Friday, November 30, 2007

I Hab a Bab Cod

. . . so, self-pitying wretch that I am, it's been Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen time the last few days. For your edification, here's a portrait of my treatment (my masseuse didn't want to be photographed for some reason; I guess I can see her point), as well as a few extra Christmas shots: the IBM Building and Garage, giant iPod-wielding nutcrackers, and Marina City, the IBM, Trump Tower and the Wrigley Building - for your trouble.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Exploring Forgotten Chicago

Despite's best efforts, including those annoying word verification fields (which I never seem able to get right at first attempt), spam still occasionally makes it through to the comments area of my blog - unrelated plugs for resorts, remedies for mold and, increasingly, invitations to websites written in Chinese that seem to be pitching vendors for various types of equipment. A recent Chinese language spam lists the word "reactor" over a dozen times - I can only hope they don't mean nuclear. As I soon as I find any of these spam listings, I delete them.

Which was just what I about to do with a supposed spam for a Forgotten Chicago website. Wrong. Forgotten Chicago turns out to be a highly personal and almost addictive repository of pieces on lesser known aspects of the city, informative and with great photographs and illustrations.

Want an explanation of Chicago's pre-1909 street numbering system? Here it is. Did you know St. Ignatius High School has a great outdoor collection of artifacts from lost Chicago architecture, including bas reliefs from the Old Chicago Stadium, and a piece of the cornice from Louis Sullivan's Stock exchange building? They do, and you can see pictures of them on the Forgotten Chicago website here.

For years, I was wondering what happened to Johannes Gelert's statue of a herald, which had originally adorned Burnham and Root's 1891 Chicago Herald building on Washington. Long after that building was lost, the sculpture had stood, seemingly forever, on the roof of a forlorn one story parking garage that had taken over the site. When that garage was torn down, the sculpture had briefly reappeared in a niche on the far larger multi-story facility that replaced it. And then, one day, it was gone. Now I know it's found safe harbour at St. Ignatius.

Ever visit Schuba's on Belmont and wonder about those Schlitz globes on the facades? Well, they were part of a short-lived "tied house" era. Forgotten Chicago's web page on the subject not only explains what that was (a system where certain taverns were "tied" to sell products of one brewery exclusively), but provides a list of all the known surviving examples, many with photographs.

There also's a great story on Ogden Avenue, one of the diagonal streets that were an integral part of the 1909 Burnham Plan, that originally ran all the way to Clark Street - perhaps the only North Side diagonal that ran in a northeasterly, rather than the usual northwesterly, direction. North of North Avenue, it was demolished beginning in the 1960's in another urban renewal initiative that may ultimately prove to be rather short-sighted. You can sense its absent presence in the open "Ogden Mall" sitting outside Ranalli's Pizza on Lincoln, and in mess of streets around Menomonee and Hudson that Ogden's removal sliced into disconnected cul-de-sacs. And you can find the bas-reliefs rescued from the demolished Ogden viaduct at St. Ignatius.

Great stuff, and there's a lot more where that came from. Check out the Forgotten Chicago website here.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Norman Mailer - Futurist Blockhead

I was reading Sneed's Sunday column in the Chicago Sun-Times (hey - it could happen) when I came across the following item:
Legendary novelist Norman Mailer may have left behind a mountain of prose, but he also left behind a ton of Legos: a 15,000 piece "City of the Future."
The image of such a construction popping up, Rosebud-like, in a warehouse of the late author's belongings sent me back to my copy of Mailer's 1966 Cannibals and Christians, in which the following photograph, by Simeon C. Marshall, forms the frontispiece.
What's strange about the above image is that Mailer hated modern architecture ("collective sightlessness for the species") and seemed to have thought the work of Mies, LeCorbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright interchangeable and equally dreadful.

But in an essay in the book originally written in 1964 for the Architectural Forum, Mailer riffed on a contemporary projection that by 2016, the U.S. would have 400,000,000 inhabitants, and be 4/5 urban. Like most radicals, he was in many aspects supremely conservative, even reactionary. He could see sprawl coming, and he didn't like it:
If we are to spare the countryside, if we are to protect the style of the small town and of the exclusive suburb, keep the organic center of the metropolis and the old neighborhoods, maintain those few remaining streets where the tradition of the nineteenth century and the muse of eighteenth century still linger on the mood in the summer cool of any evening, if we are to avoid a megalopolis five hundred miles long, a city without shape or exit, a nightmare of ranch houses, highways, suburbs and industrial sludge . . . then there is only one solution: the cities must climb, they must not spread, they must build up, not by increments, but by leaps, up and up, up to the heavens.
And so Mailer, working with Eldred Mowery, Jr., created an expression of his vision in a 7 foot high model constructed out of 20,000 Legos, a "vertical city of the future more than a half mile high, near to three-quarters of a mile in length, with 15,000 apartments for 50,000 people." Far from offering up a classicist's idyll, it out-Jetsons anything Wright or Corbu ever envisioned. Mailer wondered whether "a large fraction of the population would find it reasonable to live one hundred or two hundred stories in the air." Garrett Kelleher is probably pondering that same question this very moment.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Short, Brutal Life of a Parade Balloon

from the archive

One moment you're flying high, the center of attention. Young children on their parent's shoulders point to you and laugh in delight. The marching bands and anemic floats meander past with scarcely concealed envy, knowing the spectators regard them as little more than the filler leading up to your appearance. A thousand cameras focus on each step of your journey, while on TV screens throughout the city, you float down the canal of grand old buildings like a Godzilla who had come to Tokyo, not to destroy it, but to dance through its streets.
Then you turn the corner, just out of the sight of the adoring crowds, and suddenly you're getting the air knocked out of you. You're being punched, kicked, pummeled. Your nose falls flush against the pavement and your nether end hangs indecorously in the air. You feel your spine being squeezed out of you , your legs stomped flat as pancakes. You collapse.
Yet the assault continues, without mercy, until you're nothing more than a bundle of brightly colored rag, stuffed into a bag and put up on a dark shelf, to spend all the seasons of the coming year consumed in angst, worrying whether some freshborn cartoon will steal your place in next November's resurrection.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Nouvel Khan, Tatlin garnish

As a Chicagoan born and bred, it's impossible to look at Jean Nouvel's stunning new 53 West 53rd, a 75-story hotel/condo tower to be erected next to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, without thinking of its early precedents: the diagonal-braced tube skyscrapers of the great engineer Fazlur Khan, most especially the iconic John Hancock Building on North Michigan avenue, designed at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in collaboration with architect Bruce Graham.

Separated by four decades, the two towers offer up cogent and contrasting expressions of their respective era's. Read all about it, and see the pictures, here.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Marina City Follies Continue - Who Will They Sue?

The Marina Towers Condo Association Board met last Thursday, and as expected, blew past the concerns of unit owners in attendance and passed a new set regulations including the notorious Rule Number 5, which claims that the association owns copyright to the building and can shake down anyone wanting to take and publish a photograph of the complex to require MCTA permission and pay royalties . For those so inclined, you can actually download a recording of the meeting, from the Marina City Online website, here.

MTCA attorney Ellis Levin furiously backpedaled from the copyright claim, despite the fact that it's explicitly cited in Rule 5, and now contends the claimed protections derive from trademark law. Yeah, right.
1. How can the MTCA trademark something it doesn't own? Condo owners own the top 40 floors, other entities own the first 20 floors and the other elements in the complex.
2. As you can see from this list on this website of a seller of royalty-free stock footage, numerous buildings including, in Chicago, the Wrigley Building and Board of Trade, have obtained trademark protection, and as you can see from the webpage, it has intimidated companies like this to avoid problems by not accepting photos of these trademarked buildings. However, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single successful prosecution against the photographers of trademarked buildings that has prevailed in court.
3. The Sixth Circuit of Appeals specifically rejected a trademark infringement lawsuit filed by the I.M. Pei designed Rock 'n Roll Museum against a defendant who featured an image of the building on posters he sold.
4. A claim at a previous MTCA board meeting that WBBM-TV Chicago paid the MTCA for use of the building's image, used to bolster the case for Rule 5, was refuted by station manager Joe Ahern, who stated clearly that the fee paid was only for renting space in the complex, "We do not pay to take shots of buildings”

Infatuated with their sense of self-importance, the MTCA board, in the best Captain Queeq tradition of paranoia, is obsessed with the idea that anyone could confuse authorship of photographs or writings on Marina City with the versions officially sanctioned by the MCTA. Rather than embrace an absolutely splendid website like Marina City Online, which offers up a dazzling collection of information and history on the complex, the MCTA would have us all sink to the level of the MTCA's own embarrassing web presence, pathetically designed and shamefully uninformative.

News flash to the MTCA board. Outside of you and your immediate families, the rest of the world not only doesn't even know the MTCA exists, it couldn't care less. To everyone else on the planet, Marina City is architect Bertrand Goldberg's architectural masterpiece. To demand that everyone must bow down before you is like the night janitor at the Louvre demanding top billing over Da Vinci. To be able to live in one this city's greatest masterworks is a rare privilege, and it would behoove the MTCA board to divert a little of the time they spend as Napoleonic grifters to being responsible caretakers of one of Chicago's great treasures.

For now, however, the rule has passed. There'll be no more news unless the MTCA board is actually stupid enough to try to enforce it.

Weekend News - Brown Takes on TIF's, Prokofiev's Happy Ending for Romeo and Juliet

TIF Scandal Spurs Phony Tax Bills - Add Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown to growing roster of those unmasking one of the Daley administrations dirtiest secrets: the way TIF's are eviscerating the city's tax base to funnel increasingly large and questionable subsidies to connected institutions and developers. Brown's Sunday column exposes the basic fraudulence of tax bills sent to property owners in TIF districts, using the bill for the Mayor's own home as an example. Brown discovers that more 89% of the $13,056 bill is diverted to the TIF. While the tax bill lists $6,641 as going to the Chicago Board Education, the actual figure is more like $713. Read the column here.

Romeo and Juliet - Happily Ever After - If you think putting a smiley face on tragic tales began with Disney, catch this article by Patricia Cohen in the Sunday New York Times. Sergei Prokofiev's ballet score after Shakespeare has long been one of the most popular compositions in classical music, but the composer's original was much different than the one to which we've become accustomed.

In addition to the aforementioned matter of Juliet waking up in the tomb and walking off into the sunset with her Romeo, there was at least 20 minutes more music, but the same Stalinist pressure that had produced the 1936 denunciation of Dmitri Shostakovich resulted in five years of delays for the premiere of Prokofiev's new ballet, during which the most dissonant and difficult passages were cut, the orchestration thickened, and the drama recast as a battle between, according to Cohen, "arrogant old aristocrats and youthful progressives." Oh, and the principals again died.

Prokofiev's original score remained secreted in the Russian archives until it was uncovered by musicologist Simon Morrison in 2006. Now it's being painstakingly reconstructed, and the original score, with choreography by the amazing Mark Morris, is set to debut at Bard College next July, followed by a world tour. Read the story here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Green, Green - in Germany and the U.S., and at Chicago Architectural Club Round Table

Even as we head into the annual ceremony of ritual avian sacrifice, we're still adding events to the November calendar.

This Tuesday, November 20th at 6:30 P.M., going up against Hernán Díaz Alonso's appearance at the Art Institute beginning a half hour earlier, the Chicago Architectural Club, at the iSpace Gallery, will be holding the first of what it expects to be a series of roundtable discussions, this one exploring the questions of: What is the role of the architect in the Green Revolution? What role does technology play? What about authorship? And what does "Green" mean, anyway? Have we been too quick to define the term?

There's still more green a week later, November 27th from 1:30 to 6:00 PM at the Merchandise Mart, when the German American Chamber of Commerce in the Midwest and Baden-Wuerttemberg International (BW-I) present a forum, Transatlantic Perspectives on Energy Efficient Architecture in Germany and the United States, where the roster of participants will include Helmut Meyer of Transsolar, as well as Erik Olsen of the Chicago Department of Buildings talking about the city's Green Permit program.

Both programs are free, but require RSVP's. The Transatlantic Perspectives forum is limited to 60 participants. Click on each event's link above for more info.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Putti Gone Wild

Via the indefatigable Joan Pomaranc comes word that an antique bronze clock and matching candelabra owned by the late theater historian Joseph DuciBella will be put up for auction on Sunday, November 25th by Elgin's Bunte Auction. DuciBella, who died this past June, had rescued the ensemble from the Magnolia Street side of the lobby of the Uptown Theater, the grand, 1926 4000-seat Chicago movie palace that has been shuttered since 1981. (Chicago Inside is again reporting that no less than two national promoters - Jam Productions and Live Nation - are interested in rescuing the severely decayed landmark from its long slumber.)

Bunte Auction's backstory relates that DuciBella acquired the clock after it had been sold to the Hoosier Theater in Whiting, Indiana, and that "the three pieces were black as coal. Think of the accumulated tarnish and dirt of the theatre and the thousands of curious fingers that had touched it!"

Somehow the almost deliriously ornate clock seems a perfect distillation of the brief, populist era of the movie palace, when the high Baroque and the palaces of the super-rich were reimagined as a royal backdrop for the working class audiences who filled the massive theater, day after day.

The Sunday, November 25th auction will be at Bunte Auction, 755 Church Road in Elgin.

POSTSCRIPT: Please click on the comments to this post to read the Uptown Advisor's response to critical comments about this sale.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

(Half) Billion Dollar Baby

In still another milestone in the city's growing TIF scandal, Crain's Chicago Business reported today that Cook County Clerk David Orr estimates that for the new tax year, the amount of money diverted into Chicago's TIF districts will cross the half-billion dollar mark, to $500.4 million, 29% more than just the year before, and triple the amount diverted just five years ago. At this rate, the amount of money diverted into TIF's may soon eclipse undiverted revenues - $820 million in 2008.

Even as TIF diversions were set to rise by $114,000,000, the Chicago City Council on Tuesday passed , by a vote of 29 to 21, the Daley's administration $86 million property tax increase, part of over a quarter billion dollars of increases in taxes, fees and fines.

With the mayor chortling appreciatively from the podium, 29th ward alderman Issac Carothers praised himself and his colleagues for being supine pushovers for Daley's unprecedented increases. "Thank God for the folks in this council who did the heavy lifting for you. Thank God."

"Heavy lifting" and "alderman" is, of course, an oxymoron, as the only energy usually expended by an alderman is the expulsion of hot air. The real heavy lifting will come from Chicago residents, including the city's poor, out of whose pockets the $270 million will be picked, even as TIF's funnel increasingly large bundles of money to increasingly questionable projects, ($40 million to the Chicago Board of Trade, $58 to the developer of an ill-conceived addition to Union Station, etc.).

So why are the mayor and his captive aldermen laughing? Because they know by the next time they're up for election, in 2011, you'll have forgotten all about it.

Chicago Streetscenes - Bridgework, Towards the Light

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Classicists Double the Stakes

It was announced last week that philanthropist Richard Driehaus has doubled the dollar amount for the annual Driehaus Prize, the counter-Pritzker recognizing anti-modernist architects, from $100,000 to $200,000. The Henry Hope Read award, given to classical supporters who are not architects, also doubles, to $50,000.

Both awards are administered by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. The jury for the 2008 award, whose recipients are to be named later this month, included Driehaus, Notre Dame architecture dean Michael Lykoudis, and New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, among others. Last year's winner was Jaquelin T. Robertson, whose Charleston Judicial Center is show here. Other past receipients include Quinlan Terry, Demetri Porphyrios and Leon Krier.

Meanwhile, the opening of Driehaus' Museum of Decorative Arts in the restored Nickerson Mansion has been pushed back indefinitely. For a preview of its spectacular interiors, check out the photos accompanying this October Chicago Magazine profile of Driehaus here. You can also read Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin's interview with Richard Driehaus about his doubled efforts here.

Also this week, classicist Thomas Gordon Smith will be delivering The Classical Perspective, a talk about the "current reanimation of classical architecture", at a Landmarks Illinois Preservation Snapshots lecture 12:15 P.M. this Thursday, November 15th, at the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 East Randolph.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"What Elephant?" says Civic Federation report

The Civic Federation released its report on TIF's (tax increment financing) today, and the local media are reading into it what they want to see.

The Chicago Tribune, big corporate's best friend who's been largely silent on the Chicago TIF scandal, ran its story under this headline:
Special tax districts hit wallets but spur growth, study finds. Study says spurring growth is trade-off
Crain's Chicago Business, which along its political reporter Greg Hinz has been uncovering the stink of the city's TIF slush funds, ran its own story with:
TIF programs need reform: Civic Federation
The most hallucinatory conclusion of the Civic Federation study, as reported in Crain's, is that while TIF's raise taxes on the parts of the city not in a TIF, that's not a really a problem, because "when the district expires, all property-tax revenues, including that from the new growth, return to the regular pool shared by the city, county, public schools and other local governments."

Well, I guess that makes it all OK then. According to the Civic Federation, all that criticism of Chicago's TIF's is just a big misunderstanding. Except, wait - exactly how does money start flowing back to schools and public services when, as of today, NOT A SINGLE Chicago TIF district has EVER been terminated. Most of Chicago's TIF districts have a life of 23 years, but, like copyright, they throw off too many goodies for addicted politicians not to convert them into permanent fixtures.

The poster child for this is the Central Loop TIF, created in 1984. Even after a full generation and three quarters of a billion dollars in spending, its still appears to have failed to have raised the Loop above the level of an officially "blighted" area - the Daley administration keeps dropping hints it will push to renew the TIF when it expires next year.

When the Civic Federation talks about TIF districts being abolished, it's like Marx talking about the State withering away - pretty soon a Commissar has taken up residence in your house and is guzzling down all the good vodka. I've heard some people claim to have quit heroin "cold turkey", but for most drunkards - with wine, with poetry, with virtue, or with TIF's, à votre guise - salvation comes only with intervention.

Whitewash though it is, the Civic Federation still makes some interesting recommendations on increasing transparency and accountability, and includes a great deal of analysis and data not found on the city's new TIF pages, including a complete list of all the projects funded by the Central Loop TIF. I'm still working my way through its 97 pages (and hoping Ben Joravsky will provide his usual cogent analysis in the Reader), but you can grab a cup of hot chocolate, stretch out before the fireplace, laptop in hand, and download it for yourself here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Louis Sullivan: Under Construction

Last November, we were covering the destruction of the 1888 George Harvey House, the last of no less than three rare, irreplaceable Adler & Sullivan designed structures to be destroyed by fire in a single year.

2007 comes to close on a more positive note. This time it's not destruction, but construction that's going on at another three of Louis Sullivan's designs.

Last year, Sullivan's ornate long-lost cornice for his 1899 Carson Pirie Scott store was beautifully reconstructed under the direction of preservation architect Gunny Harboe, just in time for the century-old department store to announce it would be closing its doors early in 2007. The new owner, Joseph Freed & Associates, is in the process of converting most of the structure to office space, and is still seeking tenants for retail on the lower floors.

Now the Chicago City Council has given final approval to a $9.48 million TIF subsidy towards the estimated $11.82 million cost of repairing and restoring Sullivan's intricate, almost obsessively fecund foliate cast-iron ornament that frames the shop windows of the first two floors of the building. "Experience the Magic" proclaims the signage covering the scaffolding, echoing the "Something Magic is Happening" slogan on the shade put over Macy's windows when they're being changed, a Disneyfied invocation of the occult that manages to be creepy and insipid at the same time. In the case of Macy's, the unveiled "magic", except during the Christmas holiday, is usually just another pedestrian window setting. At Carson's, at least, the finished product has a much better shot at actually fulfilling the promise.

One block down State Street, opposite the Palmer House, a far more mundane - and largely unnoticed - Sullivan design, the 1884 Morgenthau, Bauland and Company store, trashed long ago in a clunky "modernization", is also covered in scaffolding for a new Ulta cosmetics store.If you look up to the building's crown, you can see the last remnants of Sullivan's ornament.
Things are also looking up at the 1881 Jeweler's Building on Wabash, designed by Sullivan before he became Sullivan, in a sort of 1870's commercial Gothic style that still manages to carry intimations of a master's touch. For as long as I can remember, the building's been trashed by the second floor windows being covered up with green-painted wood inserts.
Now, the wood is gone, the windows again revealed. The building is losing its haphazard derelict patina, and the rough beauty of the young Sullivan's conception allowed to again come through.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Farewell to Norman

Brooklyn, however, beautiful Brooklyn, grew beneath the skyscrapers of Manhattan, so it never became a great city, merely an asphalt herbarium for talent destined to cross the river. Chicago did not have Manhattan to preempt the top branches, so it grew up from the savory of its neighborhoods to some of the best high-rise architecture in the world, and because its people were Poles and Ukrainians and Czechs as well as Irish and the rest, the city had Byzantine corners worthy of Prague or Moscow, odd tortured attractive drawbridges over the Chicago River, huge Gothic spires like the skyscraper which held the Chicago Tribune, curves and abutments and balconies in cylindrical structures thirty stories high twisting in and out of the curves of the river, and fine balustrades in its parks. Chicago had a North Side on Lake Shore Drive where the most elegant apartment buildings in the world could be found -- Sutton Place in New York betrayed the cost analyst in the eye of the architect next to these palaces of glass and charcoal colored steel. In superb back streets behind the towers on the lake were brownstones which spoke of ironies, cupidities and intricate ambition in the fists of the robber barons who commissioned them--substantiality, hard work, heavy drinking, carnal meats of pleasure, and a Midwestern sense of how to arrive at upper-class decorum, were also in the American grandeur of these few streets . . .

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

London and Chicago Olympic Stadiums - Separated at Birth?



Olympic size

80,000 seats

80,000 seats
Post-Olympic size

25,000 seat stadium

5,000 seat amphitheatre
Mayoral Hyperbole

" . . . the best stadium ever constructed anywhere on the planet.” - Ken Livingstone

". . . will create an urban legacy that will outlive the end of the Olympic Games" - Richard M. Daley
Original Cost Estimate

£280,000,000 ($590,000,000) (2004)

$300,000,000 (September, 2006)
Latest Cost Estimate

£496,000,000 ($1,044,000,000) (November, 2007)


(June, 2007)
Initial Reaction to Revised Design

"a bowl of blancmange"

still awaiting first revision

Stop Taking Pictures of Marina City!

(Plus, a spectacular 1965 film on the construction of Bertrand Goldberg's masterpiece)

Serving on a condo board can be a thankless, high-pressure job. That's the only excuse I can think of for the declaration, equal parts loony and arrogant, of the board of the Marina Towers Condo Association:
"Because of the architectural significance of our building, the Condominium Association holds a common law copyright on the use of the Association name and building image. This means that under Federal and Illinois law, advertisers, movie makers and others cannot use the Association name or image without first obtaining express written permission from the Association . ."
Bloggers such as Marina City Online have been having a field exposing the shear stupidity of the declaration, reportedly drafted by the board's long-time attorney Ellis Levin, a long way away from his days as a progressive, independent legislator.

What kind of idiot do you have to be to actually insert the phrase "under Federal and Illinois law," when copyrights are a federal protection, and have nothing to do with state law? Then there's the inconvenient fact the condo owners only own the top 40 floors of each 60-story tower. Exactly how can they claim to own a copyright to "Marina Towers" when the first 20 stories of the towers, and the other structures of the commercial complex, are owned by someone else? And then there's the matter of exclusivity. Upon a quick Googlecheck, here are just a few of the other "Marina Towers" throughout the world.
Alexandria, Virginia
Corpus Christi, Texas
Marina del Rey, California
Oceanside, North Carolina
Beirut, Lebanon
Chennai, India
No doubt the MTCA will soon be attempting to shake them down for royalties.

Marina City Online's Steven Dahlman deftly dissects the sloppy posturing of the board's proposal here. He has even engaged attorney Thomas D. Rosenwein, who refutes its basic legality here. Chicago Carless' Mike Doyle, redeeming himself from his support for the Chicago Children's Museum land grab in Grant Park, has also covered the topic here. And to get feel for the eclectic mix of residents at the towers, check out the MarinaWatchDog blog, which consists entirely of comment postings - some reasoned, some impassioned, some almost inscrutably strange.

As you probably already know, I am also a long term resident of Marina City. I feature numerous photos of Bertrand Goldberg's masterpiece on my website and this blog, and I guess I actually qualify as a commercial interest, as I receive regular, if pitiable, checks from Google from the ads they run there.

The proposed change to Rule Number 5 is scheduled to be voted on November 15th. So I say to Ellis and the board, pass your rule and then - please, please, please - come after me. If you're so dead set on embarrassing the building, the board, its residents, and - come to think of it - the very notion of intelligent human life, I will be a willing co-conspirator in getting your buffoonery the widest possible audience.

The Making of Marina City
On a much more positive note, an unexpected pleasure I encountered when researching this post is photographer Steven Dahlman's aforementioned Marina City Online website, co-created with real estate broker Michael Michalak. As opposed to MCTA's own almost laughably pedestrian website, Marina City Online has a wealth of useful information, including a listing of recent unit sales, maps and floorplans, and an encyclopedic history of Marina City, beautifully illustrated.

Did you know, for example, that Marina City is located on Block 1 on Chicago's original 1837 township map, or that the site was once owned by former Chicago Mayor Thomas Dyer (1856-57)? There's even a Currier and Ives lithograph showing the site and its environs circa 1892.

But perhaps the most spectacular feature of the site is a 1965, documentary, This is Marina City, produced by the Portland Cement Association. The bad news is that film has grown more than a little fuzzy with time, but the film's color images are still nothing short of breathtaking. You see the site before construction begins, surrounding by a vanished city, huge cold storage warehouses on the other side of Dearborn, surface parking at the level of the river where the IBM building is now. The film was a showpiece for the trade unions, who financed the project as a calling card for their services, just as the PCA would produce the film to promote its products.

Every phase of construction is covered - the excavation for the caissons, the complex formwork for the central cores, rising like slender reeds high into the skyline; more formwork, this time like something out of Gaudi, for the curving balconies, the painstaking pouring of the floor slabs, and views of the building at the time of its opening - the skating rink and the modern sculptures that once encircled it, the original elevator lobbies, Johnny Lattner's riverside restaurant, the gleaming glass displays cases of the first grocery store, and the office building, now the Hotel Sax, that then included the offices of Bertrand Goldberg, himself. An enthralling time capsule of a great building and its time. See it here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Preservation of Historic Muslim Architecture on exhibit at Symphony Center - Wright Wasmuth Portfolio show extended

The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme Exhibition will be making a stop at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan Avenue, this weekend, part of a ten city American tour. A project of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Historic Cities, established in 1992, promoting "the conservation and re-use of buildings and public spaces in historic cities in the Muslim World" and how it can "build bridges, not only between the past and present in the Muslim world, but also between the Muslim world and the West."

Among the projects featured in Humayun's Tomb, constructed between 1562 and 1572 in Delhi, Indian. The red standstone monument is reputed to be the first example of the type of garden tomb that would reach its apex with the Taj Mahal. The Aga Khan Trust funded a 2003 restoration that returned water to the tomb's fountains and the grid of waterways that divide its garden into four large squares. Projects will also be on display from Egypt, Mali, Afghanistan and Syria.

The exhibition is free and open to the public on the 2nd and 3rd level of Symphony Center's rotunda Friday, November 9th from 12 to 10 P.M., Saturday the 10th from 10 A.M. to 10 P.M., and Sunday the 11th from 10 A.M., to 5:00 P.M. The exhibition is being held in conjuction with a Friday, November 9th 8:00 P.M. concert, Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia, featuring "Alim Qasimov, the legendary mugham singer from Azerbaijan, whose music cellist Yo-Yo Ma says 'can be described in just three words: simplicity, depth and transcendence'; Tajikistan’s seven-person Badakhshan Ensemble, performing its trance-inducing mystical songs; and the Bardic Divas from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kalmykia demonstrating the power of the female voice."

On another note, the exhibition of lithographs from the legendary 1910 Wasmuth Portfolio that brought the work of Frank Lloyd Wright to the attention of Europe has been extended through December 29th. The portfolio established Wright's reputation, and influenced a generation of European architects, many of whose work, as emigres to America during World War II, channeled Wright's ideas into an "International Style" that Wright himself would come to detest. The exhibition is on display, with individual items available for purchase, at the ArchiTech Gallery, 730 North Franklin, Suite 200, open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 5:00 P.M. "or by chance or appointment."

Monday, November 05, 2007

"The Library" at IIT dedicates new expansion.

Last Friday night, the Graham Resource Center, commonly known as "The Library" of the School of Architecture of the Illinois Institute of Technology, celebrated a major expansion of both its space and its collection. The library, located on the lower level of the Mies van der Rohe's iconic Crown Hall, has doubled its space, to 6,000 square feet.

"About two years ago," said Dean of Architecture Donna Robertson, "Professor Harry Mallgrave, who was new to my faculty, said to me, 'You know, this library is not up to snuff.' I said, 'I know, I know. I'm trying to grow it, with no money.' He said, 'I'm going to write a letter to the alumni and ask them to donate. He did, and it worked."

"I would say around 20 to 25 alumni responded," says Head Librarian Matt Cook. "That seems low, but they gave us 13,000 books. Some of those donors gave us huge collections. We've got George Danforth, Myron Goldsmith, Paul Thomas. Deever Rockwell donated some Alfred Caldwell works, which we currently have on display."

"Since I started here four years ago, we've gone from 5,000 to 15,000 books. We've hired a second librarian to get the new donations processed. It's only going to be a couple of years until this library is filled. It's capacity is 35,000 and we'll be there relatively soon. We have about 35,000 slides. We're working diligently at digitizing those."

"Champaign-Urbana, I think is the best architectural library in the Midwest. I think we're awfully close to being the best architectural library in the city."

"We're open to the general public. Anyone can come in. We're open and people can use our collections." Cook said the library's current hours are 8:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M., Monday through Thursday, closing at 7:00 P.M. on Fridays, 10:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. on Saturday, and noon to 10:00 P.M. on Sundays.

Robertson also announced the school is starting an endowment fund to support the Graham Resource Center.

The evening concluded with a lecture by Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture, Columbia University, who gave a preview of a book to be published by Rizzoli, documenting Frampton's course on the Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form. ("The publishers," said Frampton, "being publishers, don't exactly think [that's] a swinging title.")

"The dinosaur is still in the habit of showing the slides," Frampton confided, but the lecture was accompanied by what "I also have to say in perfect embarrassment, is the first Powerpoint presentation of my life." The slides appeared to be page mockups for the future book, which left, to Frampton's chagrin, many of graphics small and sometimes difficult to decipher. There may be something to said for the old-fashioned kind of slides, after all.

Frampton developed the comparative analysis exercise in the 1960's from the observation that, "Analyzing one building was a sort of tautological exercise . . . if one analyzes two buildings that had a number of things in common, one could come to a kind of revelation, if you like, a consciousness of the sameness and difference between of the two buildings . . . in order to exemplify the potential of built form" and bring the intrinsic character of the examples into sharper relief. "That's why I begin the course with two buildings that both have polemical manifesto's attached to them. One has the Five Points of New Architecture, which is Maison Cook of Le Corbusier, and the other has the Sixteen Points of a Plastic Architecture," G. Rietveld's Schröder-Schräder House.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Chicago's $895 Million Dollar Elephant in the Room

Sometimes Chicago's infatuation with Mayor Richard M. Daley is understandable - the city is green, clean and with lots of new construction. Other times - in the face of pandemic corruption, the continuing protection of torturing cops, the shambles of the CTA - it seems to take on the form of mass delusion.

How else to explain the schizoid ability of the city's major civic associations and mainstream media to rant and rave about Chicago's mounting pile of crises while remaining willfully blind to the billion dollar scandal behind them. The mayor has taken a sound development tool - the TIF, or tax increment financing, district, used to jump-start private investment in depressed neighborhoods - and transformed it into a massive slush fund that diverts nearly $400 million each year from schools and basic city services.

The only Chicago journalist regularly paying attention to the scandal, the Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky, has an article this week analyzing information the city has finally, after years of keeping them it a deep, dark secret, posted about the TIF program on the city's website. Joravsky added up the amount of TIF money sitting in bank accounts, as of December 31st. And what did he find? How does $895,000,000 strike you?

Let's put this in perspective: that number is 8 times the mayor's proposed $108 million hike in property taxes. It's 8 times the CTA's 2007 operating deficit, and 3 times the mayor's proposed $293 million overall increase in taxes, fees and fines. It's even more than the outrageous $888 million dollar in tax hikes sought by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

And yet all the pontificators continue to swallow the mayoral kool-aid. They faithfully cover the mayor's press conferences demanding Springfield get it's act together to save the CTA, but they always seem to forget to mention that Diamond Jim Brady's own contribution has been stuck at a paltry $5,000,000 a year for a better part of a decade. Even as he points fingers everywhere else, he's shown absolutely no interest in increasing it.

Yet Daley's administration has earmarked $40 million in his TIF slush fund for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange/Chicago Board of Trade, despite the fact that:
  1. the CME/CBOT has never threatened to leave the city.
  2. far from being economically distressed, it's rolling in money, recently announcing a 94% increase in third quarter profits, to over $200 million.
  3. it's not adding jobs, but slashing them, as it eliminates redundancies in the merged organizations.
TIF's have been allowed to become chronic enablers of massive - and massively costly - stupidity. The "superstation" under Block 37 could said to be its poster child. Its basic concept of creating a crossover track between the Red and Blue subway lines - at what is arguably the most expensive location in the city to do it - is designed to support express service to the city's airports that does not exist. There is no plan to make it exist. There's no source for the additional funding - upwards of a billion and a half dollars, according to some estimates - required to create the track bypasses to make such a service possible.

No matter - at a time when basic CTA maintenance was being deferred for lack of funds, $217 million was commited to the superstation project and $42 million of that was TIF funding. Now it's become the nightmare that keeps on giving. Crain Chicago Business's Greg Hinz is reporting this week that cost overruns on the project are at $100 million and counting, with TIF funds again being eyed as one way to plug the deficit.

In August, Crain's reported the city was talking with Macquarie Bank, which did the $1.8 billion 2004 deal leasing the Chicago Skyway from the city, about a possible similar deal to bail out the city from its station from Hell. It would become the latest addition to the mayor's ongoing fire sale - with Midway airport next - of Chicago's assets. The mayor gets a huge pot of money upfront in exchange for a 99-year lease, and unseen future residents, onto the fifth generation, get stuck with the problems. And if you don't think there's a good chance of there being problems, check out Fortune magazine's cautionary article where one analyst portrays Macquarie's business model as bearing "the hallmarks of a Ponzi scheme." In the case of the Skyway deal, Fortune reports: "In 2007 the Skyway will pay interest of just $129,000 on $961 million of debt. But the interest payment for 2018 is to be $480 million - that's not a typo."

Mayor Daley has been in office nearly two decades. He still struts down the street in his pinstripe master manager suit, but the threads have begun to fray. Can Chicago's media and civic elite ever bring themselves to call him to account? Or will they persist in seeing only what he wants them to see, the emperor's new clothes, until the garment completely disintegrates and we find only Abe Beame underneath?