Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Chicago Streetscene: Texture Strips

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Richard M. Daley, the killer of Chicago Architecture, leaves us one last parting gift

Can you name a single building the two-decade administration of Richard M. Daley put up that's in the great tradition of Chicago architecture? (And don't mention Millennium Park, where everything great was the result of the activism of others.)

His father gave us the Daley Center.  The son gave us Block 37, and the wanton destruction of the Michael Reese Hospital campus.  As being reported by the Sun-Times David Roeder,  Daley's last kick in the teeth to the city he supposedly so dearly loves is the death of the Ford Calumet Environmental Center designed by Jeanne Gang/ Studio Gang.  For the better part of a decade, despite funding of $6,000,000 from Ford, the city has failed to move a single brick toward constructing the spectacular design that won a competition all the way back in 2004.

Now, quietly, the bureaucrats at the Department of the Environment, according to Roeder, are saying the Gang design will never be built, because the original $7.600,000 estimate has soared to $27,000,000.  Except maybe not.  "It's unclear if that includes staff and programming," says Roeder, who doesn't know, and is apparently too lazy to find out.  He simply swallowed the city's line whole.

And of course, the city line is that it's all Studio/Gang's fault, just like Richard M. Daley tried to pin the cost overruns at Millennium Park on Frank Gehry during one of his infamous, petulant press conferences.  What's the truth?  We'll probably never know.

What I do know, however, is that Studio/Gang has made its reputation by creating amazing architecture on very tight budgets in projects such as the SOS Community Center, at the Chinese American Service League.  That is part of the public record.  Also part of the public record is that this is the administration that so mis-managed construction of just one key project that they somehow squandered almost half a billion dollars on a "superstation" beneath Block 37 before giving up and putting it in mothballs, never to open.  I will leave to you which party's motivations are the more reliable.

Most cities would be thrilled to get a first class design by a world-class architect like Jeanne Gang, and would be working overtime to make it happen.  Daley's City Hall takes seven years to find out it's too expensive and then just walks away.

Richard M. Daley's PR machine was relentless in portraying him as Chicago architecture's greatest friend, yet the city's architects spent most of his reign trying to appease what was perceived as his great love of neo-classicism, which he picked up on his junkets to Paris.  With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dino and skater friends Depart, Tree of Life grows in Millennium Park

It was just last November that we were saying goodbye to Chinese sculptor Sui Jianguo's Windy City Dinosaur as it was unceremoniously dismembered at the end of two years of making its home on the Boeing Gallery at Chicago's Millennium Park.
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It was little more than two weeks ago that people were still skating at the Millennium Park ice rink . . .
No matter how blasted cold it remains, the rink has now closed for the season, the ice removed to make way for the tables and chairs of another summer's outdoor cafe at the scandal-ridden Park Grill. . .
 photograph: Bob Johnson
. . . whose clouted owners are reported to be negotiating to sell it back to the Park District.

And on the Boeing Galleries, courtesy of our indefatigable correspondent Bob Johnson, we offer you these early photographs of members of Local 63 of the Ornamental Iron workers setting up Millennium Park's new visitors for the next two summers, Interconnected: The Sculptures of Yvonne Domenge, marking the first time the works of a Mexican artist and woman have been exhibited in the park.
The center point of Yvonne Domenge's collection is the 16-foot-high Tree of Life, in flaming Calder Flamingo red, with a pair of smaller, orange seeds sitting beneath it.
According to the Park District press release . . .
The branches reaching up to the heavens signify life’s energy. The seeds scattered beneath represent the beauty and fragility of new life. An age-old concept, the tree of life was a symbol of the connection among the underworld, the sky, and the terrestrial world in pre-Columbian cultures.
Also on display will be three large spheres, the thirteen-foot-tall, yellow Tabachin Ribbon . . .
as well as the slightly smaller white Wind Waves . . .
and blue Coral . . .
The official opening is April 6th, and the sculptures will be on display through October of 2012.

Cacodemon: The End of Cabrini Green

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Walk east of Halsted, a block or two north of Division, and you encounter crisp new upscale housing developments, complete with gated lawns, myriad "Private Property", "No Trespassing" and "Protected by Brinks" signs, and idyllic traffic circles.

Then you get to Burling, and at the street's far end you see this:
This is Green Homes 1, the last survivor of what was once the sprawling Cabrini-Green public housing complex.
It was the slum that refused to die, beginning as a shantytown for poor Irish in the 1850's, followed by  the Germans, then the Swedes. It grew infamous for its overcrowded, squalid living conditions. By the turn of the twentieth century, it had a new name: "Little Hell".

What do do?  Obliterate all traces of it.  Obliterate it from the face of the earth. Which was what finally happened to "Little Hell" during World War II, to be replaced, at first, by the Frances Cabrini Homes, a series of long, two-story townhouse blocks for war workers.

If some was good, more would have to better, yes? In 1958 came the Cabrini Extension, a series of nineteen-story highrises built by the Mies-influenced PACE Associates, a firm that had served as architect of record for such Mies van der Rohe projects such as 860-880 Lake Shore Drive and the Promontory Apartments in Hyde Park. In 1962, the eight Green Homes towers, 15 to 16 stories each, followed. At its peak, 15,000 people lived in Cabrini Green.
What was originally a source of hope, however, became, over time, a well of deepening despair. Before 1967, half of Chicago's public housing residents had jobs. By the 1980's, it was 10%.  For machine politicians, the dependency of the residents made them a large and reliable bloc of votes, yet expressions of gratitude were few. Maintenance of "The Projects" declined; screening of residents fell by the wayside. Gangs and crime became pandemic.

Although there were many other public housing projects, equally troubled, the very name, "Cabrini-Green" became shorthand for nightmare images of hell-hole high-rises.  When the 1992 terror film, Candyman, portrayed the legend of an evil, murderous spirit, the writers made Cabrini-Green his home.   But reality was the more horrifying.  Just three days before the film's release, seven-year-old resident Dantrell Davis was murdered by a sniper as he was being walked to school.
"Little Hell" was back and bad as ever. The answer? Obliterate all traces of it. Obliterate it from the face of the earth.  We're almost there.  The older buildings began to be demolished in the late 1990's, then the Green buildings, until now there is only Green Homes 1, at 1230 North Burling.  The last resident left in December.  The wrecking crane is on site, and final demolition is scheduled to begin March 30th.
The end won't be one of those spectacular dynamited implosions such as brought down Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis in 1972 . . .

. . . just the methodological smash, tear and dismantle, grinding the structure to gravel as it disappears floor-by-floor.
And if you see ghostly flashes of light scattering across the now open grid of the facade, it's not a haunting, but Project Cabrini Green . . .
a public art installation . . . led by the artist Jan Tichy and developed together with Efrat Appel . . . created in collaboration with youth from Chicago, most of them attending educational programs in the Cabrini-Green area and with students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

On March 28th, two days before the beginning of the demolition, 134 self-contained, battery-powered LED modules were placed inside 134 of the building's vacated apartments. The lights will blink every day from 7pm to 1am CST, for the four week duration of the demolition, and will be gradually erased with the building. Each blinking light has a unique pattern. These patterns are a visual translation of poems written and recorded by the youth who attended workshops developed and instructed by Tichy, Appel, and students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
You can see a live video feed from the building here. It will also be on view at the Museum of the Contemporary Art during the demolition.
Already, most of the Green complex is a vacant expanse of rubble. The stain of the poor now removed, developers eye the site for pricey new development. Today's Crain's Chicago Business reports that Target is already negotiating for the large parcel just across from Green #1.
I imagine what it would be like to encounter this scene, innocent of any knowledge of it's history. Of walking past lot after lot of dirt and gravel, and seeing in the distance that last white tower, standing alone in a vast sea of nothing.
And I think I would sense it, an uneasy feeling in the pit of the stomach. Something happened here. Something that they want us to forget. Something they want to cover over as if it never existed. And in that moment of terrible beauty, the spirit of those who lived, who suffered, who despaired - and dreamed - here, infuses the sunlight, the bright blue sky and cold crisp air of an early Spring day. It bleaches clean the great honeycombed monolith that awaits, impassive and unrelenting, its final obliteration into anonymous dust.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Birthday Offering for Mies - the debut of The Architects Page

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His birthday was actually on Sunday, but the Mies van der Rohe Society is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the great architect's birth with their annual bash at Crown Hall, Monday, March 28th.  It might not be the blowout of the 1950's student dance where Mies himself sat in his new Crown Hall happily puffing on his cigar as Duke Ellington and his orchestra set the huge panes of glass shaking, but you're still promised you'll be able to . . .
Celebrate the birth of a pioneer in Modern design and learn a little something about the unique characteristics of Mies van der Rohe’s work. Come for the company, stay for the cocktails! Just what are the marks of a Mies design? Wright auction’s Michael Jefferson will talk briefly about collecting the master’s work and will highlight market trends.
The party runs from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., which leaves plenty of time for bar-crawling through your own more Miesian martini-run afterwards, and perhaps even participate in an all-out bar brawl over the size of the new window stops.  Tickets are $50.00, or $125.00 including a one-year membership in the Society, and will be available at the door.  A larger contribution, and maybe they'll let you operate the Crown Hall air vents that Ludwig Hilberseimer made it his job to open and close each day.  For more information, call 312/567.5030.
For our own celebration, we've launched The Architects Page: Mies van der Rohe, the first of what we expect will be a series of landing pages for important designers.  It's a collection of links to major articles I've done on Mies at IIT, the restoration of Crown Hall, the story of Farnsworth House and the battle to save it, and more, including links to books, websites, and even a brief video of Mies himself explaining the origin of a very famous phrase.   Plus a gallery of photographs.  Check it all out here.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spatial City ends March at the Graham; Studio/Gang's Reveal parties in April at Stop Smiling

You'd think that by six days before the close of the month, the March calendar would be pretty much complete.

And you'd be wrong.

Just added: Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism, at the Graham Foundation, next Thursday, March 31st, at 6:00 p.m.  Laurence Gateau, Director of French Fonds Regional d'Art Contemporain (FRAC), Nicholas Frank, Curator of the Institute of Visual Arts (INOVA) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Luis Croquer, Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) and will discuss the exhibition that gave the catalog it's name, which toured America in 2010, including an extended stop in Chicago at the Hyde Park Arts Center.  The show took . . .
the work of utopian architect Yona Friedman—and particularly his idea of the “spatial city”—as a point of departure from which to explore contemporary art within the FRAC collections. Spatial City brings together an international, multi-generational array of artists—with an emphasis on artists living in France—whose work contends with utopian thinking and, in counterpoint, the retreat of optimism in the face of pragmatic reality.
More information - and the link to RSVP - here.  Also, check out all the great events still to come in the last of March here.

And a heads up for next month's calendar, which we hope to have up by the end of June, April begins - no kidding - with a launch party for Reveal, Studio/Gang's superb new monograph of their work, which includes an interview I did with uber-developer and Aqua patron James Loewenberg.  It's  at the Stop Smiling Storefront, 1371 N. Milwaukee, next Friday, April 1st, from 7:00 p.m., on, kicking off with a 30 minute interview of architect Jeanne Gang, a book signing (books will sold at discount), and a "DJ's after-party til the wee hours".  The first 30 patrons will be allowed a brief smile as long as they remain facing the wall.

At the Rookery

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Some things never change: Spring in Chicago 2008

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Piecework on State

It started out like this . . .
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. . . a long-time surface parking lot employees of the AT&T facility on Dearborn shared with the upscale pigeons of River North.

But, especially after construction began on the massive Hotel Palomar just across the street, the developer had much loftier ambitions for their property.    Still visible on the Weiss Architects web site is  this design for a multi-use tower topped by 35 condominiums.
That didn't turn out so well.  Then there was Michael Reschke's 2008 plan to have architect Ricardo Bofill design a 15-floor Gigglesnort Gansevoort Hotel.  After Reschke bailed to concentrate on building the sparkling new J W Marriott hotel out of Daniel Burnham's 208 South LaSalle, Lincoln Park's John Barleycorn pub was reported by Crain's Chicago Business to have signed a letter of intent to build a 20,000-square-foot outlet on the site.  Then they dropped out, choosing, instead, to recently open the second location of their Moe's Cantina concept in part of the Kinzie Street loft complex that was all once the, now substantially reduced, Jay Roberts' Antiques Warehouse.

But God knows you can never have enough good cantinas, and now that's all that's left at 508 North State: a two-story Cantina Laredo #132, the first Chicago outlet for the Dallas-based "gourmet Mexican" chain that's already put down stakes in Rosemont.  According to CB Richard Ellis, which is  marketing the land under the restaurant for a cool $8.296 million, Cantina Laredo has signed a non-cancellable 20-year lease for $560,000 a year, 2% compounding annual rent increases, plus 2% of gross sales above $10 million.  The 17,000-square-foot structure represents about a tenth of what zoning would allow.
To its credit, the design, also credited to Weiss Architects, will be very open along State, with a prominent glass, mahogany and walnut grand staircase at the center and windows that will fold open in warmer weather.  The exterior of the building seems an homage to the Howard Johnson's on LaSalle. 
What's interesting is watching how the structure is going up in isolated pieces.  There's the usual ugly concrete block wall along the alley to the north, but otherwise what we have is a series of now disconnected elements dominated by two concrete-block towers, the tallest rising 38 feet, veneered in Tex-Mex ashlar, with openings to anchor the forthcoming steel that will tie everything together.
International Contractors, Inc.'s website says to look forward to an August opening.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Leafless Garden

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If there is no warm glow in its eyes,
and if no leaf of smile grows on its lips,
who says the leafless garden is not beautiful?
                                   Mehdi Akhavan Sales

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Amanda Suffocated behind Plastic Pillows

When last we visited Pond and Pond's Amanda Apartments at 55-60 East Chicago, the bottom two floors were covered in plastic for a rehab.
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Now the wraps are off.  Avert your eyes.
Yes, as dedicated reader BW Chicago has noted, I actually used the phrase, "The drawings point to a definite improvement."  And no, I don't remember what I was high on that day.  I guess the drawings looked  clean.
What was immediately apparent, even from the drawings, is that the plan was to trash Pond and Pond's original design, with its charming monumental entrance and rounded pediments above three second-story windows reflecting parallel features above the windows of the penultimate floor.
What was not so completely apparent is how God-awful the entire installation would be It, in fact, varies substantially from the drawing posted on the site.  On the plus side, much of the clumsy detailing was left unrealized.  On the down side, where the drawing shows rounded pediments above the second story windows, what we actually get is a series of blocky, ugly black rectangles.  A thin, dark string course simply breaks off and disappears above the windows, where I guess the chunky rectangles above are supposed to take its place.  Strangely enough, the entrance is also slightly different, with a small arched accent added above it.  If it was an attempt to reference Pond and Pond's pediments above, it's pathetic.  The new facing is the color and visual consistency of green vomit.
No doubt the landlord is overjoyed.

There goes the neighborhood: A few touches less of funk and grunge; another giant dollop of glitzy retail

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The three buildings from 10 East Walton on weren't any one's idea of great architecture, and they all had seen better days.  The one furthest to the east had bare backing brick at the top, its cornice long ago ripped off like a bad toupee, and the one in the middle, with the mail-order windows and faded red clapboard - well, the less said, the better.
Still, they were among the shrinking number of remnants from a time when the neighborhood wasn't flush with back-to-back highrises - all "luxury" of course - and when there was still room for such mundane functions as a nail salon, currency exchange,  shoe repair shop and, in the basement, the Underground Wonder Bar, where you could get a drink and listen to Lonie Walker and her Big Bad Ass Company Band until 4 a.m.

These kind of activities were clearly far too vulgar for the area's upscale pretensions, best on display in the phony-baloney French Empire carriage court of the Elysian, just across the street.  Just imagining the refined inhabitants of the Elsyian having to contemplate those decaying rockpiles and their riff-raff clientele, every time they entered or alighted from their limousines - well, the spine shudders.
As you can see, help is now on the way.  The three old wrecks are being wrecked, to make way for BHLDN, the second outlet of the Anthropologie chain's new bridal store concept, which will take up 6,000 square feet in a new building to be constructed on the site.  The Crain's Chicago Business story quotes Baum Realty Group's Janika Brenner as saying Anthropologie was attracted to the "limestone, old-world looking" design of the new building.  They apparently just have no interest for it in the original.  Although I haven't seen the design, the quality of the Anthropologie stores is often  a cut above the norm, so the new one on Walton could turn out to a handsome addition. It will just make for a more homogenized, less varied and interesting cityscape.

There's also a happy ending for pianist, singer/songwriter, arranger and bandleader Ms. Walker, who has found a new home for her Big Bad Ass in the green-stoned 1891 Raleigh Hotel at 650 North Dearborn, where you'll now find the Underground Wonder Bar just under entrance to the The Joynt, open for business until 2 a.m. nightly, 3 a.m, on Saturday's, with live music 7 days a week until 1:30 to 2:30 a.m.

So I guess the moral is that no matter how hard you try to squeeze the life out of a place, it'll just keep popping up somewhere else.