Sunday, August 30, 2015

Junkspace Museum on Mag Mile: Victory Monument for The Architecture of the Age of the Supply Chain

And you thought the Verizon store was bad?

This is the rendering accompanying a Saturday report by the Trib's Gregory Karp on the 60,000 square-foot Chicago flagship store for Japanese retailer Uniqlo. This is the latest addition to 830 North Michigan, just north of the Water Tower.  And this, again courtesy of the Trib, is where we started, back in 1949.
Believe it or not, this is the same building as in the rendering.  It's been a long trip.

Mies van der Rohe saw his architecture as the expression of the industrial epoch of his time.  As Miesian minimalism evolved, however, the great tsunami of construction bearing his influence, if not his approval ("What went wrong?" he asked near the end.  "We showed them how to do it.") became an expression of a much larger movement, the Age of the Supply Chain, which stretches all the way back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  Its core values are the creation of wealth through the mass manufacture and distribution of cheap goods through consolidation, standardization and the minimizing of human labor.

And so Mies's elegant towers grew into glass box office warehouses, huge floor plates, hermetically sealed, going from offices, to cubicles to extruded benches to cram the largest numbers of workers into the least volume of space.  The elegant department stores that let consumers feel they were part of the elevated classes were killed off by big-box retailers, massive warehouses with bare metal shelving and product stacked on pallets.  Local stores that were pillars of the community are replaced by standardized, numbered outlets of huge national chains. Bricks-and-mortar retailers across entire categories - books, records, video rentals and the like - were all but wiped out by on-line behemoths, Amazon above all, as the physical product is replaced by streaming digital files.  To paraphrase Keynes, "We are all warehouses now."
click images for larger view
There are exceptions - Target's rescue of Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott store is a prime example - but they are exceptions, a boutique cream-off-the-top to the larger world of supply-chain consumption.  The evolution of North Michigan Avenue is a prime example.

After the opening of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the former Pine Street became the city's premiere upscale shopping street, with retailers flocking to the lower floors of a succession of 1920's classically-styled Art Deco buildings, personified by architect Philip Maher's 1928 Chicago's Woman's Athletic Club.
 That wasn't enough, however, for real estate developer Arthur Rubloff, who was determined to take it to the next level, turning Michigan Avenue into the "Mag Mile".

As described in a 1947 Chicago Tribune report . . . 
The over-all architectural plan for the "mile" proposes medium-height buildings on Michigan Avenue for shops and stores and taller structures at the rear for office buildings, hotels and apartment buildings.  Landscaped promenades would run between the avenue buildings and the taller structures, enhancing the "openness" of the development and avoiding the "canyons" of the closely built downtown section.
 Rubloff said more than $25,000,000 in private capital has been earmarked so far for the various projects.
The Great Fire-surviving Chicago Water Tower would get to stay, within what would be the Mag Mile's only real public square, but . . . 
The city's pumping station on the east side of the avenue would be replaced by a civic hall of music, a landscaped outdoor swimming pool-skating rink, and a subterrean parking garage for 1,500 cars. Another underground parking area for 3,000 cars is suggested for construction under the lake shore playground, extending eastward from the armory [current site of the Museum of Contemporary Art] on Chicago Avenue to Lake Shore Drive.

"All plans for development of the area," Rubloff says, "hinge upon provision of adequate parking space."
And the building that is to be Uniqlo's new Chicago flagship was where Rubloff's first began to become reality.  On January 5th of 1947, the Tribune reported . . .
Alfred Shaw, of Shaw, Naess and Murphy, Chicago architects and engineers, has been comissioned by Bonwit-Teller, Inc. of New York City, to design the new store of that organization to be built at the northwest corner of N. Michigan av. and E. Pearson st.
The 45,000 foot site, purchased for $575,000, included the old Senator Charles Farwell home and stables, which evolved into apartments in which a young Bertrand Goldberg made his home in what the architect described as commune-like conditions.
John and Charles Farwell mansions, behind Water Tower, along Pearson;
image courtesy The Chuckman Collection

Shaw said Walter Hoving, whose corporation owned Bonwit-Teller, Inc., told him he wanted the new store building to be the finest of its kind in the country . . ."It will be six stories and probably will cost about 2 million dollars", Shaw said.  "Completely air conditioned, lighted by the newest methods, and equipped with the latest in modern merchandising, it will be an outstanding addition to the city's retail store facilities"  The exterior probably will be of Indiana limestone to harmonize with buildings to the north and west.

When excavation began the previous December, the AP reported that . . .
Instead of the usual show windows, frontage on both streets will be covered with plate glass, enabling passersby to look directly into the main floor.  There will be no street displays of merchandise.
The actual building, as shown in a Chicago Tribune illustration shown near the top of this post, seemed to have dropped the continuous plate glass, but was still the epitome of restrained elegance when it opened on August 24, 1949.   An extensive history on the indispensable website Forgotten Chicago says the windows had white marble surrounds.  The selling areas were more like salons, with merchandise displayed sparingly, as if it consisted of museum pieces.  All but four of the fitting rooms that lined the perimeter of the second floor had windows overlooking Michigan Avenue or the Water Tower.
When the John Hancock Center was completed just up the street, Bonwits moved to a new flagship there in 1969.  It's been pretty much downhill for its former store ever since.  An additional floor was added, and the building reconfigured by Solomon Cordwell Buenz into a fairly brutal concrete box, with a continuous skylight and a sequence of squared buttresses at the top.  West coast high-fashion retailer I. Magnin became the new anchor tenant in 1971.  I Magnin was purchased and run into the ground by Macy's, which closed the store in 1992.  Bonwit Teller was sold for $100 million to an Australian corporation in 1987, which quickly ran it into the ground with a misguided expansion effort that resulted in liquidation of the chain and closing of the John Hancock store in 1990.

Michigan Avenue retailers fought the coming of discounter Filene's Basement to the upper floors of 830 North Michigan, fearing its impact on the street.  They lost. In addition to Filene's, a Borders book superstore took over the lower floors.  On the lowest two floors, Shaw's original facade with its large central window on Pearson was replaced with a continuous curtain wall putting the Borders interior on full public display.  It wasn't long before all the other area bookstores - Kroch and Brentano's, Waterstones, Rizzoli - were out of business.  Borders, itself, proved less the wave of the future than a big-bang blowout death of the bookstore.  The chain was eventually liquidated and closed its Michigan Avenue store early in 2011.  Filene's was eventually liquidated and closed up shop early in 2012.  All that liquidation - it sounds a bit like a series of Stalinist purges.

The fears of those traditional Michigan Avenue retailers were fully justified.  The death of Borders and Filenes haven't stopped fast fashion discounters from taking over the Mag Mile.  A Zara flagship had already opened on Michigan a few blocks down in 2009.  The Borders space was taken over the Topshop in 2011.  An H&M outlet opened just a few doors north in a space originally occupied by FAO Schwarz.  And now there's Uniqlo. 

Nabbing Uniqlo for its upper-floor space represents a major coup for General Growth Properties, which in 2013 purchased the entire building, which also houses Columbia Sportswear and a Ghiradelli Chocolate shop, for $166 million, when nearly half of its 126,000 square feet of space was empty.  The General Growth folk must have treated themselves to a really expensive lunch the day they unloaded that second-class space to Uniqlo.

Uniqlo, of course, is determined to make it first class space.  USA CEO Larry Meyer is quoted as saying "We're spending a fortune" to get it all ready for the October 23rd opening deadline. The company is a leader in what is called fast fashion retailing, getting designs to market quickly, using the most innovative supply chain techniques.  The company also talks of reconceptualizing interactive purchasing in a way that revives bricks-and-mortar retailing.  Shoppers will be encouraged to use the Uniqlo smartphone app while shopping in the store.

Founder Tadashi Yanai built the Uniqlo chain - and a $24 billion fortune that's made him the richest man in Japan - out of his father's suit business, opened in 1949 in Yamaguchi.  The first Uniqlo store opened in Hiroshima in 1984.  In Japan, the chain became known more for cheap prices than quality or fashion.   For its global expansion, Uniqlo is working to make itself not just cheap, but cool.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, Uniqlo U.K. CEO Takao Kuwahara commented "Our competitor is Apple.  At Apple, as at Uniqlo, the customer service and the customer experience is all important. "

For its design director, Uniqlo brought in Naoki Takizawa, former head designer at Issye Miyake.  In an interview for a 2012 Fast Company profile of Uniqlo, his vision seems Miesian-minimalist.  "The only things that stay are the things you need: it has to protect you from the rain, and the heat has to escape"

According to a Huffington Post report, Uniqlo's emphasis on standardization is relentless.  Employees must dress entirely in black, pass a garment folding test, memorize "Six Standard Phrases" and hand back credit backs with both hands.  Each store should look the same.  All displays must run from light to dark.

The number of styles is minimized - fabric over fashion - creating the kind of huge orders that give Uniqlo added leverage when negotiating with suppliers.  No seasonal fashion themes, increasing product shelf life.  Instead, color choices are maximized - 50 colors of men's socks.
We've yet to set the interior of Uniqlo's Chicago flagship, but it won't be hard for it be an improvement.  The Tribune report describes the multi-story escalator whisking shoppers to their store  in just 85 seconds as "a signature element of Uniqlo stores", but in reality it's an ongoing necessity.  For previous tenant Filene's, 830 North Michigan was their "Basement" in the sky, hard-to-rent upper floor space connected to Michigan Avenue via a sliver of a ground floor entrance, just wide enough to accommodate escalators and elevator.

Uniqlo's most visible contribution to the Chicago architecture is glazing over the upper floors of 830 North Michigan, giving the store maximum presence in the view down the Mag Mile past the Water Tower.  If the actual facade is anything like the rendering, the design doesn't seem to have a brain in its head, other than a few massively overdeveloped cells devoted to Sellah, Sellah, Sellah.  What was once one of the most elegant buildings on the Mag Mile has devolved into a chaotic series of stackables, each going their own way: the dark facades of Topshop, the hyperactive glazed cells of Uniqlo, and the lingering remnants of SCB's buttresses.

Every last inch of Shaw's original design has been destroyed.  In place of a graceful expression of upper-crust elegance, we have a Screaming Mimi pastiche.  Uniqlo built its huge Tokyo flagship in the dense Ginza district, with its blazing Times Square signage, and it's bringing the same kind of energy to the Michigan Avenue.

Things change.  Although exuberance isn't really a substitute for quality, these are the choices we made, and here are the results. They have their own attraction. Few will remember, much less miss, what was lost.  Welcome to the new Fab Mile, at the junction of Times Square and Blade Runner.

Read More:

Lump of Coal in Chicago Architecture's Holiday Stocking: Verizon lands with a Thud on the Mag Mile

Addendum:  Uniqlo and supply chain labor

One thing we haven't discussed is the role of supply chain process design in growing a company like Uniqlo.  To keep costs low, manufacturers roam from country to country in search of the cheapest labor.  Bad things often happen.

When it comes to issues of social responsibility, Uniqlo has often chosen to go its own way.  It initially declined to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord, committing 80 major manufacturers to standards of safety and fairness after a 2012 garment factory fire in Dhaka killed over 100 workers, with another 1,000+ perishing in a Dhaka factory building collapse the next year.  (Fast Retailing is now listed among the companies on the Accord's signatories page.)
Uniqlo CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) has its own extensive website, with increasingly lengthy and detailed annual reports. In search of lower labor costs, the company's manufacturing has spread from China to lower-wage states such as Vietnam (52 cents an hour wages in the city, 36 cents rural), and to Bangladesh (21 cents an hour).
from Uniqlo CSR report
For fiscal 2011, Uniqlo inspections found major to severe labor violations in 82 of the 188 factories monitored, with a goal of 100% compliance by 2015.  In 2012, when 229 factories were audited, 83 major to severe violations were found.  By 2014, the company was reporting the monitoring of 332 factories, with a total 149 major or serious violations.  Only 7 instances of violations were severe enough for a contract with an individual manufacturer to come under immediate review, and while the report states "Contracts were terminated with factories that showed no improvement", I could find no figure for the number of contracts actually involved.

Uniqlo's manufacturing expanded to Cambodia, In April of this year, the group Human Rights Now reported substandard working conditions there as well.   CSR responded with promises of enhanced workplace monitoring.  It also pledged to improve conditions at its own plants in China, where another NGO, Hong-Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Misbehaviour, documented major workplace violations in a report issued this past January.  Even with all this, third-world manufacturing remains a world where even the definitions of reform seem to infer abuse. Uniqlo's own Cambodia inspection report defines "evidence of long working hours" as "24 consecutive hours of work."

To be sure, these are conditions that are pandemic throughout the entire global garment industry. Especially in the U.S., prosperity is based on exploiting our seemingly insatiable appetite for ever-cheaper goods.  As consumers, we trade free access to low prices for a a committed incuriousity about how the sausage is actually made.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The White and the Black: Mies's Federal Plaza overrun with Dîner en Blanc

I knew what was up the moment I saw them at the Fullerton L stop.  Young people, elegant dress, all in white, carrying food, wine and flowers.  I had seen it all before.  Two years ago, to be exact, when I came upon similar groups making their way up Michigan Avenue.

So I followed them.  I had to follow them, because of the entire group, only one person knew where they were going, and they weren't telling.  The mystery is part of the deal.  We wound up getting off at Jackson, and once up on the street, you could see the passersby stopping and taking a puzzled look at the now multiplying globs of dressed-to-kill humanity narrowing in on their objective.
Click images for larger view
By the time I got to Adams street it had become an almost continuous parade, honing in on the ultimate, now disclosed location, the west plaza of Mies van der Rohe's Federal Center.
If you haven't guessed by now, what I was observing was not some unworldly cult, but this year's  Dîner en Blanc, the Chicago edition of an annual event that began in Paris 27 years ago with a picnic at the Bois de Boulogne where the guests were told to wear white so they could more easily find each other.  According to Celia Rodriguez in Forbes, the event has now spread to over 70 cities worldwide, and in excess of 100,000 attendees. The event is invitation-only.  This year's Dîner along the Hudson in New York drew 5,000 participants - and had a waiting list of 35,000.
I'm not sure I saw a single black face in this official promotional video.   At the Federal Center people of color were more in evidence, although men appeared to be seriously under-represented.  What the video demonstrates, despite its boosterish editing and music (turn off the sound), is how Dîner is to a large degree an architectural encounter.  Such see-and-be-seen elegance requires an appropriate stage set, and Dîner events clearly seek out the most spectacular venues in each of its cities.  Last year, it was Jeanne Gang's Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk.  Two years ago, it was at Pioneer Plaza, where the celebrants dined and danced enveloped by the Equitable Building to the east, Tribune Tower to the North, Illinois Center across the river to the South, and the floodlit Wrigley Building towers to the west.
This year, the setting included not just the Federal Center, but Holabird and Roche's landmark Marquette Building, and the patchwork-repaired facade of Burnham's Edison Building.
Amidst all the food and wine and other beautiful young people just like yourself, architecture may not be the first thing on your mind, but the buildings and infrastructure are so omnipresent that over the course of the evening they become absorbed.  They become a part of you.  The feeling of being within their embrace stays with you, much as after spending days on a boat, you still feel the rocking when you next go to sleep on dry land.
For those of us who visit the Loop on a regular basis, or work there every day, the great buildings often disappear into the blinders of our rote journeys.  And for some, Mies's masterworks have become the poster children for a depersonalizing modernism.
The Dîner event last Friday was an invitation, for attendee and observer alike, to take the time to pause and rediscover the richness of Chicago's architectural landscape.  Zoom in and you saw a thousand distinctive human forms, a thousand distinctive stories.
Zoom out and you saw the bees on holiday, happily partying beside the spectacular hives they had constructed.  Implicit are the ethical and experiential questions.  Imposing or crushing?  Demoralizing or enabling?  Mies loved the grid, both horizontal and vertical, but transparency was his watchword.  Scale, too.  The dialectic between the tall Klucynski Building tower and the single-story, single-room post office.  One a bastion, the other an "almost-nothing" structure of near-complete openness. These were your dinner companions no less than the people sitting next to you.
The great white swarm overrunning the Federal Center plaza confounded and complimented Mies's dark, black, continuous steel i-beam personification of order out of chaos, with Calder's Flamingo rising up and pulsing red with the gathered desire of its beating heart

From 2013:
Flash Mob All-in-White Diner Pops up in Pioneer Court

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Justice and Punishment in Architecture and Performance Art: PARK+96 Acres, Saturday at 26th and California

click images for larger view
 PARK will take place this Saturday, August 15th from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., at 2600 South Sacramento.  More information here
 Do you have a car in shades of black, brown or white? You still have the chance to participate  in PARK + 96 Acres . . .
a large-scale data visualization, public art, and radio broadcast event that will occupy 1/2 mile of public street parking adjacent to Chicago's Cook County Jail, the largest county jail in the United States. 
That complex is like a slough of despond for Chicago's incarcerated criminals, and those awaiting trial in the massive George N. Leighton Cook County Criminal Courts Building.
The structure dates back to an opening on April Fool's Day, 1929.  Constructed at a cost of $7.5 million, it replaced the Otto Matz 1893 stone-heavy Courthouse on Hubbard Street, with its gallows courtyards whose hangings gave flavor to the classic play The Front Page.  That Courthouse has been restored as offices, an anchor of Albert Friedman's River North revival.  Where there's a firehouse and Rick Bayless's trendy Xoco Mexican restaurant, there was, back then, the old two-story County Jail, built for more serious offenders at a time when the location was far from upscale and suitably remote from the city's more respectable citizens.
The 1920's courthouse at 26th and California is the respectable front of the 96-acre complex chosen, it was said, because much of the land was owned by connected insiders.  Designed by architect Eric Edwin Hall and faced in Bedford limestone from Indiana, it presents a stripped-down, cleaned-up face for justice, with classical detailing, and along the top floor windows, a series of eight tall stone reliefs by Swedish-born sculptor Peter Toneman depicting idealizations in human form of such ideals as law, justice, liberty, truth, might, love, wisdom and peace.

According to a a 2012 history of the Courthouse by Jason Meisner in the Tribune,  today as many as 12 murder cases can be found being tried in the building's 31 courtrooms. 22,000 cases a year are heard here, with individual judges having up to 300 cases on their dockets.    
A more accurate depiction of the raw and often brutal power of justice in this factory of despair can be found in the severe animal heads carved along the entrance floor . . .

They could be said to represent the mediation between the ideals of justice and what actually lies behind it, in this case the grim Cook County Jail complex.
Where the courthouse is imposing and highly finished, the jail complex is stark and forbidding, a series of warehouse barracks dammed up behind high concrete walls.  The new jail had an official capacity of 3,200 inmates.  Today, it houses up to 10,000.  It is nationally notorious for its overcrowding, and for the sometimes violent problems that erupt both within the jail and from it.

That is the history the PARK project, developed by artist and designer Landon Brown for the arts advocacy group 96 Acres, looks to address and personify this coming Saturday.
Evoking the political history of self-organized prisoner rights movements and the complex relationship between culture, community, and spectable, PARK is a vehicle for challenging the politics of representation at a time when incarceration plays an increasing disproportionate role in the lives of specific communities in Chicago and through the nation.
The event will include a rebroadcast, on Vocalo 90.7FM, of B.B. King's performance, Live in Cook County Jail, streamed through the car radios of the hundred participating vehicles.  The colors of the
vehicle will visual the "racial statistics of today's Cook County Jail inmate population."

Recording stations will be set up for dialogue and socializing, and to "invite visitors to contribute personal memories and stories connected to the history of the Cook County Jail in relation to Little Village and Chicago's West side communities .  . . These recordings will become part of an ongoing archive by the arts project and PARK collaborator 96 Acres."

The PARK project is still seeking people with vehicles in the requested shades.  Cars must be black, brown or white, and have a working AM/FM radio with speakers.  Owners will should arrive between 11:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., and park along South Sacremento. You can sign-up and get more information here .

I'm not sure that 26th and California will be included as part of this year's first Chicago Architecture Biennial, but you won't find a more cogent expression of the power of architecture in depicting the contrast between life as we would wish it to be, and life as it is actually lived.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Magic Fingers: The Most Spectacular Engineering Show in Chicago Right Now on Display at 150 North Riverside

click images for larger view
It will become much taller and much shinier by the time it's finished, but 150 North Riverside will never look quite as spectacular as it does right now.
Designed by  Goettsch Partners with Magnusson Klemencic Associates as structural engineers, on a site on the south branch of the Chicago River just after it splits in two, the building will eventually rise 54 stories and a height of somewhere around 700 feet.
The signature aspect of 150 North Riverside is the way the office floors cantilever out from the central core.  The first full-size office floor doesn't come until Level 8, 104 feet above the buildings plaza, freeing up space for part of a 1.5 acre park that surrounds the building and sits atop the Metra tracks running beneath the site to the west.  As it meets the ground, the building takes up only 25% of the site.
To achieve this openness, sloping columns begin at the 4th floor and rise up and out to support the perimeter columns of the tower's standard 27,000 square-foot floor plates.
Lifting those columns into place was among the last work of the bright red 300 foot-tall, Manitowoc 888 barge crane that has been floating in the Chicago river just next to the site since this past April.
photograph: Bob Johnson

On Friday, the crane hoisted Truss 8, the  massive 250,000 pound, 30 foot wide by 35 foot tall section into place along the south end of the building, captured on lunch hour by Kngkyle on SkyscraperPage.Com, which has it's own 60 page (and counting) thread on 150 North Riverside, with a lot of spectacular photographs.

As early as this week, the 888 crane will construct its own replacement, another crane that will lift materials up the tower as it rises, and then it will be deconstructed and floated away.
Eventually, as the skeleton is completed and 150 North Riverside grows its homogenous skin, the supporting cage of sloping columns will be hidden behind elegant glass.  For now, however, one of the most spectacular engineering feats in Chicago construction stands naked to your gaze.  For a time, you can see, ungloved, the outstretched fingers on whose tips 47 stories of curtain wall will rest.

 Read More:
The Art of the Pitch: Selling Goetsch Partner's 150 North Riverside to the Neighbors.
Giant Punch Stamp on the River?  First Renderings of 150 North Riverside Revealed