Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chicago Streetscene: Cloud Machine

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How to Build a Great City for under $350 million, or Cleopatra conquers the Roman Forum in 70mm spectacle, by way of Seattle

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If you haven't seen a film in 70mm, even if you've taken in  various IMAX productions, you've probably never seen film at its highest point of visual spectacle.  A stunning detail of image, coupled to a huge screen and the kind of production budgets only Hollywood can provide created a series of spectacles that remain unrivaled, even against the best that the current state of CGI can provide. Just the names, names like Ben-Hur, Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia evoke the very idea of epic spectacle.

VHS, DVD, and now streaming video largely killed off the revival houses that used to screen vintage films.  Showings of motion pictures in their original 70mm format are especially rare as few theaters today are equipped with the necessary projectors.  At the present time in Chicago, only the Music Box appears equipped to screen 70mm.

So a festival of 70mm films is a big deal.  Just last week, the Paramount in Austin, Texas held a mini-festival of 70mm, but at end of September/beginning of October, things will go epic at Seattle's Cinerama Theater's Big Screen 70mm Film Festival, with showings over three weeks of  more than a dozen 70mm films, including, Lawrence, 2001, My Fair Lady, Baraka and Tron.  Like the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, Seattle's 800-seat Cinerama opened in 1963.  It hadn't showed a 70mm production in almost three decades and was in grave danger of destruction when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen bought it for $3 million, and spent millions more restoring it to its original glory.
Unlike the old movie palaces, which were either converted vaudeville theaters, or custom-built in the 1920's silent days to accomodate major stage shows, usually in some takeoff of classical styles, whether Baroque, Mayan, or Roman, theaters like the Seattle Cinerama, designed by architect Raymond H. Peck, were built specifically and exclusively for film.  Their high-tech, modernist design reflected the state-of-the-art status of the sound and projection.
 In Chicago, after showman Michael Todd bought the "legitimate" Harris Theatre, designed by architect C. Howard Crane, he enlisted talents such as Bertrand Goldberg and artist Joseph Albers to transform it into a glamorous showplace of contemporary design that he then named after himself.  After Todd died in a 1958 plane crash, the Michael Todd theatre, as well as the Cinestage just next door, remained owned by his widow, Elizabeth Taylor, until she discovered many years later that they had descended into showing soft-core porn.

Getting back to the roster for the Seattle festival, there's also Jacque Tati's amazing Playtime, where the 70mm format is used to explicate variations on an epic scale on the absurdities of modernism in general and modernist architecture in particular, and Richard Brook's film version of Conrad's Lord Jim, with Peter O'Toole in the title role.  Besides Lady, musicals range from West Side Story, to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to South Pacific, along with another film that was enormously popular in its time but largely forgotten today, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.

The Sound of Music, which will also be screened, was the high water mark of roadshow exhibition.  In city after city, its run was counted not in months but in years, as the picture went on to dethrone Gone With the Wind as the biggest grossing film of all time.  Today, the film's sugary nature - one critic remarked that it could not be endured within a dose of insulin - makes this seem inexplicable, and the studio interiors only add to the dullness. But in 70mm, you can see how the location shooting in Austria created images of richness and often stunning beauty.
Almost finally, there will be showings of the original Cinerama production, This is Cinerama, and one of  only two narrative films to be shot in that process, How the West was Won.  Cinerama films, as explained in this great post on the Harry Helms blog, were actually 35mm, but times three.  A special camera shot three separate strips of film, center, left and right, which were projected in exact synchronization on a single, massive curving screen.
 The move to narrative films also sounded the death knell for true Cinerama.  Beginning with 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad,Mad World,  "Cinerama" became a single ultra-wide 70mm print projected with a special lens onto the curving Cinerama screen.

Like IMAX today, the 70mm roadshow production was a clever ploy to enhance revenue by charging ticket prices substantially higher than that for standard releases.  In the mid-1960's, a midweek evening ticket for a roadshow film might go for $2.80, versus about $1.85 for a regular release at the United Arists or Oriental. At one time the Michael Todd and Cinestage (whose facades survive in front of the new Goodman Theater), the McVickers (demolished), and Palace all showed roadshow films, with theaters such as the Loop and Esquire also going along for the ride at times.  You can read more about the rise and fall of the roadshow in our previous piece  here.
Lawrence and My Fair Lady get occasional revivals, but the real rarity in Seattle will be sceenings of 70mm prints of 1963's Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.  Costing over $300,000,000 in today's money, it still holds the title as the most expensive film ever made.  Taylor's serious illness had already set the production off the rails, and the studio brought on writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz to take over the production of a film that was already $5 million over budget.  The revised script was only half finished when filming restarted, with Mankiewicz, like David Selnick before him, turning to pharmaceutical reinforcement to allow him to write through the night the pages we would shoot the next day.

While the final result bears shows the literary hallmarks of the man who wrote such witty films as All About Eve, Cleopatra was not a critical success.  It was the highest-grossing film of 1963, but that was still not enough to cover costs.  In Chicago, it played not at one of the usual road-show houses, but at the State-Lake (now the ABC7 studios), which had a larger seating capacity to take advantage of the public's heavy-breathing, if short-lived interest in the tabloid details of Taylor's and Burton's love life.
A good bit of coherence was lost when Fox spurned Mankiewicz's suggestion to release the film as an six-hour epic shown in two parts, as the Russian War and Peace would be in the next decade.  Instead, Cleopatra was released clocking in at a still posterior-challenging four+ hours, and then cut again to closer to three for general release.

Still, Cleopatra remains a literate, often witty film.  It doesn't scrimp on the spectacle, and its climatic sequence of Cleopatra's entrance into the Imperial Forum,  demonstrating what the Romans might have achieved if only they had had Fox production head Spyros Skouros to write the checks to cover the overruns, remains one of the most spectacular sequences in cinema.

Of course, watching Cleopatra on You Tube is like viewing Guernica on a dinner plate

Seattle's Big Screen 70mm Film Festival takes place September 30th through October 16th, and includes no fewer than 43 scheduled screenings.   Five of those screenings are still listed as "TBA",  so is there hope for the additional a Spartacus or a Ben-Hur?  Check out all the information on the festival here.

The Birds and the BeeInsect

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Angel of Peace Flies the Coop

Now you see him . . .
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Now you don't . . .
Sculptor William H. Kieffer's Angel of Peace has been providing benediction over the Episcopal Center on Huron's since its November, 1999 dedication, when Daniel Berrigan spoke of it as a reminder  "of our humanity in an inhumane time . . . telling us in very simple, biblical terms of God's hope for the world." The cast-back figure of the nine-foot-tall bronze angel seemed to be gratefully accepting whatever heaven would provide, whether snow . . .
or moonlight . . .
or having his energy channeled by retiring mayor Richard M. Daley in a classic Sun-Times photo by Al Podgorski.
It took three decades for the Angel of Peace to descend in front of the cleanly modernist 1969 midrise structure with 45-foot-wide spans, designed  by architects James W. Hammond and Peter Roesch.  And then he lasted less than a dozen years.  Yes, the Angel of Peace has been put in storage.   (And if that's not a metaphor for our time . . .)
It's part of the revamp of the building's plaza by Loebl Schlossman and Hackl.  The entire complex just missed obliteration a few years ago when a proposal for a 71-story Canyon Ranch residential tower, designed by DeStefano + Partners, fell through for lack of funding.
The original design of the plaza was in the classic 1960's/70'e windswept, rough concrete embankment style that fell out of fashion long ago  It worked better at the Episcopal Center's smaller scale than at most other locations.  The texture of the slightly monolithic concrete walls and slab stone benches had their own brutalist grandeur, but in our own time we're clearly looking for softer, more yielding stuff.
And so we have a new design and the plaza a new name, St. James Commons. The single open, rectilinear space with clear, sharp edges is to be broken apart into a number of subspaces, permeated and separated by additional landscaping defining diagonals and curves.  The paving stones shift orientation as the walkways turn.  The edge between building and plaza is mediated and obscured by greenery and a long fountain. 
At the northwest corner, against the exterior of the adjacent St. James Cathedral's apse, a paver shamrock at its center, will be a labyrinth.  (And if that's not a metaphor for our time . . . )
And it's in a garden near that labyrinth, a spokeswomen for the renovation assures me, that the Angel of Peace, although it doesn't seem to appear in any of the renderings, will most probably be relocated.  You can almost hear the angelic lament - "Once I stood on a high pedestal, halfway to heaven, casting God's grace over the entire shebang.  Now. I'm a sideshow, competing with a shamrock labyrinth."

Work on the plaza is scheduled to go on winter hiatus after November, with completion sometime next July.  The renovation project actually has its own website, where you can follow the progress through weekly construction updates. Renderings, site plans and more information can be found on the earliest, April pages here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

See Frank Lloyd Wright's Boiler!

We're told there are still some $45.00 tickets available for tomorrow's Geothermal HVAC tour at Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park.  And while that may not, on the surface, sound like the most fascinating topic in the world, there are actually a couple of good stories behind it.

In 1908, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a state of the art heating system for Unity Temple, involving a coal-fired boiler and electric fans that forced the warm air through a series of subterranean tunnels snaking below the building.  It was ahead of its time.  And it didn't work.  Parishioners either froze or broiled, and there was a story that so much heat was generated outside the building trees became to bloom in the winter.  More conventional - and reliable - steam radiators were installed in the building, which survive until today.

Now, Unity Temple is in process of constructing a $1.5 million ground source heat pump system that's projected to reduce energy consumption by up to 70%.

And you can learn all about it and see it history and beginnings for yourself.  On Thursday, August 25th, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m., Mark Nussbaum, mechanical engineer and geothermal expert, will talk about Wright's original 1908 heating system and lead an extended tour of the new system including the field for the 650-foot-deep wells, the original boiler and fan rooms, the access points to the tunnels, and "hidden mechanical chases."  There will also be appetizers and drinks from Oak Park's Maya del Sol.

All proceeds benefit the restoration of Unity Temple.  You can find out more and purchase tickets here.

Chicago Streetscene: Filmstrip Laminate

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Schlepping with Stanley

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Chicago's architectural agent-provocateur Stanley Tigerman doesn't seem to think much of that whole "going gently" crap. 

His firm, Tigerman McCurry Architects, is designing a new space for the relocating Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park.   He's got not one, but two books coming out this fall, Schlepping Through Ambivalence: Essays on an American Architectural Condition, drawing on Tigerman's writings from 1964 to - now -, and, Designing Bridges to Burn:Architectural Memoirs.  On Friday, September 9th, he'll be the inaugural lecturer for the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust/U of C series, Thinking Into the Future: The Robie House Series on Architecture, Design and Ideas, tickets and info here.  He may be an octogenarian, but to Stanley Tigerman, a schlep would appear to be a full-press sprint.

But wait, there's more! If you happen to be in the neighborhood - New Haven, that is - this Thursday, August 25th, you can stop by the iconic 1963 Yale Art and Architecture building, rededicated and renamed in 2008 to honor its architect as Paul Rudolph Hall, to hear Tigerman deliver still another lecture, DIS P L A C E  M  E  N  T, marking the opening of a retrospective on his work, Ceci n’est pas une rêverie*: The Architecture of Stanley Tigerman, which runs through November 5th.   (It's coming to the Graham in January next year.)  According to the press release . . .
Ceci n’est pas une rêverie is installed thematically, grouping Tigerman’s projects according to motifs that resonate throughout his body of work: “utopia,” “allegory,” “death,” “humor,” “division,” “drift,” “yaleiana,” “identity,” and “(dis)order.” Highlights include models and sketches of such early and mid-career projects as the Five Polytechnic Institutes in Bangladesh (1966–75); the Urban Matrix proposal on Lake Michigan (1967–68); the Daisy House, in Porter, Indiana (1975–78); and Dante’s Bathroom Addition, an  unbuilt, allegorical project for Kohler (1980), while more recent projects include the Commonwealth Edison Energy Museum, in Zion, Illinois (1987–90);the Park Lane Hotel in Kyoto (1990); the Berlin Wall project (1988); and the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois, in Skokie (2000–2009).
 . . .  [The exhibition also ] includes tableware designed for Swid Powell, along with designs for Cannon Fieldcrest, Alessi, and Cleto Munari. Original artworks by the architect include oil paintings from the “I Pledge Allegiance” series of the mid-1960s; a selection of “Architoons,” Tigerman’s cartoon-like drawings; and travel sketches from the 1970s onwards.
Also included is material dating from Tigerman's student days at Yale.  Next year, Tigerman's drawing archive goes into Yale's Manuscripts and Archives depository.
It is expected that across these many events, feathers will be ruffled, and insights gained. A report that Mr. Tigerman will also be a contestant in the fall 2011 season of Dancing With the Stars remains unconfirmed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

On an Overgrown Path

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As Chicago grew to greatness, there were two basic types of park design, the "passive" designed for strolling amidst scenic vistas, making the new housing for the affluent rising along the boulevards even more attractive, and the "active", engineered to channel the leisure time of emerging Chicago's largely immigrant working class into wholesome programs and activities - swimming pools, baseball diamonds, field houses and the like.
You can see the persistence of the two approaches even in Chicago's front yard, Grant Park.  The part east of the railroad tracks, a "passive" park that been allowed to deteriorate and depopulate to point where vagrants and drug dealers were the primary users, was transformed into Millennium Park, cram-full of attractions such as Cloud Gate, the Pritzker Pavilion, and Crown Fountain, with a huge restaurant thrown in for good measure.  Daley Bicentennial Plaza, east of the tracks at end of Frank Gehry's BP bridge, was more "passive", an oasis from the hyperactivity to the west, suitable for strolling, relaxing, reflecting, or taking your kids to the small playlot.  Hence the battle to keep the eastern half free from a new building for Chicago Children's Museum, complete with jagged, soaring skylights.
An argument is made that in a city like Chicago, dense and crammed with structure, the "passive" park's attempt to emulate nature is a anachronistic affectation.  This is the city, it's man-made - get over it.

I remain unconvinced.  The global, supply-chain economy has created a supply-chain architecture, increasingly mechanized and dehumanized, built on a Six Sigma value system where efficiency is the highest possible good and variability a hated enemy.  Whereas the best architecture of the age of Mies was an expression of regularity and order as a response to the violent anarchy of the time, the best architecture of our time is usually a disruption of the straitjacket of supply-chain architecture.
Within this context, I believe that an expression of nature, as natural and variable as our meddling little hands can make it, is an essential relief in a city like Chicago.  For me, the best part of the Chicago riverwalk is where the trees and flowers take you away from the hard edges of Wacker Drive, where the seating isn't a concrete bench or a metal seat anchored into the ground, but the movable chairs under the shade of tall trees that let the visitor improvise their own space.
That's also why my favorite new public space in Chicago is the Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk, designed by Studio/Gang with WMD Environmental.  We still have a full article on the Boardwalk coming up, but this weekend it was a great place to visit.
At the close of its second summer, the Boardwalk is really coming into its own.  On Saturday, after the morning thunderstorms and rain, the sun glistened in the moisture of the plants and flowers.  Nature, which in the Boardwalk's first season was sedate and controlled, was, on Saturday, bursting through, as if the prairie were about to take back the city. Black-eyed Susans, Blazing Stars, Cardinal flowers, Cup Plants, to name just a few, were growing in abundance.
Yes, we need soccer fields and baseball diamonds, skate parks and bicycle paths, and all the other resources parks can offer, but sometimes it's a good thing to encounter an alternative path.

Chicago Air Show 2011: the Viewed and the Viewers

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