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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Postcard from Chicago

Room with a view

Chicago reminds me a little of Seattle. Visit in good weather, and you’re ready to move there. The early autumn varied between “warm” and “light sweater required.” I love the form of this city. Great giant orange and silver light boxes strung along the shore of a moody Milton Avery sea (of course it’s really a lake) with intermittent parks, followed by a ring of gritty brick buildings fading into green leafy suburbs. The intensity of the city ends at a highway (named Lakeshore Drive as if it were meandering and calm) and then a beach and then the great beyond. It’s a modern city shaped by Miesian boxes cheek by jowl with the late 19th and early 20th century industrial city of lower densities. Back porches and bedrooms snug up to the elevated railroad. The El works surprisingly well, but this is still a city where you need a car to get across town. And the commute patterns are more and more from suburb to suburb. Which means the freeways are clogged up during the day just like in Los Angeles or Seattle! Or any thriving American metropolis.

We were in Chicago because Chicago A Cappella commissioned Paul to write a piece for the group’s 20th anniversary. It was a complex song based on the poem “The Windhover” by Gerald Manley Hopkins. I didn’t even know a windhover was a bird until Paul wrote this piece. A young priest sees the bird and knows where his true path lies.

Paul taught a master class in the Rockefeller Cathedral on the University of Chicago campus one morning. An impressive neogothic cathedral designed by Bertram Goodhue. But there is something weird about a grand church named after a grand capitalist. Maybe that reveals a deeper truth about this campus?

Rockefeller Cathedral

While Paul was teaching, I wandered over to check out the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the site of Paul’s concert. The tower anchors the southwest corner of the campus. It is also next to a pretty rough neighborhood. On the night of the Chicago A Cappella performance, cops on every corner stood guard. The limestone conveys both solidity and lightness. Stacking the dense program also allowed for a generous courtyard. There are two entrances—one from the street near the midway and then a porte cochere in the rear. But I wondered who would arrive that way—folks in chauffeured town cars?

Williams/Tsien -
Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts

Next door is the School of Social Service Administration, which I had never seen before. I stumbled across it and thought it was a wonderful Miesian pavilion, only to realize that the master himself designed it. It doesn’t take too much digging to find out it was built because Lillian Greenwald, widow of Herbert Greenwald, perhaps Mies’s most important patron, was a generous donor to the School of Social Service Administration. I was shooed out because of some small function going on in the lobby, so I will have to tour the interiors on the next visit. A casual glance suggested it was mostly intact.

Mies van der Rohe - School of Social Service Administration

The surprise was the Laird Bell Law Quadrangle by Eero Saarinen. Unlike Mies, Saarinen was interested in what was next door to his future buildings. Mies was a European modernist. The new rules were based on some of the old rules, but damn the existing buildings. They wouldn’t last. One could say Saarinen was a more place-based modernist. He didn’t want decorations or class-rooted readings of his buildings, but he also understood the value of what went before him. His courtyard with its sheet of water is beautiful. The law library does not imitate the predominant neogothic architecture of the early campus, but it does try to be a friendly neighbor with its crenellated top and rhythms.

Eero Saarinen - Laird Bell Law Quadrangle

In an ironic twist, architect Rafael Viñoly took Saarinen’s concept of creating a modern building that respected historic precedents even further at the Charles M. Harper Center at the Booth School of Business. One of the main challenges for the project was that the university had to tear down an Eero Saarinen building. However, the Woodward Court dorms were not the famed architect’s best effort. Viñoly not only created a contemporary building with gothic tracery in the structure of the atrium, but also reduced the building’s scale as it approaches the corner across the street from Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, the Robie House. Horizontal forms and a simple cantilever gently reference Wright’s work. The building accomplishes something few campus buildings do coherently; it’s big when it needs to be big and small when it needs to be small.

Rafael Viñoly -
Charles M. Harper Center at the Booth School of Business

Frank Lloyd Wright - Robie House

On the eastern edge of campus, we also checked out the new Earl Shapiro Hall for the university’s acclaimed Laboratory Schools. My pals (and clients) Valerio Dewalt Train also had to negotiate a contemporary expression in the context of the neogothic style. Since the site was a few blocks east of the campus core, they could bend the rules a bit more. The building folds in some surprising ways, but it remains a highly legible building. Blair Kamin likes it too! (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-10-12/news/ct-ae-1013-lab-school-20131012_1_chicago-laboratory-schools-nursery-school-joe-valerio)

Valerio Dewalt Train - Shapiro Hall, UC Lab School

We were foolish enough to venture north on the day before the Chicago Marathon to see Renzo Piano’s addition to the Art Institute. But it was worth the trek (and $30 parking fee!). Piano inserted a simple, light structure into a collage of historic structures. He saw that Frank Gehry’s band shell for Grant Park concluded the main axis of his design, and he celebrates the fact. This is what I love about Piano. He is confident enough to give another contemporary architect his due. And as with many of Piano’s additions, a great deal of the fun lies in watching how the building frames human movement and inquiry.

Renzo Piano - Chicago Art Institute Addition

Renzo Piano - Chicago Art Institute Addition

Our home base for this trip was Evanston, the first suburb beyond Chicago’s city limits. Next time we will check out Northwestern University and report back. We stayed in a Fawlty Towers kind of hotel apartment complex from the 1920s with a stunning view of the lake. One morning, we walked around the residential precinct next to the lake, which has to be one of the prettiest neighborhoods we’ve ever seen. A friend of mine whose partner grew up there said, “Oh yes, it’s a happy place.”

Evanston - A Happy Place


Patrick said...

I'd be very curious to know why Mies was selected to design the SSA. Theoretically, there are any number of connections between social work (or "social service administration" as that school prefers) and modernism, but I'd be curious to know the details. Any insights Kenny?

Kshanti Bhakti said...

Lovely. I must go.