Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bring in Da Bars, Push Out Da Funk

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Once upon a time, not so very long ago, River North was skid row, full of derelict old buildings long past their prime.
photo courtesy The Chuckman Collection
And being a very edgy part of town, it attracted not just the desperate, but the adventurous.  It was on Clark Street that Jim Flint opened the Baton Show Lounge all the way back in 1969.  Slowly, things began to change.   In the late 1980's, Rick Bayless would still find drunks sleeping it off in his doorway as he came in the morning to open up his pioneering Frontera Grill, but River North was becoming trendy, attracting restaurants and new residents.  Under the watchful eye of developer Albert Friedman, River North has become once of the most thriving communities in Chicago, with more and more of the district's original loft architecture falling to huge office buildings, soaring residential towers, and glitzy hotels.
As is always the case with rapid development, the offbeat older businesses that originally made the district area attractive - drawn to the district by it's affordable rents - are, over time, dispossessed by the much more generic enterprises that can afford the rapidly escalating costs of land and leasing.
Last year, there was a sense of loss as the old-school diner Ohio House Coffee Shop was kicked out of a location they had held for 53 years.
Now the same story is playing out its end game a few blocks to the south, on Kinzie between LaSalle and Wells.  The street was once a kind of antiques row, dominated by the massive Jay Roberts Antiques warehouse, the brick facade of the three-story 1892 loft building carefully antiqued.
In 1990, the 15-story 350 North LaSalle rose just to the west. In 2008, about the time the 28th-story EnV residential tower began to rise on what had long been a surface parking lot at Kinzie and Wells, Jay Roberts “temporarily” moved out.
The brick was stripped clean, showing how the warehouse had actually combined several separate buildings.  In 2010, a River North outpost of Moe's Cantina opened at 155 West Kinzie in the western two buildings, one of which sported a new parapet, while a reduced Jay Roberts re-opened in the large building to the east. 
Jay Roberts didn't hang on for long.
After they left, there was another rehab in 2011.  A human skeleton was found in the basement by construction workers.  In 2012, the space was taken over by the River North location of Moe's sister brand, John Barleycorn.
Now time is running out for the last remnant on the block, the black-painted 1909 structure at 159 West Kinzie long home to Antiquarians Building, housing 20 different dealers, and Asian House of Chicago.  The 23,500 square-foot building has been on the market with an asking price of $5.4 million.  Now it looks as if a sale has been made, as large “Moving Sale” signs are in the windows, although the Asian House website makes no mention of a new location.
No news of what's going in.  The site itself is narrow - only a 40-foot frontage, with a total footprint of only 6,600 square feet - and it's flush up again the shear rise of the EnV tower.  The sales flyer enthuses “Surrounded by Restaurants, Boutiques, Showrooms, High-Rise Office and Residential” so quirky would seem to be out the question.  
And so it goes.  A hundred years from now, when the river has became a canyon of mile-high towers, will EnV, dwarfed in their shadow, be considered the funky antique?

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Triumphant Exhibition creates Time Machine to a Vanquished Architecture: Tim Samuelson's Mecca Flat Blues, at the Chicago Cultural Center

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Friday, February 21, The Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington,  will be hosting an opening reception for Mecca Flat Blues from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.  The exhibition, in the 4th floor Sydney R. Yates gallery, runs through May 25, 2014
West of State Street, where 34th street once ran, stands Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall, one of the world's most famous buildings.   The brawny steel-and-glass “one room schoolhouse” sits within an expansive island of landscaped grounds, nested within the insular urban ecosystem that is the IIT campus.
Stand on the campus today and look around you, and it all appears almost primordial.  You can imagine it rising directly from the marshy land that was Chicago's original terrain.  And yet . . . if you remain very still - can you hear it?  Can you sense it?  The sound of jazz and the blues, a lament, the quiet but insistent voices of a vanquished city, wiped from the earth as cleanly as Carthage after the siege.
Mecca Flat Blues, the new exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center curated by the city's Cultural Historian, Tim Samuelson, is - first things first - a spectacular show, hypnotic in both image and story.  Above all else, however, it is  a Proustian meditation on architecture as a repository of memory.  Of how we create buildings to reflect our ambitions, pretensions and vanities.  And how soon those buildings become unmoored from original intent and, over the decades, are transformed and consumed by the earthier realities of life as it is lived day-by-day.

At the end, Mecca Flats, along with the once vibrant community all around it, was sacrificed to create the tabula rasa Mies required for his new campus plan.  It represented a contagion of poverty and decay that had to expunged to make the neighborhood safe for Mies's pristine new world.  The beginning, however, was something wholely different.

“The Largest Apartment House Ever Planned in Chicago”

That was the calling card for the Mecca Apartments, as detailed in an 1891 article in the Chicago Tribune.  Occupying a full half block on 34th Street, between State and Dearborn, formerly occupied by streetcar barns, the project would cost $600,000, be four stories tall, and house 96 flats and twelve stores on State.

Architects Willoughby J. Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham (yes, even the worst Presidents had their name foisted on unsuspecting babies) created three street elevations of Roman pressed brick with stone and terra cotta trim.   The alley elevation, which held the servant's entrance, was of a cruder red brick.  Every apartment was designed to have its own bay window to draw in the light.  Each dining room was to have hardwood sideboards, each kitchen gas ranges and refrigerators.

This was a time when the rich lived in houses and the poor lived in tenements.  The word “apartment” carried a negative stigma.  Apartment buildings for the affluent were likely to be called “apartment hotels” to separate them from the housing used by the unwashed masses.
The Mecca was a pioneering effort to make the apartment block safe for the affluent, to enhance the return on a plot of land not just through increased density, but also elevated price points.  In addition to the elegance of the facades, Edbrooke and Burnham created the Mecca as two great wings on either side of a large, landscaped carriage courtyard, with an arched entrance and a handsome fountain.  There were five separate entrances, each shared by only a handful of families, enhancing the feeling of intimacy.

Most boldly, the architects drew on the commercial example of Baumann and Huehl's 1889 Chamber of Commerce Building, which featured a central court rising the full 13-story height of the building.
Lined with cantilevered balconies with ornate iron railings, the court brought light and air - in a time before electricity or air conditioning - into the interior offices.  At the Mecca, there would be not just one but two huge courts - one for each wing -  33 wide and 170 feet deep, wrapped in balconies with elegant railings and light pouring in from the glass roof.
It didn't take long for it all to start to unravel.  The developer decided to cash in on the upcoming 1893 World's Columbian Exposition by converting the Mecca Apartments into a 650-room hotel for fair visitors, “The Largest and most richly furnished Permanent Hotel in Chicago”.  It flopped.  It turned out the Mecca's location was in a kind of limbo, at a disadvantageous  midway point between the Loop's luxury hotels and the fairgrounds miles away. Not along after the close of the fair, the Mecca was reconverted to apartments.   Many of the rooms had never been occupied, and the hotel's furnishings were sold at auction for 25 cents on the dollar.
In rich detail, Mecca Flat Blues, traces what happens next.  The Mecca's troubles continued in 1895, as one troubled tenant became a firebug, setting blazes at the bottom of two air shafts.  Mecca's shifting portrait can be traced through the list of residents compiled every ten years for the U.S. Census, copies of which are on display at the exhibition.  The 1900 census lists 365 people, mostly blue and white color employees.  Some residents were already taking in borders to help meet the rent.  Despite the original design providing them a separate entrance, no live-in servants were listed.

The basically working-class character of the building remained even as the racial composition changed radically.  The “Great Migration” saw the neighborhood becoming primarily Afro-American.  In May of 1912, the Chicago Daily Defender announced that the Mecca Flats for the first time was  “Open for Inspection” for Negro tenants.  An “Upstairs-Downstairs” aura descended on the Flats.  The more affluent tenants lived in the larger units and held dinner parties, while crime among poorer tenants became an increasing problem.  By 1914, building managers were telling The Defender that they were “powerless to prohibit the commingling of the races [but] have not allowed any prostitution in their apartments nor have they countenanced any violation of the law.”

The new emigrants from the south brought their culture with them.  State Street became “The Stroll”, a strip of jazz clubs, theaters and ballrooms that was jammed with humanity night after night.  Transplants from New Orleans found the Mecca's ornate balcony railings a welcoming echo of those of Bourbon Street.
At the end of the 1920's, however, the opening of the Regal Theater and Savoy ballroom in Bronzeville began to draw the nightlife away from State Street, and by the 1930's, the Mecca suffered from poor maintenance.  The skylights over the atria becoming filthy and cracked.  The 1940 census showed the building's population as 670 building,  but after wartime housing shortages kicked in, other estimates put it at as many as 2,500.
Armour Institute
In 1938, the Mecca had been deeded to the Armour Institute, which was soon to become IIT.  The Institute had made the decision to stay in the city, and, hiring Mies, to expand their campus all the way down to 35th street.  Armour moved quickly to demolish the Mecca, but the residents fought back in a battle that galvanized the community.  A bill sponsored by State Senator Christopher Wimbish passed the Illinois house 114 to 2 and the senate, 46 to 1, only to be vetoed by Governor Dwight Green.  As detailed in Daniel Bluestone's essential history, Chicago's Mecca Flat Blues, Armour wound up being the worst slumlord of all, lowering rents and filling up the building with ever poorer residents even as it let the structure rot without essential maintenance and repairs.

The Mecca became the subject of pioneering efforts in the genre now known as “ruin porn.”  In 1949, Harper's Magazine hired John Bartlow Martin to document the “Strangest Place in Chicago”, portraying an alien, exotic world for edification of the magazine's middle-class readers . . .
Inside, a powerful odor assails the visitor at once, musty, heavy, a smell compounded of urine and stale cooking and of age, not necessarily an unpleasant odor but a close powerful one, which, like that of marijuana, once smelled is never forgotten . . . always the sound of distant human voices, women talking, a baby squalling, children screaming, men muttering, no words distinguishable . . . All day long, people stand at the balconies, leaning over the wrought-iron railing with hands clasped out over them, gazing out at each other people facing them across the well in silence, gazing down at the floor far below, spitting, small human figures in a vast place, two or three on each of the floors, occasionally calling back and forth to one another, but most of the time just standing silent.
In 1950, Life magazine repurposed Martin's text into captions for a photo essay, The Mecca, Chicago's Showiest Apartment Has given Up All But the Ghost Life, using images by Wallace Kirkland.  One account stated that the light filtering through the filthy skylights gave the atria an other-worldy quality, making it seem almost as if you were underwater.
In 1952, the building was finally ready for demolition.   Newsweek reported that the last tenants had been moved out, and the structure scavenged for bits of Italian tile and hardwood floors. In 1982, Chicago Tribune columnist Vernon Jarrett remembered The Mecca as “one of the more notorious slum dwellings in the history of modern society,” but he also interviewed a former resident who recalled that “One thing the poor were able to maintain in that slum building was a feeling for each other after they had been deserted by the larger society.” Members of The Mecca Prayer Band would make weekly tours to see who was ill or destitute.  “They would then take up a collection of what little they could afford and help the sick.  They would also volunteer to bathe the sick and clean their apartments.”  Lillian Davis didn't sugar-coat - “It was a violent building,” where the janitors wore pistols and derelicts slept on the balconies, “But my best memories are of those who refused to be crushed.”
IIT Master Plan, image courtesy Posad Spatial Strategies
That was not the story that anyone wanted to hear.  The official narrative was clear.  This was the early days of urban renewal.  With the federal government's help, America's great cities were to find their revival in the clearing away of slums.  As with the IIT campus, the decay was to be surgically removed, entire neighborhoods obliterated.   The South Side renewal plan projected razing everything from the IIT campus east to the Lakefront.

As Bluestone has written, a new mythology of progress was being put in place, in which Mecca Flats was the crime-ridden poster child of a contagion that needed to be purged.  Armour offered to help residents relocate, but only to a safe distance - the college fought the construction of the mid-rise Dearborn Homes public housing project at its northern border.
Dearborn Homes
And yet, one of the most moving images in Mecca Flat Blues is a life-size photograph of area residents at a meeting organizing against the Mecca's demolition.  The people are all immaculately dressed, the men in business suits and ties, the women in their Sunday best.  It is a portrait of human dignity that refutes the myth that provided cover for a land grab.
The world of the people in that photograph was destroyed for a vision of the future that had no room for their presence.  It is the triumph of Mecca Flat Blues that it retrieves that vanished world from the abyss of imposed forgetfulness.

You begin by walking through a small corridor, reading the blow-ups of early newspaper articles on the Mecca.  Then you walk through the doors, and you're confronted by a massive photograph of the Mecca's entrance, the glass of the doors broken out or replaced with cheap plywood, with a stark white sign centered at the bottom of the tympanum that's the real estate equivalent of Dante's inscription above the entrance to hell.
You begin at the end, but as you step past the photo, into the Tiffany grandeur of the Sydney R. Yates Gallery, the entire history of Mecca Flats opens up before you like an unfolded fan, with two massive images of the buildings light courts at either end of the half-block long gallery.
Architecture's dimension of scale is difficult to express in reproduction.  In books, we accept it being confined to the maximum size of a page.  In museums, to the dimensions of the frame.  With rare exceptions, trying to reproduce the scale of a building is absurd.   We simply accept the dislocation of a three-dimensional object large enough for us to inhabit down to a flat, passive representation that we lord over as if from aerial remove.  It is not only detail, but the essential character of architecture, how it constantly changes through the ever-shifting perceptions of our corporeal bodies as we move around and through it, that is lost.

Tim Samuelson has tackled this problem before in his 2010 exhibition (also at the Cultural Center) Louis Sullivan's Idea, in which, working with Chris Ware, he deployed ceiling high photographs of Sullivan's buildings in the double-height galleries to give the viewer a sense of the architecture's scale.

Mecca Flats Blues takes it a step further.  Again, there are the oversized photographers, but against the bordello riot of red, green and gold that is the Yates Gallery, the huge black and white images don't just pop, they seems to float in the front of your retina.  The huge space is broken up into a sequence of rooms, each telling a part of The Mecca's story, often with material rarely if every seen before, including some of the original photographs artist Ben Shahn took of the Mecca as studies for the illustrations he created for Martin's Harper's piece.  There's also Kirkland's photographs, and phonograph records of the various covers of the James Blythe and Alexander Robinson song Mecca Flat Blues, originally recorded in 1924 by vocalist Priscilla Stewart with Blythe on the piano.

The music  plays continuously as you walk through the gallery.
There's also a table where you can not only peruse those decade-by-decade census lists, but read the Harper's and Life magazine pieces, as well as Gwendolyn Brooks' epic poem,  In the Mecca, placing the building at the center of a tale about the search for a lost child. 

In the end, however, you're drawn back to the endpoints of the exhibition, to those lovingly-restored railings - rescued from a collector who had used them on his porch - and falling into those super-sized photos of the atrium.  You're back in Mecca Flats, standing on the balcony gazing at the people across the way, from another time, another, now lost world, looking back at you.  Mecca Flats, the building, absorbed the experience of its times until it was all used up and crushed by the accumulated weight.  Mecca Flat Blues, the exhibition, is a heroic rescue of a suppressed cultural history, and an epic expression of architecture's tragic suspension between power and impotence.
 Mecca Flat Blues runs through May 25th, 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Friday through Sunday (closed holidays).  There will be gallery talks at 12:15 p.m on February 27th and March 27th, and concerts at 12:15 p.m. on March 6 and May 3rd.  On April 8th, Thomas Dyja, author of The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, will present a lecture, The Battle for the Mecca at 12:15 p.m.

Monday, February 17, 2014

(S)No(w) Mas!

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 see all the photos after break . . .

Monday, February 10, 2014

The anti-Pritzker? Wiel Arets Gets IIT into the Architecture Awards Game: $50,000 Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize to be announced today

I think Mies was a great thinker and a master in scale. He was someone who under- stood that there has to be a distance between us and a building, just as there is a distance between us and nature. Today this is dwindling. When you read Mies’s texts, they were short and precise, and that makes him a model for all of us. Mies knew what architecture was about, and he knew how the architectural product was part of our landscape, environment, and world. It would be great to announce at this very place, in 2015, the first North American architect, and emerging architect, to receive the Mies Crown Hall North America Prize; to establish this prize would be a challenge and a stimulating event for the global architectural discourse.
That was Dean of IIT College of Architecture Wiel Arets talking early last year in NOWNESS, the publication reflecting how “Arets is leading the movement of the COA toward ‘nowness’ - a multifaceted approach to the discipline of architecture and the embracing of urbanism in the world's metropolises.”

Less than a year later, a major piece of the campaign is falling into place.  Today at 1:00 p.m., from CCA Montréal, there will be an announcement - streamed live - of the establishing of the biannual Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize, which has its own website here.
The Americas Prize will laud those built works that recognize the altered circumstances of the human condition. It will honor those projects that consider how we might elevate the quality of our built environments by extending our interests beyond the proverbial four walls. It will endorse those who acknowledge the interdisciplinary nature of our new ventures. Above all, it will recognize those who have invested their work with the mystery and power of human imagination. The objective is to reward the daring contemplation of the intersection of the new metropolis and human ecology.
The $50,000 Americas Prize will honor “the best architectural work in the Americas completed in the preceding two years. ” It will come with ”the MCHAP Chair at Illinois Insitute of Technology’ for a year, where the winners will give a public lecture and  “establish research related to the theme of “rethinking the metropolis’.”   The work will be featured in a MCHAP Book, along that of finalists and other projects the jury may choice to recognize.   Last December, the COA was posting open positions for both a Director of Publishing and a MCHAP Co-ordinator.  The Americas Prize Director will serve as a non-voting member of the five-person jury.

There will be a benefits dinner this spring, with the awards ceremony scheduled for this October.  More information - and, presumably, a link to this afternoon's noon CDT live stream  - here.


The World of Wiel Arets lands at IIT.  Read here.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Blushing with Bling: Is This the Future of Bertrand Goldberg's Walton Gardens?

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I have no idea where it came from (if anyone has more information, please pass it on) but this afternoon the ever-diligent spyguy on posted the above rendering for the site occupied by Bertrand Goldberg's Walton Gardens, whose current primary tenant, Urban Outfitter, will move out next year.  It's unclear whether it's a retrofit of Goldberg's building or completely new construction, but it's a prime expression of what passes for luxe nowadays, proving how easy it is to be ostentatious and numbingly generic at the same time.   Crain's Chicago Business reported yesterday that owner JMB Realty has hired Cushman and Wakefield to find a new tenant in what a spokesman predicted would be “a marquee transaction.”
We recently wrote about the jewel box Walton Gardens and the long, varied history of Rush Street, now in the midst of still another transformation as high-end retailing overflows Oak Street and marches up Rush on its way to overreach and retrenchment. 


Bertrand Goldberg's Walton Gardens: the History of Rush Street Through the Eyes of a Single Building.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Kabbalah in Architecture, SOM's Timber Tower, Torrence Bridge, Lykoudis, Kyes, Richardson, Casinos, Mecca Flat Blues and much more - it's the February Calendar!

There are only 28 days in February this year, and they're crammed with nearly 40 great items on the February Calendar of Chicago Architectural Events

It starts out with a bang this week on Tuesday the 4th, beginning with a gallery talk on Gone but Not Forgotten - Architectural Fragments, lunchtime at the Art Institute, while in the evening, this month's SEAOI dinner meeting at the Cliff Dwellers takes on the new Torrence and 130th Bridge,  And the same evening at the Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism in Highland Park, Alexander Gorlin will be discussing his new book Kabbalah in Art and Architecture.

Later in February it's National Engineers Week, and CAF starts off the festivities with their a lunchtime lecture this Wednesday the 5th on SOM's Timber Tower Research Project.  Also this Wednesday, Apple follows up on last month's lecture by Katherine Darnstadt at their Lincoln Park store with Bryan Howard of Jahn Architects discussing Designing the Whole at the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue.

Thursday the 6th sees Friends of the Parks 39th Annual Meeting and Awards Luncheon at the Cultural Center with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as keynote speaker, while Thursday evening, Judy Ledgerwood is at the Graham discussing her new exhibition, Chromatic Patterns.

Friday sees the opening at the Music Box of If You Build It, a documentary of what happened when two architects arrived in Bertie County, North Carolina to teach a high school design-build glass.  Then on Saturday the 8th, AIA Chicago and many others sponsor a day-long conference, Wisdom from the Field: Public Interest Architecture in Practice.

And that's just February's first week.  Highlights across the rest of the month include Michael Lykoudis talking about Neoclassical Architecture in Greece: Architecture and Urbanism in an Age of Political Turmoil and Economic Austerity at the Driehaus Museum, Steven M. Nilles of Goettsch Partners talking about his firm's award winning Sowwah Square project in Abu Dhabi.

 Zak Kyes exploring the publishing of architecture and design books at the Graham, an evening panel at CAF considering Shared Waters: Chicago, Gary, Milwaukee and St. Louis, while another lunchtime lecture features Kevin M. Fitzpatrick discussing the engineering of Chicago's Big Tunnel project

More?  John Waters talks about Henry Hobson Richardson's Chicago Legacy for Landmarks
Illinois, UIC's Great Cities Institute takes on Casinos as Tools for Economic Development in Suburban Chicago, and AIA Chicago features Gensler's Brian Vitale leading a tour of Fourth Presbyterian's new Gratz Center.  Oh, and Tim Samuelson has a new exhibition on Mecca Flat Blues opening at the Cultural Center.
And that's still just a drop in the bucket.  Power up your calendars and check out all the great items on the February Calendar of Chicago Architectural Events.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

新年快樂! Architecture as Canvas: Luftwerks takes over Cultural Center Facade to celebrate Chinese New Year in Chicago

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You apparently can't keep Luftwerk away from the Chicago Cultural Center.  It's been less than a month since their striking media exhibit Shift was on display in the CCL's 2nd floor galleriess.  Now Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero's mastery of color, light, video and projection has left the building and taken over it's long Michigan Avenue facade with Spring Light, which opened last night and repeats tonight (Saturday) and Sunday, 5 to 10:00 p.m.  It's described as . . .
A celebration of light and projection inspired by Chinese philosophy, art, architecture and traditional folklore illuminate the Chicago Cultural Center to commemorate the Chinese New Year. Spring Light transforms the building into a moving world where images of nature, people, geometry and color all intertwine in an artistic and harmonious balance.
Spring Light  is an initiative of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Choose Chicago, the city's tourism operation.  It's a two-week, city-wide celebration of the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival with a sequence of events that includes shadow puppets in Macy's windows, a free celebration by Redroom Theatre tonight (Saturday) from 6:00 to 7:30 in Navy's Pier Festival hall, and parades both on Argyle Street Saturday at 1:00 and the Lunar New Year parade on Wentworth in Chinatown Sunday at 1.
In a city that's besieged with financial problems, it's tempting to make some kind of comment on circuses in lieu of bread, but the fact of the matter is Chicago has an annual GDP of nearly $600 billion.  Rahm's Chinese New Year is a self-consciously shrewd move, not only to increase tourism, but to both address China as an increasingly powerful nation, and Chicago's own increasingly vibrant Chinese-American community.  (The events have already been picked up by Chinese news agency Xinhau.) Chicago is a great city, winter - especially this winter - is often cold and dark.  The Luftwerk installations are a welcome reminder of the city's resilience.

Spring Light plays with the element's neo-classical design with a series of overlays that evoke a cast-iron storefront, Renaissance-style rusticated stone, and even an Alhambra-like veneer of light. At one point it even seems to peel away the Cultural Center's facade and draw it up like someone removing a sweater over their head.  But there's a lot more than that, as you can seen in this video of excerpts (click on YouTube to see the video full-size):

has taken over the McCormick Tribune ice skating rink at Millennium Park.  As with Shift, the shadows of the skaters lose their monochrome and extend, contract and intersect in a rainbow of pastel colors. 


Also from Luftwerk:

Chicago Rediscovered in a Luminous Field, at Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park