Saturday, August 31, 2013

Urban Duckies: rubber, cooked, and with sunglasses

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image: Wikipedia - User:russavia
By now you've probably all encountered the story of  Dutch artist Florentijin Hofman's giant inflated Rubber Duck, which, according to Hofman . . .
knows no frontiers, it doesn't discriminate people and doesn't have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them. The rubber duck is soft, friendly and suitable for all ages!
The Duck began its journey in Osaka, Japan in 2009.  Wildly popular with the public, it then made its way from locations from Sao Paolo to Sydney to Hong Kong, where the it suffered a deflation that left it little more than a flat yolk.  The duck is now said to be fully recovered and on its way to a lake in Beijing's Garden Expo Park for a September 6th debut.
image: AFP
Hofman expressed outrage when his Rubber Duck was replicated by shanzhai knock-offs throughout various Chinese cities, but Shanghai, in the throes of an unprecendented heat wave, has responded in its own way. A team of artists headed by Han Beishi were hired by ad company Bestknown to create the “roast duck ferry”, as featured on designboom.
Of course, Chicago is no stranger to rubber duckies, as earlier this month we dumped about 45,000 of them into the river for the annual Windy City Rubber Ducky Derby, benefiting the Illinois Special Olympics.
It all raises the questions: what would a Chicago version of Shanghai's cooked duck ferry look like?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Sending Pegasus Aflight : Preliminary bKL design revealed for Buck Tower at 200 North Michigan

rendering: bKL Architecture
Chris Bentley of The Architects Newspaper today gave us the first look at a preliminary design by bKL Architecture for the 45-story residential tower John Buck is looking to construct at 200 North Michigan.  There's no full-up view of the building, but the street level rendering published by Bentley has a definite 1950's, almost Lapidusian vibe, the tower set back on at least three sides from a diaphanous, greenish-blue, shifting toward turquoise base.
The site is currently occupied by the six-story Tobey Building, by Holabird and Root, dating from 1927.  Although faded, it was originally a fairly elegant design, as you can see from this photo from 1964, when both this stretch of Michigan and Zenith televisions were prestige brands.
image courtesy The Chuckman Collection
Along the top of the building is a sequence of engaging relief panels . . .

including the aforementioned winged horse . . .
According to a July report by Micah Maidenberg in Crain's Chicago Business, the building was acquired for $20 million in 2006 by an affiliate of Becker Ventures LLC (no relation, alas), which is Buck's partner on this project.  No word on a groundbreaking date.  The development needs to win the approval of local Alderman Brendan Reilly, who Bentley reports has set his first community meeting to consider the development for September 12.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

McPlazas? Privatizing Chicago's Orphan Public Spaces

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[Update: January 2, 2014]  Our worst fears realized?  John Byrne of the Chicago Tribune is reporting that two of the four finalists to “manage” orphaned neighborhood plazas are major outdoor advertising companies.  Making Way For People, or For Billboards? Is Rahm selling out still more civic space for quick cash?

People Plazas: how could anyone question such a concept?  It sounds as American as Apple Pie.

And I'm sure the intentions are good.  Yesterday, the City of Chicago's Department of Transportation released a request for proposals - from companies or organizations - to “provide certain management services for City plazas,” ultimately 49 in all. 
The purpose is to find a qualified consultant to provide services to activate, maintain and, if necessary, upgrade the City plazas . . . CDOT expects the Selected Respondent to provide the Services specified herein as well as other opportunities that present themselves to showcase the plazas and raise funds for future programming and maintenance, which will when become part of their Services.
. . .  One of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's strategies for improving Chicago's neighborhoods is to create place public spaces that cultivate community activities and cultural events in Chicago's neighborhoods through placemaking.  The ‘Make Way for People’ program in general, and the People Plazas program in particular, are ways that CDOT is executing the Mayor's strategy by supporting innovation in the public way through the opening of Chicago's streets, parking spots, plazas and alleys to new programming opportunities.  The Municipal Marketing ordinance allows for revenue generation in support of these strategies and goals.  The People Plaza program is intended to have the additional benefits of improving street safety, promoting walkable communities, and supporting economic development for Chicago's local business and neighborhoods.
The RFP includes information, a photograph, map and aerial view for each of the 49 sites.  They're spread out among six planning districts all across Chicago, although, for some reason, nine - nearly 20% of the total - are in the 25th ward of Alderman Danny Solis.  They are very diverse.  The largest - at 62nd and Drexel - is over 41,000 square feet; the smallest - at Montrose and Broadway - is only 436.  Altogether they add up to nearly 400,000 square feet of public space, and an average of 8,600.  (Three of the listings have no size information at all.)
Traffic estimates range from 650 people a day at Ewing, Indianapolis and 100th, to over 42,000 at Joe DiMaggio Park in Little Italy.  For the 43 sites listing traffic information, the daily average is over 21,000 people.

Ten of the sites include fountains.  In some cases there are sculptures.  Well over half - 28 - have no utility connection of any kind.  Some are basically closed-off residential streets.  Another is actually Carol Ross Barney's Vietnam Memorial along the Chicago River.  This is a sacred space.  Exactly how would we want it “enlivened?”
Many -such as the Nelson Algren Memorial at the Polish Triangle - are clearly neighborhood squares, and would seem to be naturals for development.  Others are more eccentric and challenging. Ohio Place Park is essentially a traffic island isolated between racing lanes of traffic off the Ontario feeder ramp to the Kennedy expressway.  Another is the space around Burnham and Root's gate - the last remnant of Chicago's Union stockyards - which is now stranded within an industrial park.  Several of the sites, especially in Englewood, are vacant lots.  Another in Pilsen is beneath elevated railroads.
What common denominator will a winning respondent find between such sites?  In reading this RFP, it appears that this isn't a case where a neighborhood institution can “adopt” a single plaza in their community.  Each applicant must come up with a plan for a minimum of 10 sites in the first year, and expand to at least 30 within three years.

In that first year, the city will provide a $50,000 “programming reimbursement”, which looks like it's not per site, but to be split among all the installations.  For the first two years, the city will continue to be responsible for providing the curtain level of maintenance to the plazas.  Beyond that, the winning entities will be on their own to come up with revenue - from sponsorships, advertising, grants, donations, retail establishments or basically anything else they can think of.  From this they will have to fund programming, year-round maintenance, capital improvements and upgrades, plus sufficient cash for “Revenue generation for the City.”

Who is this RFP targeted toward?  Is there a preferred vendor already in the wings for whom it has been tailored?   Or is it a fishing expedition just to see what - if anything - is out there?
I'm put in mind of very different conditions for two Near North parks.  Neither of them are in the RFP, but they are actually smaller than many of the Peoples Plaza sites.  Mariano Park, in the heart of the Viagra Triangle, has been able to achieve continued success served by only this small pavilion designed by Frank Lloyd Wright alum Birch Burdette Long in 1895.
Just a few blocks away there is Connors Park which, until recently, was a charming, if derelict, greenspace.
For reasons that are beyond me, despite the fact that Connors park resides in one of Chicago's more affluent areas, across the street from luxury condo buildings and the striking Sofitel Water Tower hotel, the city was unable to keep the park free from vandals and the homeless.  It chose instead to turn over the large end of the triangular park to Argo Tea, for the construction of a tea shop as large and intrusive as Burdette Long's kiosk is modest and limited.
If you walked by, would you think these tables and chairs were part of a park open to all, or a private seating area for a commercial facility?  Connors has gone from being a welcome oasis of greenery in a densely built area, to a chain teahouse with a pinched slice of park attached to it.

These are the central questions about CDOT's Peoples Plazas RFP:

Given how many of the sites are deeply challenging, sometimes in inhospitable areas, what kind of company or organization is going to respond to the RFP?  What's in it for them?  And what are the city's expectations? To break even while providing programming?  Or this seen as another way to plug massive budget deficits by essentially selling off civic assets?

The RFP talks about involving local community groups, but it also seems clear that a selected manager - and not the community - will ultimately control the sites.  In this context, will the community eventually in conflict with an outside organization controlling its public spaces, or perhaps even charging for their use?   To be clear, many of these sites are currently godforsaken wastelands.  There's nowhere for them to go but up.  Others, however, are already integral parts of their community, even if underutilized or commercially underachieving. 
Perhaps most importantly, can any organization responsible for so many very different sites in so many unlike areas of the city find success without standardizing their response?  Think JCDecaux bus shelters or Divvy bike stations.  No matter where they're placed, they are largely identical.  Will the People Plazas truly benefit the people, or commercial interests?  Will they reflect and enhance the neighborhoods in which they are placed, or undermine that character by moving it ever closer to an efficient but generic sameness?

Proposals responding to the RFP must be received by CDOT no later than Noon, CST, September 30th.  There will be a “Pre-Proposal Conference meeting” at 3:00 p.m., September 10th, at the Department of Finance, 33 N. LaSalle, 7th floor, room 700.  Attendance “non-mandatory, but strongly encouraged.”  You can also submit questions via mail - e, snail or fax - directly to CDOT's Janet Attarian through 3 p.m., CST, Friday, September 6th.

Read More:

Chicago Department of Transportation - information.   Download RFP document.

The Tea House that Ate Connors Park

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Chicago Under Construction: The Park at River Point Makes Train Tracks Disappear

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For the better part of the past century, north from Lake Street was where the Chicago River began to again show its natural roots.  To the east and south, the river had long before a constructed ditch with towers on either bank often coming right to the edge.
At Wolf Point, however, and along the western bank, the river retained what at least appeared to be a natural shoreline, hugged by trees, shrubs and plants that arose free from the guiding hand of any landscape architect.  For those long decades, this assuming structure, just north of Lake Street, was the most ambitious building on the site . . .
All that's history now.  There are big plans for all those last empty sites along the river in the Loop.  No fewer than three buildings are planned for Wolf Point, and renderings of a new office tower at 150 North Riverside were unveiled just last month.

That brick Metra building - and the ramshackle wooden stairway leading down to the river -  is now only a memory, as another massive tower, River Point, is about to go up in their place.  It's been designed for Hines Interests by Pickard-Chilton, architects of the 60-story 300 North LaSalle, completed in 2009.  The actual building, to be set back from the river along Canal Street, has yet to break ground.
First the developer is creating a 1.5 acre riverfront park, for which they've shook down the city for a $29.5 million TIF subsidy.  (150 North Riverside, to be constructed on the other side of Lake, is also making a riverfront park part of their project, but without recourse to TIF money.)  The park at River Point is being built over the existing train tracks leading into Union Station.
On a chilly day back in April, a painter was already documenting the vanishing surface tracks clinging to the river.
Soon, the construction equipment was rolling into place.
Things begin, slowly and deliberately . . .
. . . cranes flew in on barges . .  .
. . . basic contours began to reveal themselves . . .
. . . and by July, there was no longer any mistaking but that this was the start of something big.

By August, there was enough green rebar in sight it might as well been St. Patrick's Day.
 The irregular riverbank has already been replaced with a new river wall . . .
. . . even as concrete walls quickly began to rise to support the surface of the new park, and swallow up the accustomed, almost lullaby sound of locomotive bells forever . . .
When it's all done, it will look something like this . . . 
Read More:
Hour of the Wolf: The Transformation of the Pivot Point of Chicago
First Renderings for 150 North Riverside office tower and park

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Enter the Blob, Hammock on the Lawn - Activate Union Station, only through Monday

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Chicago was built by the railroads, but Union Station is the last survivor among what was once six great rail terminals still in use, and we only have half of it.  The great concourse that gave New York's Penn Station a run for its money was demolished in 1969 for the spectacularly mediocre skyscraper now known as Fifth Third Center.
Image courtesy The Chuckman Collection
The Great Hall, however, remains.  It's one of Chicago's grandest public spaces, but many consider it underused, among them The Metropolitan Planning Council, which posed the question: “How can we bring Chicago's Union Station back to life?”  The result was their Activate Union Station competition, and the two winning entries are now up at Union Station, but only through Monday, September 2nd.

is from a design team including participants from Krueck + Sexton, Space Architects+Planners, and IIT woodshop manager Michael Gillhouse, who talked with us for the above video.
Each competitor was awarded just $5,000 to carry out their vision, so volunteer time and donated materials played a big part in the installations.  In the case of TrainYARD, that mean borrowing picnic tables from Logan Square and newspapers from the Chicago Tribune to support the seating.
The idea was to create a park landscape within the monumental stoneyard that is the Great Hall.  Both times I visited, TrainYARD was a popular rest stop for beach ball, tetherball, jumping rope, rotating hoops, lounging in a hammock or getting a kick nap.
Blah Blah Blob!, the other winning entry, actually creates its own structure out of neon-colored nylon fabric.  It's a collaboration between the Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and Latent Design, the firm of Chicago architect Katherine Darnstadt, who talked about the project for our video.
Blah Blah Blob!'s home base is on the riverside plaza of the aforementioned Fifth Third Center, where's its visible to commuters approaching the station from blocks away.
The Blob's material is water resistant, but if there are high winds it relocates to the Great Hall.  
As with TrainYard, a lot of volunteer time - at least 200 hours - went into the project.  Darnstadt says . . . 
It was a total 100% pop-up sweatshop . . . We taught people how to sew, instantly.  We did a little bit of it at the Art Institute, in the Fashion Department, because they have tons of space.  We did a couple days there and that was great to be able to cut all the patterns that we needed, ‘cause we just need space to lay it out.  And we sewed in my kitchen.  
The Blob (the name is a sly allusion to blob architecture) has to be inflated and set up afresh each day. In the controlled environment of the Great Hall, Darnstadt can do it, by herself, in 30 minutes.  Outside, she's dealing with wind, downdrafts and pedestrians.  
This morning, at 6:30 - 7:00 in morning, as I rolled this out, people are walking over it because they really have their routine and just want to walk across the plaza come hell or high water.  Tomorrow (that is, today, August 27th), we're going to be inside Union Station, actually be able to hang out with the TrainYARD folks.  It helps just to watch each other's project and how they interact with one another.
From set-up to break-down, it's a twelve-hour day.  “Married to my blob,” is how Darnstadt describes her current status.
The Blob is both an object and an inhabitable space.  When I was at Fifth Third Plaza yesterday, it was being set up for a noon-time Zumba class.  Tuesday is a 5 p.m. Fit kick, Wednesday noon-time Pound - check out the entire schedule here.  (And remember that today, Tuesday the 27th, you can both installations, side-by-side in the Great Hall

I can't really speak to how Activate Union Station will scale up to more permanent interventions, but the two competition winners are friendly twerk counterpoints to the sober, monumental architecture.  Whether your weapon of leisure is Zumba, tetherball or just lounging around, it's well worthwhile to pop into Union Station before the installations come down after Monday, September 2nd.

Monday, August 26, 2013

And the Oscar Goes to . . . Divergent - Production Design: Walter Netsch and Helmut Jahn

If you were watching the VMA awards this weekend, you probably saw this early trailer for the Shailene Woodley/Theo James/Miles Teller/Kate Winslet film Divergent, scheduled to be released next March.  The film - and the Veronica Roth novel on which it's based - is set in a dystopian future version of Chicago.  Yeah, I know - the more things change . . .
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It was only this past June that we showed you the Divergent village that had been constructed on the long empty Grand Central Station site in the South Loop, which you can see in the film with pretty much the same architectural backdrop as in our photograph . . .
But Divergent director Neil - Yale-grad-just-like-Blair - Burger and Production Designer Andy Nicholson didn't limit their set design to custom-built construction. 
Apparently, if you want a glimpse of what the future will look like, you have only to hop down to 57th and Ellis on the U of C campus, where the library power combo of Walter Netsch's Regenstein and Helmut Jahn's Mansueto are standing in for the headquarters of what I'm betting is some kind of evil empire. 
Which of Divergent's five factions do they house? Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless or Erudite?  And - whatever faction - will there be field theory and archi-neering?  And cake?

(If you can identify other Chicago locations in the trailer, please let us know in a comment.)

Read More:

Divergent at Lionsgate website

Hilberseimer Place?  Divergent's Housing on Harrison.
Helmut Jahn's Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago