Sunday, September 23, 2018

Bobbing for Mies - Robert Venturi at IIT

In the fall of 2005, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Robert Venturi came to modernist shrine Crown Hall to out Mies van der Rohe as a closet symbolist and attempt to define the architecture of our time. (Originally published in abbreviated and far better edited form under the title, Live by the I Beam, Die by the I Beam in the December 16th Chicago Reader.) 
“There will be nothing new in what I say, but maybe it will have a new twist”  Robert Venturi, speaking at Crown Hall
Robert Venturi, the architect who launched the post-modernisn assault on Miesian glass-box

modernism by countering Mies van der Rohe's famous dictum, “Less is More” with his own “Less is a Bore,” was at IIT's restored Mies masterpiece Crown Hall last month to talk about “Mies is More: Learning from Mies,” part of the 2005 Chicago Humanities Festival. 

Lest anyone think the 80-year-old enfant-terrible was growing soft, however, Venturi's major thesis was to unmask Mies, known for minimalist structures free of the type of applied ornament that Louis Sullivan loved, as a bit of a hypocrite, not above choosing symbolism over substance when it came to creating an architecture that expressed the industrial age of his time. “Ultimate irony,” observed Venturi, “Mies, like other modernists, enjoyed abstraction as an aesthetic, yet also employed symbolism as an aesthetic.” 

For Mies, that meant keeping structure visible and exposed, but Chicago's strict building code requires that the steel frame of multi-storied buildings be fireproofed within a concrete casing. When you look at a classic Mies skyscraper like the IBM Building at Wabash and the River, the exterior may appear to be structure, but the structural steel is actually buried in concrete fireproofing, and what you're actually seeing are the anodized aluminum plates covering that concrete. 
IBM Building, now 330 North Wabash
To call Mies's bluff on another affection - the vertical steel I-beams that he loved to use as mullions between the continuous strips of windows on his buildings - Venturi quoted Tom Wolfe's diatribe against modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House. “Sticking things on the outside of walls,” Wolfe wrote, “wasn't that exactly what was known in another era as applied decoration?” 
Crown Hall, IIT
Ironically, the building in which Venturi made these observations is the one place where Mies was able to express his aesthetic without subterfuge. Crown Hall, because it's a one story building, didn't have to be fireproofed. The steel you see is not what Venturi calls an “appliqué”, but the actual structure. It was sandblasted down to the bare steel during this summer's restoration, and painted a revelatory deep and glossy black that observers who were there for the 1956 opening say replicates the building's original appearance. 

Venturi put up a slide with his comparison of “Mies” and “Bob”.

Mies Midcentury
Bob Post Mid-Century
Symbolic (industrial)Symbolic (iconographic)
Not acknowledgedAcknowledged
MinimalismComplexity and Contradiction
Not aesthetically expressedAesthetically expressed
Aesthetic cover-upAesthetic celebration
not manneristmannerist
Less is moreless is a bore

To Venturi, simplicity is an iron maiden; mannerism a sign of life. The fact he finds Mies a closet symbolist is, to Venturi, a good thing, but the fact that Mies wouldn't acknowledge it himself disqualifies him form the mannerist pantheon. 

“I think that the job of the architect is to create shelter,” said Venturi, “and to give a space a

kind of symbol.” He spoke of some of themes of Venturi and Scott Brown's latest book, Architecture as Signs and Systems : For a Mannerist Time. “All architecture of the past,” he observed, “had symbolism and signage except for this 20th century past. The hieroglyphics all over the architecture of ancient Egypt . . . the buildings were signs as well. You read the hieroglyphics. The architecture in the pediments of Greek and Roman temples had statue figures in them . . . essentially explaining to you about the Gods that who were being honored and worshipped. The early Christian architecture . . . the basilicas, and the same with the Byzantine architecture had all the mosaics - all of that was signage explaining what it was.” 

“There's been a book [The Place of Narrative: Mural Decoration in Italian Churches] out recently by a great art historian - Marilyn Lavin . The thesis is that we look at Italian Renaissance and the Baroque era murals , we look upon them as art. They are only incidentally art, according to her thesis. They were essentially there for the message given. The content was important. They taught you about Christianity and they did it in such an artful way that they are art. But they were incidentally art. They were essentially done as signs.” 

“The idea of using symbolism and signage is a constant one in the history of architecture. The Gothic church, the façade at Amiens or Rouen, it is a three-dimensional billboard. The Sphinx in ancient Egypt had a great meaning independent of art. At the time, most of people couldn't read.” 
Franklin Court ghost structure, Robert Venturi, William Rauch and Denise Scott Brown
National Parks Service photo

Venturi essentially sees mid 20th-century modernism as an aberration in architecture's long history. “We're no longer in the industrial age,” he says. “We're in the information age. We're also in the electronic age, . . . and to make architecture look like industrial buildings and to make architecture be abstract is no longer appropriate. The architecture that's being built today is this awful historical revival, the neo-modern modern revival. They're being just as historical in their revival as they would be if they were reviving Renaissance architecture or Gothic architecture.” 

Venturi looks to the restoration of symbolism for today's electronic age. ““How about,” he suggests, “electronic pixels as applied ornament rather than the industrial rivets as applied

ornament that are fashionable today?” At least some of the architects he would seem to fall place his modernist revival category, however, appear to be way ahead of him. For his elegant new Deutsche Post tower in Bonn, Helmut Jahn collaborated with lighting artist Yann Kersale to create a changing color sequence of red blue and yellow that plays across over 55,000 square meters from dusk to sunrise and accentuates its dual-skin design. It doesn't really seem all that far from a project for a pair of skyscrapers in Shanghai, designed by Venturi in collaboration with his life and work partner Denise Scott Brown, which look rather Miesian except for the strips of red LED's forming a grid overlaying much of the façade. 

What Venturi describes as the information age that I've written about as exemplified by Frank Gehry in a possible new era that could be called the Techno-Baroque, where content is king. In the 1920's, the great German critic Walter Benjamin wrote of German literature that, “'Baroque' is the only fitting way to describe the heaped-up crassness of its subject matter . . . the predominance of content.” Content over form. 

The age of content raises as many challenges for architects as it does for a Newscorp or Viacom struggling to fill an almost countless array of cable, internet and new media channels. Venturi's Shanghai towers, which appeared in the renderings he presented at the lecture to transmit nothing more than light, may already be retro. Perhaps the best expression of the content aesthetic can be found in an updated perennial, New York's Time Square, where high-tech signage is an integral part of the architecture, in the form of ever-larger “reader boards” that include everything from a massive electronic stock ticker on the Morgan Stanley Building, and nine bands of electronic color above ABC's street-level studios carrying both text and video. 

For an architect, the issue of obsolescent content has the potential to age a building far

faster than any physical decay. How long until visitors to Millennium Park's Crown Fountain began to get bored with the same 1,000 faces projected digitally on the fountain's two towers? In the future, will a building be viable only so long as it has access to fresh content for its digital displays? Taken to its logical extreme, facades of traditional glass, steel or stone may become obsolete - all materials will come to incorporate light-emitting elements. “Modernizing” a building will no longer mean changing its physical structure. By simply changing the feed to the digital boards, a building's appearance will be completely transformed. The fact that this will be no easy feat is reflected by Venturi/Scott Brown's own website. It's an engaging- and award-winning -construct of distinctive typography, whimsical symbols and day-glo colors, but its projects timeline doesn't appear to have been updated since the year 2000. 

Venturi and Scott Brown have created some the past century's most essential texts in understanding the architecture of their time. His IIT lecture indicates that he's a point where he's gotten out the revelation business, and more into an autumnal refinement of his basic concepts. 

Venturi, of course, is the guy who championed the idea of buildings as “decorated sheds,” and in response to a question he fielded after his lecture, he said he saw Frank Gehry's Pritzker bandshell in Millennium Park as carrying on “the idea of the great American loft tradition. His buildings . . . are essentially a loft with applied ornament, which are these potato chips,” Venturi said, referring to the billowing metallic forms that mane the stage. “So I feel at home when you acknowledge that his architecture is not only the potato chips, but the potato chips applied to a loft, and Frank was more than happy when I said that. “ J

 © Copyright 2005 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Six Bad Arguments for the Exploding Costs of CTA Stations

CTA Damen Green Line Station, Perkins and Will
The blowback – largely on Twitter – to my post about the $60 million cost of the new Damen and Lake station on the CTA green line is a dispiriting demonstration on how politicians play us like a violin.  The discussion revolves around a few basic arguments:

"Even if the stations could be built more economically, it doesn’t matter because infrastructure is expensive." Tell that to those on the short end of the giant TIF con, in which phony-baloney TIF's carved out of affluent areas generate – and retain - billions of dollars to make them even denser concentrations of wealth, while TIF’s in capital-starved neighborhood generate crumbs far insufficient to their needs. Well-managed cities have capital plans. Irredeemably corrupt ones have TIF's.

“Added cost = good design”  Really? Reasonable (and often unreasonable) constraints are the mother’s milk of creative architecture.

"It’s still cheaper than New York City’s new subway stations. Yes, but then so is just about everything short of the Burj Kalifa.

“We deserve it.” A perfect expression of the kind of civic balkanization the TIF system encourages.

"Other things - Jane Byrne interchange, O'Hare expansion, etc. - cost so much more!" So if we can't come to our senses, let's repeat the mistake as often as possible at slightly smaller scale.

"We need this - the CTA tends to be so shabby." Shabby indeed, but . . .

a. A station on a tighter budget does NOT have to be shabby.  That's the talent good architects bring to the equation.
State and Lake, Loop L

b. If we overspent less on the pork barrel stations, we’d have more for basic maintenance. While Red Line-Wilson got over $200 million, the Sheridan station – which boards slightly more passengers – has been allowed to be a decrepit mess for decades, just as for decades State and Lake has been a civic disgrace of peeling paint, creaking floorboards, curated pigeon droppings and general slummery even as $75,000,000 was found to build a new Washington and Wabash station to support about the same number of boardings.  The fact that rehabs for those stations only now have been announced doesn't make up for decades of willful neglect.

We think of ourselves as rational, progressive people, but at heart, we’re kittens distracted by a piece of string, the latest pretty bauble that bewitches and clouds our intellects. It's big! It's shiny! It’s expensive! Ergo, it must be good; it must be swallowed without a second thought.  Except, there is no good architecture without fitness to purpose.  
Cermak, Green Line

The new Cermak Green Line station is visually spectacular, and the poster child for construction overkill. Costing $50,000,000, it was to be the new gateway to McCormick Place and an emerging Motor Row, but so far it remains lightly used, generating less than a half million boardings a year. Multiply that by 50, for a projected 50 years until the next necessary major rehab, and it still comes out to $2.10 – more than the CTA’s basic fare – each time a passenger enters.
Original Fullerton Red/Brown Line station
I never thought I’d write anything nice about Charles Yerkes and the other traction crooks, but they understood budgets. The stations they built were cheap and aggressively efficient, but often not only simply but graciously designed.  They were not mini-Grand Centrals, but they had newsstands, a washroom – often even shops. And in most cases, they supported equal or even larger passenger loads than the CTA handles today. Many of these original stations have been preserved as important pieces of architecture, standing in constrained, silent contempt of the bloated counterparts that took their place.

To be sure, those original stations had drawbacks - not the least of which access for the physically challenged - that newer stations - all newer stations - must and should address.  Elevators, wide platforms, longer platforms to accommodate longer trains, are among functional improvements that are a welcome addition to all new and rehab construction.  Unwarranted, relentless monumentality, perhaps not.

We need a forensic breakdown on the costs of these mega-stations.  How much for the basics - structural support, platforms, stairways and elevators - and how much for all the bling?

If we're going to spend money on gateways, structures that define and help develop their communities, why would we be putting the big bucks into those that people spend only seconds rushing in and out of, and most of their time on the platform immersed in their smartphones waiting for the train to arrive?  Wouldn't it be better to spend more of that money on signature public spaces where people are actually encouraged to linger, enjoy and interact with the neighborhood around them?
Morgan Street, Green Line

As a lover of architecture, I delight in the design of Morgan, Cermak and Washington (Wilson, not so much). They're among the few bright spots in a city where the mediocrity of more and more new construction threatens to make a cruel joke of our reputation as a city where architecture matters. As a citizen of Chicago, however, I can’t walk by without smelling the reek of pork - fat contracts for the connected, even as greater needs are left to starve.
We've gone from $38,000,000 for Morgan Street, to $50,000,000 for Cermak to $60,000,000 for Damen, a 58% inflation in just 8 years.
Wilson Station, Red Line

We’re in thrall to a binary system. Dazzling displays of spending to give the beaming politicians ribbons to cut, or chronic neglect of facilities used by millions more but lacking in press opportunities. Shabby and/or derelict, or blingful and extravagant.  There has to be a middle way.

Less is more. Ever hear of it?