Thursday, July 18, 2013

Whalenado! Float streams Fruit of the Sea past Architecture of Chicago

click images for larger view

It's an aquatic invasion.  The Chicago Loop Alliance turned to St. Louis-based illustrator Noah MacMillan to create Float, a 2,500-square-foot mural wrapping around the corner of Holabird and Roche's 1915 Century Building at State and Adams.  It's one of a number of major summer-time projects from the Alliance that includes The Gateway, a colorful seating area in the median of State Street between Wacker and Lake, and Block Thirty Seven, a Pop- Up Art Gallery in a never-occupied space in the lightly inhabited Block 37 shopping mall across from Macy's.

Float, which officially went on display earlier this week, depicts, in the words of the artist, “aquatic animals floating through a coral reef of Chicago” in a “surreal parade” that sees a great whale sliding past Alexander Calder's Flamingo, and an octopus stretching out its tentacles to the City/County Building.  Do the clown fish and jelly fish represent the City Council? 
We first wrote about the Century back in 2008, when it was an eyesore of dilapidated scaffolding.  The year after, the General Services Administration, which owns the building, took measures to ameliorate the squalor and has worked with the Loop Alliance to make it one of their Pop-Up galleries on a continuing basis.  Last year at this time, the Century's mural space and first floor windows were a solid, bright red as part of the Alliance's Color Jam project, in which artist Jessica Stockholder turned the corners of the intersection, and even the street itself, red, green, orange and blue.
The basic problem remains, however.  The GSA hasn't really decided - at least publicly - what to do with the Century and another terra cotta skyscraper,  Mundie and Jensen's 1913 Consumers Building, a few doors south on State, which were acquired after 9-11 to provide a security moat to the adjacent, half-block long Dirksen courthouse building, from 1964, the first structure to be completed in Mies van der Rohe's Federal Center complex. The feds now own the entire block, save Berghoff's.
South of Quincy, which has been transformed from a street to pedestrian court along State, the GSA turned to 4240 Architecture to rehab and retrofit three buildings on the block.  The low structure at 18 West Jackson was rescued from its status of having one of ugliest facades in city.  The former Bond's store on State also received a new, more open facade.  Along the south side of Quincy Court, there's Alfred Alschuler's 1937 Benson Rixon store building at 230 South State, which, when new, was the epitome of style and elegance before a long descent that found McDonald's becoming the long-term anchor tenant. 
Photograph: Chicago History Museum
Back in 2009, the GSA had published a Building Preservation Plan from Johnson Lasky Architect.

Unfortunately, few of the report's recommendations, such as restoring the original ground floor windows, appear to have been followed.
Instead, 4240 was called upon to clean up and update the building, complete with a new, modern in a completely newer style entrance along Quincy.
The GSA appears to have pretty much emptied out the office floors of the Consumers and the Century.  The Consumers' terra cotta still gleams, but over at the Century, even the vivid colors of Float can't fully distract from the begrimed, long-crumbling Manueline Gothic-styled terra cotta or all the dead-behind-the-eyes windows.  
In the past, the options studied by the GSA range from placing a new fill structure between the Consumers and the Century, to replacing everything on the half-block with a huge new mega-structure.  To be fair, the small floorplates of these early skyscrapers present a signficant challenge to creating the kind of office spaces that are today's standard.
While the GSA's actions to “de-slum” the ground level spaces of the buildings north of Quincy is commendable, Chicago deserves better than having to endure the derelict state of the Century's facade year after year, with no resolution in sight.

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