Thursday, May 31, 2012

Instant Landmark: TranSystems and Ross Barney's Morgan Street Station

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Okay, let's get the cost thing out of the way first.  When you can buy an entire 384,000-square-foot office building for $45 million,  you may well wonder why it takes the CTA $38 million to build something like its new Green Line station at Morgan Street.  And don't get me started on the whole aspect of funding the station from one of Chicago's TIF's, the slush fund that diverts $700 million in revenues each year from general purposes into what amounts to the mayor's personal piggy bank.

It would be great if an intrepid reporter or Chicago's Inspector General would do some digging and give us a piece-by-piece analysis of the construction, including any padding for the accustomed Chicago corruption tax. If these projects could be done more efficiently, I'm all for it.
 What I'm not for is the sackcloth-and-ashes reaction that when times are tough and money tight, everything we do must be cheap and mean.  That's the supply chain talking, and as a commentator recently wrote, the supply chain mentality of making the unadorned warehouse the preferred model for every architectural use leaves us with a junkspace nowhere, from which future preservationists will have a hard time finding much worth saving.

Public transit infrastructure, used by millions each day and a unavoidable part of the urban landscape even non-users, is one of the most omnipresent aspects of any city's design, and often one of the most neglected.  If you don't believe me, check out some of the stations on what is one of the glories of Chicago's urban character - the Loop L.  A few years back, urbanologist Aaron Renn offered up an acute analysis of the value of good transit design that is just as valid today.  And as his quote from Daniel Burnham indicates, the problem is long-standing.
As a rule, the general aspect of our suburban [train] stations is not pleasant. They should be bright, cheery, and inviting in a high degree.
We've seen the results of "value engineering" when cost cutting eliminates some of the design's most innovative features, such as the recent rehab of CTA Fullerton station, with its opaque stairway boxes that make the platforms look cramped and oppressive.
If the results are bad, we're stuck with them for decades.  So why not do it right? The first, Queen Anne-styled Morgan Street station opened in 1893, and it provided over a half-century of service before it's 1948 closing.  The just-opened new station should last at least at long - its materials have been selected for ease of maintenance - and it's already a shining example of transformative architecture.

A collaboration between Ross Barney Architects and TranSystems, the Morgan Street Station, the first new CTA station in 15 years, has created a dramatic visual marker for the emerging Fulton Market District, a former industrial area where meatpackers and butter-and-egg men live in close quarters with bars, restaurants, art galleries, and - soon - a 35-room Chicago outlet for the trendy Soho House hotel chain, created out of a former rubber belt factory.  The reflective "Morgan Station" sign on the girder identifies the location, and the 4-story high bookend towers give it character.
Those towers wouldn't exist if it weren't for the crossover bridge linking the station's two platforms.  Right now, it's a bit of a puzzler of who will actually use this bridge - why would you get off a train going in one direction and cross over to get to a train going back in the direction you came from?  It may make more sense if some one of the CTA's future plans for new subways and rail links come to fruition.  For now, the completely enclosed bridge offers spectacular views of the Chicago skyline. 
The perforated stainless steel makes the large volumes seem light rather than oppressive.  The double-staircases look like something Piranesi might have done, if only he had had access to shiny metal and endless streams of light.
At platform level, the columns are small and unobtrusive, and the generous canopies are of a translucent polycarbonate that allows daylight to pass through.
Lake is a very narrow thoroughfare, and the twin station houses that hug either side of the street are a tight fit and, compared to the glittering towers, comparatively spartan.
The interiors, however, have an open, spacious feel, despite accommodating the usual station master's booth, farecard machines, turnstiles, stair and elevator.
Along Lake Street, even the bike racks are stylish and light.
At night, things may even be a bit too bright.   It makes for a very distinctive street presence for the station, but inside and on the platforms, the light levels are blazing.  Along with the usual security cameras, any potential criminal would have to think twice in practicing on what feels like a television soundstage. Once the CTA's accustomed, less-than-stellar maintenance kicks in, we'll probably soon see a lot of unreplaced bulbs bringing down the wattage, but for now, bring your shades.
So, sure, $38 million is a lot of money.  But Chicago is not broke.  Our 2008 GDP of $574 billion ranks fourth among all the world's cities.  The question is not whether or not we have the money.  The question is how we want to spend that money.  Do we want a lowest common-denominator city, a cheap city that cheapens each of us,  or a truly great city that continues to challenge and inspire us?  TransSystems/Ross Barney's Morgan Street Station makes a strong argument for the second, more optimistic choice.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hines Point

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Things change.

Discuss among yourselves.

(We'll weigh in later.)

Overview from Blair here.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hedrich-Blessing's Rotting Rams

While taking some photos of Wolf Point in anticipation of Tuesday's public meeting on its proposed mega-development (three skyscrapers), I kept walking, west, north, finally south along a stub of Sangamon, drawn to the red-painted entrance of an old loft now filled with galleries.
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Beyond it, making my way to a dead end at Kinzie, I could see little more than chain-link fencing around still another vacant lot.  Walking towards it, looking for interesting debris, I stopped dead in my tracks.
This spectacular mural, by Belgian street artist ROA and commissioned by the Chicago group Pawnworks, was painted in May of last year on the rear wall of the building housing the studio of architectural photographers Hedrich-Blessing, known for their portraits of buildings in their most perfect, pristine state.  Their headquarters structure is functional, simple, and plain.
The once blank back wall and the huge vacant lot faces the fringes of the Fulton Market district, carved to bits by the multi-leveled intersection of viaducts, surface railroad tracks and the sunken Kennedy expressway, creating an unhomogenized urban colloid, caught in transition between long-standing uses, dereliction and gentrification.

In an interview with Vincent Morgan from 2010, ROA talks about places like this . . .
It’s nice to paint in a restful and left behind place. It’s like an oasis between "the civilization". These places have an unique character, the decay and the lost industrial activity (like the factories) offering lots of interesting situations. Once place with a lot of agitation turns out in a wasteland where nature calls back, little rodents and birds are the only survivors in these black holes and taken over the places like humans did some centuries before. It’s fine to paint with nobody passing by or watching you, just do what you love to do, paint!
Sometimes, all the modern office towers, so clean, so scrubbed, so perfect, so sterile, seem like a hospital whose endless corridors, eerily silent,  you walk in profound dis-ease.  Can this be death?  Birth is a loud, messy business, to an uncertain end.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
In this unstable district, ROA's mural finds a natural home.  Here you find unveiled the bones and viscera that lie beneath the perfect architectural skins.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day Chicago, 2012: Beyond the Words

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 PFC Michael Olivieri (USA)
 SGT Andrew Tobin (USA)
LCPL Jordan Bastean (USMC)
LCPL Nicholas Dobereiner (USA)
PFC Adam Dobereiner (USA)
SPC Christopher Patterson (Indiana National Guard)
Capt. Nathan McHone (USMC)
CPL Conner Lowry (USMC)
CPL Alex Martinez (USMC)
CPL Chester Roper (USA) POW Korean War

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vinyl Explosion creates Color Jam at State and Adams

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If you're around the corner of State and Adams, anytime from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. following, next Tuesday, May 29th through Monday morning June 4th, you can watch the creation of State Street's latest summer art blockbuster, Color Jam, by Chicago-based multi-media artist Jessica Stockholder,  complete with teams of workers and ten-story-high boom lifts.  Sponsored by the Chicago Loop Alliance, which also brought you Tony Tasset's EYE in 2010, Color Jam promises to be .  . .
. . .the largest public artwork in Chicago’s history and the largest contiguous vinyl project in the U.S. It is composed of over 76,000 square feet of colored vinyl—enough material to make 50,000 vinyl records, wrap over 130 city buses or cover one and a half football fields. Printing Color Jam on a standard HP home printer would require 2,100 ink cartridges and 180 hours of continuous printing. [editors note: the discovery that the vinyl, would not, in actual fact, be printed on a HP home printer led Hewlett Packard to announce on Wednesday that the company would be laying off 27,000 workers.]
However you measure it - and personally, I like to think of it as enough vinyl to pipe all our broken dreams to somewhere past Muncie - that's a lot of pieces, and if you're there towards the end of a shift during the set-up period,  I'd watch yourself lest you become the victim of a punch-weary volunteer, a la the wallpaper scene in A Day at the Races.
The buildings at the four corners of State and Adams represent nearly a century of Chicago architecture: the 2003 Citadel Center by DeStefano and Bofill, SOM's 1962 Home Federal, Holabird and Roche's 1915 Century Building, and Eckenhoff Saunders' Unicom Thermal Chilled Water Plant, from 1995.
Color Jam will saturate streets, sidewalks and building facades with a bold and resonant palette, creating a sensation of "walking through an animated film."

As people approach - on foot or in a vehicle - flashes of color will begin to reveal themselves: a stripe on the pavement, an unusual shape on a high floor of a skyscraper.  Closer to the corner, color will begin to intensify and overtake the field of vision.  Geometric shapes will form as they spill from buildings onto the sidewalk, overtaking traffic lanes, joyously "jamming" the street. And in the middle of the intersection - a vortex of color and shape will mark the Loop's latest destination.
You can download the brochure on the project here.  Already up and running on the Color Jam webpage is this streaming webcam overlooking the intersection, where you can watch the installation unfold.

Live video by Ustream
Color Jam will open officially at 10:00 a.m., Tuesday, June 5th, and run through September 30th.