wanted to save things, but his most enduring work is a necrology.  He created a photographic documentary on the willful destruction of a city's history.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

Attention to Nickel seems to take on a kind of Brigadoon quality.  Every few years a new book appears, and then disappears from sight.  Cahan's acclaimed 1994 biography, They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle To Save America's Architecture, is listed on the publishers website as "out of stock".  CityFile's 2006 Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City is listed as "sold out", with new copies on Amazon going for multiples of  the cover price.

Most egregiously, Nickel's magnum opus, The Complete Architecture and Adler and Sullivan has proved to be something of a phantom itself.  Left by Nickel for others to complete, it was finally published in 2010, and soon sold out.  At the end of that year the book, along with the rest of Nickel archives, was acquired by the Art Institute.  Not unlike keeping Seurat's La Grande Jatte out of sight in the basement, the Art Institute, with an endowment of nearly a billion dollars, continues to allow one of the essential monographs on American architecture to remain out-of-print (new copies at Amazon.com are priced from $700 to over $1,000.)

The story of Richard Nickel has become a passion play on the divide between our ideals and how we actually live our lives.  It's become almost a narrative of ritual sacrifice, the story of a working class schlub who unlocked the secrets of the sublime and knew its servant, Sullivan, better than anyone else, but who, in the end, simply chose to know the wrong things, and was cast adrift in a world where all the best people - the rich and powerful and the far larger number of us who aspire to be both - prudently chose to learn the right things, the practical market driven things that make Nickel's obsession, however admirable, ultimately naive and pathetic.
 At a point of despair, Nickel, whose love of the water had led him to become an accomplished sailor, quotes from Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, where the old sea captain Balstrode, sympathetic but wise to the ways of the world, advises Grimes, driven mad from the pressures of his own nature hounded by the venal, uncomprehending mob, on what is now the tormented fisherman's only way out . . .

. . . lose sight of land, then sink the boat. D'you hear? Sink her.

That was Richard Nickel's life.  His struggle.  He had his time, and then it ended.  And now we have his work, his obsessive work, that has grown in importance and recognition, and finds a kind of apotheosis in the remarkable, poignant, often deeply personal images of Richard Nickel Dangerous Years.

-----------------------------------------------------

"Stock Exchange is a scandal and a tragedy beyond words . . ."  Nickel had written. He worked for three months on rescuing the great Trading Room, painstakingly restored and rebuilt by John Vinci inside the Art Institute of Chicago, a stunning ghost of almost unbearable beauty,  a perfect shrine unmoored from meaning.

And then, in early 1972,  Nickel wrote to Samuelson a startling confession, "I'm afraid our days of adventuring, salvaging, avoiding the cops, etc. in the cause of Sullivan will soon terminate.  For me anyway, since I plan to marry Carol sometime this spring summer . . ." At age 43, Nickel had fallen in love, to 33-year-old Carol Ruth Sutter. "She's crazy about me and I figured the least I could do was reciprocate."  A newer, freer, more domestic Nickel emerged from the decades of obsession.  A new person appeared to be coming into being.

But not before one last excursion to the Stock Exchange to retrieve more ornament.  The demolition workers who watched him enter the building were the last to see him alive.  Reported missing the following evening, it would take over a month before his body was found under rubble that had collapsed into the structure's basement.

For us, the meaning of Richard Nickel's life is the amazing body of work he left behind.  For Richard Nickel, did it all boil down to that sliver of grace when he finally found love?



Read More:


Phantoms: Richard Nickel's Chicago

An Epic Journey - and the Architecture Book of the Year: The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Apple Founds Foster Home on Pioneer Court

Source: Chicago Department of Planning and Development,
via the Chicago Tribune (click images for larger view)


Late Thursday evening, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin released five renderings presented to the Chicago Department of Planning and Development for the long-rumored new Apple Store in Chicago's Pioneer Court along the north bank of the Chicago River just east of Michigan Avenue.
Source: Chicago Department of Planning and Development,
via the Chicago Tribune
Apart from a bravura free-standing glass staircase, the original Chicago store, opened in 2003 at the start of Apple's retail juggernaut several blocks to the north,  placed more emphasis on sustainability than spectacle.   The proposed new 20,000 square foot store, in contrast, would be more in line with the company's current vogue for epic architectural expressions.  According to Kamin's report, it was designed by the world-renowned firm of Foster + Partners.  It  would have a 6,500 square foot footprint, and redefine the relationship of the plaza to the river.
Currently, that link consists solely of a elegantly curved but constricted winding staircase.  In Foster's design, it's replaced by wide Spanish steps more in the line with the larger staircases found along the newer portions of the riverwalk to the east.  The huge roof over the glass-walled structure would cantilever in all directions but, perhaps most importantly, would stretch beyond the edge of the plaza to shelter the river walkway below.  In the renderings it has the appearance of wood, but would actually be reinforced with carbon fibre.
Pioneer Court's current rather anonymous riveredge would be replaced by a calling card 32-foot curtain wall, horizontally segmented between a 14-foot section above plaza level, and an 18 foot section beneath.  From the riverside view, it reads as a cutaway section of a one-story structure and its capacious basement.
Source: Chicago Department of Planning and Development,
via the Chicago Tribune
Strangely enough, the new store would be something of a return journey for Pioneer Court, constructed in the 1960's.  The site is said to have once held the residence of early settler Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable in the 1770's, and later the larger riverfront factory of the Jap Soap Company, which stretched north also to the doors of Tribune Tower and turned out 50,000 tons of soap each year.
image courtesy The Chuckman Collection
After an interim period as a surface parking lot, Pioneer Court was constructed in 1965 to link Skidmore Owings and Merrill's new Equitable Building to Michigan Avenue.   A cleaner version of the Apple proposal, a large Miesian entrance pavilion was part of the original design, bringing people down into the retail arcade beneath the plaza.
Chicago Tribune archive photo
Pioneer Court was redesigned in 1992, removing both the entrance pavilion and the fountain, inscribed with the names of 25 Chicago Pioneers that gave the plaza its name.

By being placed along the southern edge rather than centered on the plaza, the Apple Store, even as it strengthens the relationship to the river, unbalances the geometry of the plaza.  The plus side is that there would still be a large open area to the north of the store, which could continue to be home to such spectacular, if controversial installations as J Seward's Johnson God Bless America, a supersized version of Grant Wood's American Gothic . . .
. . . his even more infamous Forever Marilyn . . .
. . . and to events like 2013's edition of Diner en Blanc . . .
It would be good to get a better idea of what the inside of Foster's design will look like - there are no interior views among the five renderings accompanying Kamin's story - but from what we can see now, the Apple Store at Pioneer Court looks to be a pretty good deal both for the plaza and for creating a stronger, more generous civic linkage to the river at the beginning point of the Mag Mile.
Source: Chicago Department of Planning and Development,
via the Chicago Tribune
More:
Photo Courtesy The Chuckman Collection

A Short History of Pioneer Court, its Shortfalls and Potential

Monday, November 09, 2015

Flip City: Dead Meat at the Fulton Market

click images for larger view
Just months ago, the Fulton Street Market district was declared an official Chicago architectural landmark, protecting contributing structures spread out on over two dozen city blocks.  Above is the front of one of the newly protected buildings.
And this is what's behind.  Could there be any more accurate symbol of the current transitioning of one of Chicago's most historic districts?
This was one of what could be argued to be the two most important buildings in the district, each facing the other down a 252-foot length of the 800 block of west Fulton Street.  In some ways, they were the real beginning of the district.  They were constructed in 1887 by the Fulton Street Wholesale Market Company, a co-operative of 22 small meatpacking firms.
Architect William Strippelman designed them in the Romanesque Revival style he had studied at the University of Marburg, before he emigrated from Germany to the United States to serve as a draftsman in the Union army.  In 1868, he settled in Chicago, where he would spend the balance of his life and career. 
As recounted in the Landmark Commission's indispensable history of the district in the official Landmark Designation Report, Strippelman added a third story to both buildings in 1903.  By then, they housed not just the independents, but the branches offices of of "Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift, and Nelson Morris, the nation's 'big three' packer and global brand names in the early twentieth century,"
A mid-1960's fire consumed a large chunk of the twin on the north side of the street, with the damaged section replaced by a featureless two-story structure listed as "non-contributing" in the designation ordinance.
Fulton Market continued to be a going concern for over a century and a quarter, even as the centrifugal force of the Loop dissolved under the dual crushing forces of white flight and suburban sprawl, with neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the west and south spending the 60's and 70's becoming "problematic."  In the 21st century however, the central city is again compacting.  While troubled outlying neighborhoods like Englewood continue to depopulate, a massive gentrification continues in and around the Loop.  The near west and near south sides are headlong into the process of being re-secured as safe, upper middle-class territory.
With nearby west Randolph Street transforming into an avenue of upscale restaurants, Fulton Market's comparably cheap land and rents made it a magnet for galleries, shops and still more restaurants.  Initially, the new imports and the meatpackers and poultry, fish, eggs and butter merchants lived in an uneasy equilibrium.
1K Fulton (Former Fulton Market Cold Storage)
Then the dam broke.  The owners of the massive, 12-story tall Fulton Market Cold Storage building, the district's visual marker since the 1920's, sold out to developer Sterling Bay, which begin stripping the structure's facade to create a massive new office building where Google is consolidating over 500 Chicago workers currently dispersed among multiple locations.  Fulton Market is now a hotbed of development activity.  Hotels and club and residential developments join the mix of newcomers.
When many Fulton Market businesses fought the creation of the landmark district, they cited the added costs of complying with its provisions when they needed to modify their buildings, but left largely unsaid was the elephant on the forklift:  everyone could see big money was coming into Fulton Market.  Not unreasonably, they wanted their fare share when it came time to move on.
That time is now.  It was a shock to come upon the 1887 North Fulton Street building this past Sunday and see it demolished down to a taxidermy remnant.  A shock, but not a surprise.  Although actual meatpackers may be a vanishing presence, developers, in the words of the late deal-maker/shoebox collector Paul Powell, can "smell the meat a'cookin."  Money is the river that levels all obstacles in its path.
Behind that forlorn Fulton Street facadectomy is both a $20 million, 60,000-square-foot project and the story of the origins of money and power in the early 21st century.  The project is the Chicago outpost of Brooklyn Bowl, which began in 2009 inside a former 1880's ironworks foundry in the borough's Williamsburg neighborhood.  Claiming to be a the world's first LEED-certified bowling alley, the complex also includes a bar and a music venue that attracts such top acts as The Roots and Elvis Costello.  After branching out first to London and Las Vegas, Chicago is the next link in their chain.

The story of money and power is that of local powerhouse Don Wilson, who began as a eurodollar options trader at the Chicago Mercantile exchange, and within seven years built up his own firm, DRW Holdings LLC, into a company with 500 employees.  Becoming fabulously wealth, he  branched off into real estate, with impressive results.  In January of this year he sold for $14.1 million a building at 1003 North Rush that he had bought for $12.4 two years before.  In February, DRW sold the former 1938 Esquire Theater, which it had gutted and transformed into a high-end retail building, for $176 million.  DRW had bought the property in 2010 from the Anglo Irish Bank, which had acquired it by foreclosing on a $33.2 million loan. 
Originally the Fulton Market project had included a 17-story, 200 room hotel, but now Brooklyn Bowl is the primary tenant, fitting its 24 lanes and 600-person concert stage into a three-story structure designed by local firm OKW Architects that will also feature 18,000 square feet of retail.

In Williamsburg, Brooklyn Bowl kept what seems to have been a fairly unremarkable foundry building and gutted it for their build-out, drawing heavily on recycled materials.  In Chicago, DRW has traded off demolishing a newly designated landmark building by agreeing to keep its facade.  Undoubtedly, that process is not inexpensive, but it's pretty clear it's looked on as little more than a sop to landmarks in order to get the desired tabula rasa on the remainder of the site.  In the only rendering for the new building I've been able to find, the historic facade is basically an afterthought, shunted off to the side in favor of an emphasis on the cheerful mediocrity of the new building's faux industrial facades.
rendering: OKW Architects
Within two years, I would expect that nearly all of the businesses that gave Fulton Market District life for over a century and a quarter will have relocated.  Corfu Foods is now in Bensenville, Fulton Market Cold Storage relocated as Hasak Cold Storage in Lyons.  Barring an economic crash halting development in its tracks, the neighborhood will become one of the most vibrant in the city, but the "market" in Fulton Market will be long departed, gone the way of Cap Streeter's steamboat, a visceral reality reduced to the abstraction of a branding device.  The lovely restaurants will remain and multiple, the sourcing of the food they serve now another abstraction, the physical reality of the process banished safely out of sight.

Like a blue-legged centipede, the supports of the salvaged facade put Fulton Street's last survivors on notice: the tentacles of a very hungry progress will soon be reaching their way.


Flip City: Stories of Fulton Market:

Strippers Attack, Heat up Fulton Market

Googleplex comes to Fulton Market

Instant Landmark: Carol Ross Barney's Morgan Street Station at Fulton Market


The Brick Stackers