Monday, January 31, 2011

Ontario Street - fast food gulch?

 We recently wrote about the owners of the old Museum of Contemporary Art hoping to chop it up into several different fast food facilities.  Now comes word from Crain's Chicago Business that their neighbor, the recently abandoned  U.S. Post Office, has been purchased for $5.9 million by a firm that proposes to do exactly the same thing.  In no time flat, we could be seeing a festival of up to eight more junk food outlets one after another, like pins in a bowling alley, just with a lot more calories and fat.

Chicago Streetscene: Hogwarts on Rush

click for larger view (recommended)

Street Furniture Competition 2011 launched by Architecture for Humanity/Chicago

Last year, it was MAS Studio that came up with the winning design (pictured above) for innovative street furniture that was actually fabricated and put on display in Pilsen.

Now, the Chicago chapter of Architecture for Humanity is back with the second, 2011 edition of its Street Furniture Competition. The challenge is to:
Design one or more pieces of ‘street furniture’ that can revitalize a vacant site, is universally accessible, and fosters multi-generational community interaction. Street furniture should not be limited to benches. We consider other structures that make a small space seem inviting, usable, and safe to be street furniture. Including but not limited to: harvest tables, raised planters, play equipment, interactive sculptures. The goal of this installation is to continue the dialogue about open space and how design can be the catalyst for the creation of meaningful and joyful places that facilitate community engagement. Winning designers will have at least one piece (potentially more) of their ‘street furniture’ built in the spring of 2011 as a year-long community installation. This installation is intended to activate the space in anticipation of a future neighborhood garden at the site. After the year, the street furniture will be considered for permanent installation or relocated to a new vacant site in Chicago.
The budget entrants should be working with is $1,000.00. The submission requirements are:
  • Team Information & Release Form
  • $10 Entry Fee
  • Two 11x17 Boards, submitted as a PDF including a plan, section/elevation and design detail. Please list the required materials and describe the build process. Scale of drawings at the discretion of the entrants.
Once again, the prize is that the winner gets to see their design constructed. Submission deadline is 5:00 p.m., Friday, February 25th, with the winners to be announced in March by a jury to be announced.  Check out the details here.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Quiet winter night at Trump Tower

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Do Housekeepers Make the Best Architecture Critics? koolhaas houselife at the Siskel on Sunday, Wednesday

Finished in 1998, the Maison à Bordeaux was one of the early commissions that made Rem Koolhaas a worldwide force:  a bravura piece of architecture, with a massive cantilever courtesy of Cecil Balmond, a central elevator platform that let the client, a newspaper editor paralyzed in an automobile accident, easily navigate its three levels, and numerous other experiments such as irregular sequence of porthole windows punctuating the concrete walls in the topmost story, all the work of an OMA design team that included, at that time,  Jeanne Gang. (You can see similar windows in the "Star wall" of the Studio/Gang's Starlight Theater at Rockford College.)

The house's owner died just three years after the house's completion, and according to critic Martin Filer, the building is now "falling apart after little more than a decade." It's documented in koolhaas houselife, a 2008 documentary that will have two showings at the Gene Siskel Film Center over the next few days.  In an interview with Jesús Díaz of Gizmondo, Ila Bêka, co-director of the film with Louise Lemoine, describes it as "a look on contemporary architecture that tries to escape from a strong current tendency of idealized representation of our architectural heritage that show us architecture as perfect icons and break the link between architecture and the life which is inside."

The vehicle for executing this aim is the Maison's housekeeper Guadalupe Acedo, whom Filer describes as "The production’s unlikely star . . . who seems to have wandered in from an Almodóvar comedy about a dysfunctional middle-class Madrid family. Her non-stop, throw-away commentary is by turns gossipy, sagacious, pragmatic, and critical, but she remains self-effacing and sympathetic to her unseen employers."

At the Siskel, the 58 minute documentary will be paired with Interview, by the same two directors, a 10 minute interview with Koolhaas about the creation of the house.  Showings are this Sunday, January 30th at 4:00 p.m., and next Wednesday, February 2nd at 6:15 p.m.  The Siskel is at 164 N. State.  General admission is $10.00, $7.00 for students, $5.00 for members, and $4.00 for AIC/SAIC students and faculty and AIC staff. Information here.

Chicago Streetscene: Rahm Emanuel Declared Provisional Residence Revealed

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A final roll of Kodachrome captures a lost Chicago landmark

click images for larger view (strongly recommended)
On December 30th, Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kansas, processed its final roll of Kodachrome film.  It was the last lab in the world to process the distinctive film stock whose vivid colors defined, for most of its 75 year life, the look of America's captured family memories.

About two weeks later, our correspondent Andy Pierce received his own package from Dwyane's - the prints of his last roll of undeveloped Kodachrome film.  Andy had actually forgotten what was on it, and so he was pleasantly surprised to find out they were of the now lost Hotel LaSalle Garage, now the site of the distinctively-trussed residential tower whose name takes the address of the garage: 215 West Washington.  Andy has graciously given us permission to share some of his striking, evocative photos of this distinctive work of Chicago architecture.
In the summer of 1918, the editor of the trade journal Hotel Monthly found himself "driven up what had every appearance of a mountain road, which rose in a spiral to the top of a five-story building."
The road is cement paved, ten feet wide, the spiral about 70 feet in diameter, and rising twelve feet to the floor; the grade one in twenty, or five per cent.  About every 200 feet the road emerges onto the garage floor, where it is widened and level for the space between entrance and exit to the enclosed spiral.  The driver tooted his horn to signal before entering or leaving each floor, the same as he would if turning a sharp corner on a mountain road.  It took only about a minute to negotiate the hill between the ground and the fifth floor.  An elevator large enough to take the biggest touring car is available for bringing the cars down.  This elevator shaft rises inside the spiral roadway.
The detail of the above description is almost comic.  Hadn't this guy ever seen
a parking garage before?

The answer, of course, is no, probably not.  This was the dawn of the automobile age, which more than any other factor, utterly transformed the American landscape and the urban experience.  The spiral he saw was probably the first of its kind.

When the LaSalle Hotel, designed by Holabird and Roche, opened in 1909, horses and stables still held their own in the streets of the city.  The 22-story-high, 1,000 room hotel was a true steel-framed skyscraper, but the Beaux Arts influence of the 1893 World's Fair still held sway.  The swank LaSalle was built to host presidents - both Taft Coolidge stayed here - and above and below 11 floors of Chicago School-like brick curtain wall enclosing the tight honeycomb of guest rooms, French Second Empire was chosen as the most appropriate design mode.  A massive Mansard roof capped the building's crown.

When, less than a decade later, it came time to accommodate not only guests but their automobiles as well, Holabird and Roche were called upon again, this time to design a parking garage about a block and a half from the hotel.  The garage tracked its guest the same way as the hotel, using the recently developed "room rack" system of ledger cards, one for each compartment, but since the inhabitants of the garage were not people but their machines, the facades of the garage echoed, not the hotel's overstuffed ostentation, but the clean lines of a classic Loop office building..  As described by the AIA Guide to Chicago:
 . .  . there is  nothing conventional  about the way the fifteen narrow bays  with their sash windows alternate with  the vigorous uninterrupted piers.    The wonderful rhythm is enhanced by the use of black Roman bricks as striping in the red facade and by crisply detailed spandrel panels.  A stringcourse above the shops and a well-proportioned cornice contain the design.
The AIA called it an "uncelebrated gem."  The city called it road kill.  Preservationists lobbied energetically to save it.  The staff of the Landmarks Commission prepared a report documenting its value.  Then the usual developers dance began.  Delay followed delay, as the owner resisted and allowed the building to continue to rot, so by the time the Planning Department brought down its heavy hand in November of 2004 to smash the Commission's efforts, all the parties that had actively abetted the garage's deterioration could shed crocodile tears, "Boo hoo, boo hoo.  Maybe it was worth saving, but golly gee, it's falling apart and now we have no choice but to gird our loins and let it die."  Rinse and repeat. (See: the Farwell Building and Van Osdel's 1894 YMCA Hotel.)
When Andy Pierce took the Kodachrome shots you see here, the building was already something of a spectre.  Somehow I doubt "1950's rec room" was the original style.
. . . although the locksmith's shack with the "Wanted" posters was actually a rather charming addition.
You could see that the place was already living on borrowed time.
. . . which became even more clear after it had been emptied out just before demolition.
With their faded Kodachrome palette, Andy's shots seem to capture the aura of the 21 grams - the supposed  weight of the soul - lingering in the air, invisible but insistent, for those last few heartbeats before the thing dissolves before your eyes and vanishes forever.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Calling all Flâneurs : MAS Studio, CAC competition Network Reset seeks to reinvigorate Chicago's boulevards for the 21st century

I remember when I was a very small child (pre-embryonic, actually),  my dad driving us to visit my grandparents in the near western suburbs.  Somewhere at midpoint of the journey, we found ourselves in a world very different from the constricted, rigid grid of streets that made up our Lakeview neighborhood.  Suddenly, we were speeding along curving garden roads, set within sprawling lawns, in the shade of a forest of tall trees.

Before the expressways, there were the boulevards.  They were created in the last decades of the 19th century both in the easternmost sectors of Chicago, and along the city's then western borders, connecting a sequence of spectacular new parks.  The boulevards were Chicago's attempt to create suburbs within the city, a refuge for the wealthy, who lined them with their mansions.  They were an early example of a successful public-private partnership.  Built by the Parks Commission, the boulevards made a lot of developers rich, created a wave of new construction, and expanded the city's tax base.
click images for larger view
Over time, mansions were replaced by luxury apartment buildings.  As the rich fled to the suburbs, the middle-class took over, and when the middle-class fled, the sturdy old structures were often appropriated by slumlords.  What were leisurely carriage drives became, with the coming of the automobile, express routes out of the city  With the opening of the expressways, even that purpose was taken away.  The grand old houses were left to decay or, in times of rage, burned to the ground, leaving what were once considered among Chicago's most prized civic assets littered with boarded-up buildings and vacant lots.  No new boulevards were created.  As the city stretched to its final borders, it just bled almost imperceptibly into the adjacent suburbs, with occasional strips of forest preserve as insulation.
What should be the role of our boulevards in 21st Century Chicago? 

That's the subject of a new competition, Network Reset: Rethinking the Chicago Emerald Necklace, an international competition organized by MAS Studio and the Chicago Architectural Club, funded with a grant from compulsive urban tinkerers Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture LLP.

A few years ago, UrbanLab came up with its own concept of the "Eco-Boulevard" that created a new vision that combined social, environmental and energy conservation considerations.  Network Reset, in contrast, "seeks to provide ideas and actions that can reactivate the Boulevard System of Chicago and rethink its potential role in the city . . .
While portions of it, such as the Logan Square Boulevards District (an official city landmark district since 2005) still maintain the original character, other parts have just become underutilized areas and oversized streets that act as barriers within neighborhoods.

That is where we are now and this competition asks you to envision where we can be in the near future. These are some of the questions that we are asking ourselves and we want you to think about in your proposal: What if the system becomes a new transportation corridor in the city? What type of transportation would that be? What if the open space becomes an active layer and not just a passive one? What if this system provides activities that the city as a whole is lacking? What if the system becomes a tool for social cohesion? What if the system has a strong visual identity? What if it becomes an economic catalyst for the neighborhoods? What if the system is all of this and more?

Participants are asked to look at the urban scale and propose a framework for the entire boulevard system as well as provide answers and visualize the interventions at a smaller scale that can directly impact its potential users. Through images, diagrams and drawings we want to know what are those soft or hard, big or small, temporary or permanent interventions that can reactivate and reset the Boulevard System of Chicago. 
The competition launched on January 17th.  The Q&A period runs through February 4th, with a February 21st deadline for submissions, and a March 14th announcement of winners: a $2,000 first prize, $1,000 second, and $500 third.  Check out the Network Reset website for more detailed information.
I think my favorite of all the boulevards is Drexel, once described as the gem of the boulevard system.
It's width two hundred feet, the original design comprised a central ornamental space, one hundred feet wide, arranged with paths and with grass-plats, planted with trees and shrubbery, a driveway running on each side.
According to the website, it was the creation of the  father of the Drexel brothers of Philadelphia, who  acquired the 80 acres from 47th to 51st through foreclosure, and donated the plot to the park district.  His sons would profit from the now highly valued real estate development along the boulevard, and his sons memorialized him with what has been called Chicago's earliest public fountain, at the south end of the Boulevard at 51st street, where the figure of Francis Martin Drexel, as sculpted by Henry Manger, still holds watch over creation.  Like Michael Reese, there is no record that he ever visited the city where he played so vital a role.

Our recent years of relative prosperity have seen the revitalization of much of Drexel Boulevard, with old mansions restored for affluent new owners, and new construction interposed where empty lots once stood.  You can see works by Burnham & Root, Frost & Granger, and Henry Ives Cobb in something approaching their original splendor, and get a sense of the kind of grandeur and uplift the boulevards can provide.
In 2006, in preparation for writing a paper, "ink" biked the entire 28 mile system, taking photographs all along the way.  The result is a rather splendid photo-essay.  Check it out here.

Sunday Reading: Chicago, Still Corrupt to the Core

If you need any reminders that Chicago remains a feudalist state, here they are:

The Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Brown documents the shady dealings of "For a Better Chicago" a group that's used a loophole in Illinois Campaign Law to keep secret the source of the nearly $1 million dollars they're spreading around to aldermanic candidates in the upcoming election.  And who's the chairman of this august group?  None other than one Greg Goldner, a former Daley administration official who was an aide to Victor Reyes, former head of the HDO, organized by various Daley political hacks to keep the city's Hispanic population in the machine fold and make sure only the docile and supine got elected.  Goldner also ran Richard M. Daley's 2003 re-election campaign, as well as Rahm Emanuel's first campaign for Congress.  Oh, and most recently he's "been leading  a campaign to bring legalized video gambling to Chicago."  Rahm Emanuel, of course, is our anointed next mayor-for-life, about to waltz into office with no real accountability to anyone but the usual good old boys network.  In Chicago, the city of sheep, we get the government we deserve.

In the New York Times,  Don Terry offers another account of the outrageous eavesdropping law that makes it a Class 1 felony with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison - "just one step below attempted murder" as one victim notes - for recording non-violent encounters with the police.  The police, of course, can record anyone, at any time, with impunity.  Tiawanda Moore has been charged with violation of the statute for using her Blackberry to record her interview by two internal affairs officers,  Christopher Drew for creating a video of his arrest for selling art without a license. 

The cases are being vigorously prosecuted by Cook County States Attorney Anita Alvarez, elected as a vaguely reformist candidate, whose tenure so far has been most notable for soiling her office with these cases and for using her power to harass Northwestern University students who committed the outrages of  rescuing a number of wrongfully convicted inmates.  Also fighting tooth and nail to defend the eavesdropping law is Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police, for whom there is no such thing as a crooked cop - the FOP picked up much of the tab for the defense of the recently convicted serial torturer Jon Burge. 

In 2009, Chicago police officer Anthony Abbate was found guilty of beating the crap out a female bartender.  In the best Chicago tradition, he received probation.  He was convicted because of a videotape documenting the graphic violence. a tape that shamed Chicago as it was broadcast repeatedly all across the nation.  If that video came, not from a security camera, but from the diminutive bartender's cell phone, you can bet she would have been charged under our state's draconian eavesdropping statute, and probably been much more likely to wind up in prison than her attacker.  In Chicago, the city of sheep, no one has the guts to do anything about it.

Chicago is a great city, but it requires a strong stomach.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

From Venice to You: Mobile Food Collective at Merchandise Mart through the 28th

Archeworks Mobile Food Collective is taking up residence at the Merchandise Mart through next Friday, January 28th.  Described by Blair Kamin as "a mobile food cart, designed to spread the gospel of locally-grown food", Archeworks describes the MFC, which exhibited at the U.S. Pavilion at last fall's Venice Biennale,  as "mobile architecture engaging communities across Chicago in a new fresh food culture through collaborative exchange and urban agriculture education . . . " Weekdays only, interactive programming is scheduled for 11:00 a.m.. to 1:00 p.m., and again from 3:30 to 5:30 next to the food court (irony of ironies) on the Mart's 2nd floor.

Bummed by Chicago's Sub-Zero Cold? We Give You the Cure. (you can thank us later)

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So as the winds howl, your teeth chatter, and frozen extremities begin to grow brittle and drop off, just keep thinking about the feel of warm sand between your toes.  The path's almost at hand . . .

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Pillow for Amanda

Plastic chiffon seems to the fashion of the moment along a block or so stretch on and around Rush Street.
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Soft, billowing pillows of protective plastic cover the east facade of the former Crain Communications building at 740 North Rush, for what the building permit describes as "repairs of exterior of building, including tuck pointing, replacement of lintels, repairs to terra cotta window heads," so apparently the  distinctive colonnade of brick columns is safe.
Just up the street, there's another plastic sheet cover over the first two floors of the structure at 56-60 East Chicago, built originally as the Amanda Apartments in either 1891 or 1907, according to the source you choose, by the Pond brothers.  If you walk by the building, you'll recall the storefronts have looked pretty derelict for quite a long time, and Haylock Design of Gurnee has been hired to clean thing up.
The drawings point to a definite improvement, but the proof will be in the execution. If you look at its website, Haylock seems to specialize in a very generic kind of strip mall and commercial architecture, save for the slightly delirious kitsch of its design for the Grand Imperial Hotel in Chinatown.

With the Nordstrom Rack store now opened in the old CompUSA space just across the street, complete with an icon motif that Michael Rock, if he didn't have a hand in it, should be getting royalties for . . .
The owners of 56-60 are probably betting that with a bit of sprucing up, they'll be able to push the upscale retailer vibe west just a hundred or so yards, and be able to slice off a piece for themselves.

Modern Struggles, Modern Design - Dr. King and the story of Chicago's Liberty Baptist Church

On the day we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we recount how some of Chicago's most important civil rights battles centered around one of the city's most strikingly modern churches.  Read the story and see all the illustrations about this little-known gem here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What's the Only Building in North America on the list of 2010's 20 Tallest Skyscrapers?

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That's right - it's the Legacy at Millennium Park, designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz.  At 72 stories and 818 feet, it's less than a third as high as the tallest, the Burj Khalifa, designed by Adrian Smith, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and its engineer extraordinaire William Baker. Even Ho Chi Minh had a skyscraper that beat Chicago for height, with 9 of the top 20 in Asia, 6 Dubai, 1 in Abu Dhabi, and 3 in Europe.  According to the 2010 Tall Building Review, issued Thursday by the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, there were 66 new buildings of at least 200 meters (approximately 650 feet) in height completed last year, only six of them in North America.

New York has one (surprise, surprise, it's the new Manhattan HQ for Goldman Sachs), as do Charlotte and Austin.  Chicago is the only U.S. city with two.  The second?  Can you guess?  Hint:  it's not even a new building.  More hints?  Well, it's a stretch.  And it's blue.  And it's cross, although exactly what makes it's so depressed and peevish I have no idea.
Already 33 stories when completed in 1997, the Blue Cross Blue Shield building at 300 East Randolph was pre-designed for vertical expansion.  Last year Goettsch Partners added another 24 stories and nearly a million square feet.  Just in time for the playoffs:

Now with 65% more Celebratory Window Wall!

Cap Streeter's Revenge: United States Post Office becomes The Postal Store, once chic Ontario lusts for more fast food.

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When it opened - I'm guessing sometime in the 1940's - the clean-lined, brick building at 227 East was a United States Post Office.  It said so, in chiseled letters, just above the door.
Somewhere along the way as our supply chain culture evolved, it became the Ontario Street Postal Store.  Now the lettering is the only thing left.  Relocated to the Streeter 1 and 2 residential towers at 355 East Ohio, it's been reborn as the Streeterville Postal Store . . .
. . . all white and bright, with the obligatory all-glass corner with the huge column just inches behind it.  The walls of rented postal boxes get the pride of place along the windows.

On Ontario, the entrance was central, the soffit was trimmed with post office colors, and the counter area generously proportioned . .  .
At the new location at The Streeter, the entrance is pushed off onto a side street, and the clerks' counter is squeezed into a pinched room that has the look of a branch of a bank that expects it's about to be shut down by regulators . . .
Post Office architecture used to be expected to have a certain dignity; at its best, a deliberate majesty, befitting a time when government wasn't a dirty word, and the whole enterprise was run by a "Postmaster General" - Benjamin Franklin was the first - who was actually a member of the President's cabinet.

Today, of course, like everything else, it's all about selling, and cheaply.  Why bother designing anything that's not numbingly generic when the whole operation seems to be lurching towards the terminal buggy whip end of the supply chain?  It'll be so much cheaper to convert it to a cell phone store or a Seagram's Medical Marijuana outlet when the inevitable transpires.

I have no idea what's going to happen to the old Post Office on Ontario, but it's a good bet it'll follow the kind of deformation in store for the rehabbed bakery and townhouses at 237 East that was the original home of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
It's empty again, and the landlords have helpfully had floor plans and renderings drawn up to show how easily it can morph into its next role as still another fast food Valhalla.
The mansion housing Les Nomades is among the last remnants of an era when East Ontario was one of Chicago's more elegant addresses.  It's been changing for quite some time now, and I have to admit one of my favorite buildings is the small black tower with concrete mesh sides and all-glass front at 226.  Just looking at it, you can pretty guess that the upstairs tenant was once a video store that proudly proclaimed its wide selection of porn.   With its cluttered signage, windows bordered in green light, and neon martini glass, complete with olive,  226 is the perfect combination of faded modernist elegance and honky tonk.  And it seems to have become the model the rest of Ontario Street is intent on catching up with.
Only steps from the new Post Office - sorry, Postal Store - stands the man the whole district was named after: Cap Streeter, in the the person of a new, eight-foot-high bronze sculpture by Dennis Downes.  The former Mississippi riverboat captain contemplates what's become of the handiwork that he began in 1886 when he ran his steamboat aground on a sand bar about where the Hancock Center is now.  For the next thirty years, as the area around him continued to fill with sand and rubble, he sold deeds to property in what he declared the independent "District of Lake Michigan." Having spent the bulk of his life in pitched battle with the fat-cat developers, I'm sure he's calculating in his head what his share should be from the soaring condo towers that have arisen all around him.  And probably thinking that his little dog deserves a piece of the action, too.