Archive for December, 2005

Berghoff – How To Demolish

December 29, 2005

You have to know how the enemy works.

I always tell my students how to demolish a beloved landmark, and I always use a particular example of one of the oldest buildings in the Loop and one of its beloved icons.

The example became true today, but in truth it has been obvious for years. Berghoff’s announced they were closing February 28 after 107 years, mostly in the little 1872 buildings on West Adams. They did not announce they will try to demolish the landmark buildings – but they will. In about two years.

The ploy is obvious. To demolish one of only two cast-iron Italianates in Chicago and a rare surviving post-Fire building, the first thing you do is get rid of the beloved icon – the restaurant with its traditions. The daughter, Carlyn Berghoff, is reopening the bar under a new name and using the restaurant space for her catering business. For about two years.

You see, two years from now, the bar and catering business will not be the solid moneymakers they are today, and the Berghoffs can whinge to the city that they must demolish the building for a high-rise because they are losing money. They aren’t losing money now – it is an extremely successful business.

This is why they aren’t offering the business for sale: then they would lose the real estate. In order to cash in on the real estate, they need to trash the business first.

That also helps in the public relations realm because then you don’t have a ready audience trying to stop you from demolishing the business. You can even try to ice the deal by closing the bar for a year and put in a discount dollar store on the site. Then the public will urge you to demolish the building.

This is what the Berghoff announced today: They are going to try to cash in on their land and demolish an extremely rare Chicago landmark.

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Identity is Theft

December 28, 2005

Felicity Rich and I collaborated on a piece that is currently in the Faculty Sabbatical Show at Betty Rymer Gallery through mid-February. The piece is largely a website (identityistheft.com) and we will be doing a gallery talk about it on Thursday, February 9 at noon. Briefly, it is about how we steal elements of our identity from the past, from foreign places and experiences; about how identity is a tricky bit of both belonging and separating. And of course it is about what this blog is about: How history gets denatured into heritage.

Oh, and a big thanks to our overseas consultant. Mark Miller, for making the thing work.

But that isn’t the point of this post, which has more to do with art history. I was at this Marion Mahony Griffin exhibit up at Northwestern seven weeks ago and there were these presentations on Marion and her incomparable drawings, and one scholar dropped a bomb about one of the drawings actually being the work of another person from the Frank Lloyd Wright studio. It reminded me of Marion Mahony Griffin’s late life attempts to reassign credit for various Wright designs to her or her husband Walter Burley Griffin. It reminded me of what a lot of art history devolves into, the sort of hermetic scholasticism Reyner Banham lamented as “how many influences you can balance on the head of a pin” which is not an exact quote, appropriately enough.

The problem with this whole approach is that it misconstrues the creative process.

You see, Felicity and I collaborated on Identity Is Theft. Most of the images are hers, and much of the text is mine. But I also did images and Felicity also did text – including for example the funny testimonials on the left sidebar, which many people assumed were by me.

We worked on this thing for six months. When we opened the show on December 7 I DID NOT REMEMBER who contributed what to various elements of the piece. Not a few weeks later, I, one of the collaborators, could not tease apart who did what. It was a collaborative creative process, like work in an architectural studio. To assign it to one person or the other would be wrong. Even to find a videotape that showed one person making a mark or clicking a mouse would be wrong because that person was collaborating, not working alone!

The attribution of work to individuals in a group setting invokes a sort of magic agency to the creative process. Bolts of lightning from above. The idea of a genius. Is it Gilbert or is it George? Lennon or McCartney? This is silly because it denies context.

One or more of the architects in a certain studio at a certain time may well have influenced the plan or appearace of a certain building more than the others. But so what? The building was produced by the studio within that context and only that context. To say otherwise is to jump outside history into the world of magic agency.

Would “Scrambled Eggs” have become “Yesterday” without Lennon? Answering such a rhetorical question may help in rhetorical skills but adds nothing to our understanding of the work of art because we have left history and context aside.

Maybe that was one of the points of Identity Is Theft – when we say something is our identity, we deny its context: gender, heritage, lifestyle, class, place or experience.

Maybe. But I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask Felicity.

Post Modern post

December 20, 2005

One of the impulses and gifts of Postmodernity in architecture was that it successfully questioned the universalizing, problem-solving and ultimately dictatorial proscriptiveness of Modernity. One only has to think of LeCorbusier’s Modulor or type-needs, the Existenzminimum of the Bauhaus or the ranting of planner Edmund Bacon in the recent film My Architect. Modernism, like its political cohort Progressivism, wanted to solve the world’s problems – a noble goal – but it wanted to do it from above, by the fiat of experts. Like the old Second City routine where the college kid shushes the urban resident with a condescending: “I’m an Urban Affairs major at Northwestern University. I think I know a little bit more about your problems than you do?!”

Postmodernism trashed those assumptions, which was just as well. The Modulor wouldn’t stop evolving and radio and television did the same to the Existenzminimum and every NIMBY quick citizen took a page from Jane Jacobs and told Ed Bacon where to stick his plans. You can’t be a problem solver when problems don’t stand still. PostModernism, like Punk, reveled in nihilism, safe in its conclusion that Progress was a big joke.

Preservation was a piece of that. It was a piece of Jane Jacobs and it was a key facet of the response to Modernist planning – why did we need to throw everything out in the name of Progress? Preservationists, recognizing the flimsy obsolescent apparatus of Modernism, threw a punk flag on the floor of Progress, exposing the end of days implicit in its universalizing.

The Postmodern mood took this approach and changed architecture thirty years ago, giving us buildings like the Harold Washington Library, three-quarters preModern pastiche and one-quarter exposed backside, dropped trou of steel and glass. We can’t build them like we used to and even if we pretend to we will let you in on the great rock and roll swindle.

So why do people still hang onto Progress? Sure it makes sense for the cultural wings of the perverse right, but why does everyone else buy in? Because we see real progress in each successive Ipod or every Microsoft update? Clearly not.

It is almost as if PostModernism inured us to commodification and marketing, and we gladly snap up the latest technology not for the Modern reason that it is better and faster and more wonderful but for the PostModern reason that it is funny and ironic to just do what consumers do and sure we know better but – punk it all – there are no other choices so let’s just do it and smugly know how silly we look doing it. “Oh god, look at me I live in a brand new gated community – isn’t that hilarious!!”

Sure, preservation is a piece of Modernism but its artifacts are mostly pre-Modern, which does not protect them from marketing or commodification but it does shield them (at least the pre-1945 ones) from obsolescence. Nothing snide or flippant about masonry bearing-wall construction, no matter how it was sold.

Preservation was Modernism without the faith in Progress and thus it was the necessary philosophical precondition for PostModernism, BUT it had a rock solid artifactual underpinning PostModernism did not.

Of course, now we want to preserve Modernism itself – and that is a technical challenge because a lot of those buildings were built like CDs, designed to last only as long as the fashion trend.

The most permanent result of this 40-year upheaval has been this. We helped get people into community planning. That is a procedural, democratizing shift that doesn’t rely on product. Hard to make it go away too – very hard to take power (rights) away once people have got them.

Now the enemies aren’t the government planners (most of those left with the rest of the public sector years ago) but the developers, since only they have the staff to do it.

PostModern planning – developers are the new municipal experts and citizens are still citizens, but they have more of a voice than they did in Modernism

– and it doesn’t even have to sound sarcastic.

New

December 15, 2005

First a quick note about New Orleans, where many preservationists are hard at work trying to save the homes of this historic city. Last week, Associated Press reported on a survey of 114,127 damaged buildings in New Orleans. Of these, 31,662 had no structural damage, 79,325 had partial damage and 3,140 were tagged red, which meant they should be razed.

Two comments: 1. That is less than 3 percent. 2. The AP report notes that the majority of the red-tagged buildings were brick ranch houses built since 1940.

Score one for the old buildings!

Now, on to New York

I was in New York late last week interviewing preservationists and I was struck by how similar preservation issues are in different places: the politics, the factions, the economics and aesthetics. I was also struck by how parochial New Yorkers can be – as I interviewed them they often counterinterviewed me to find out what was going on in Chicago. That’s New York – a world unto itself and hence a bit fishbowlic despite its mass. I don’t begrudge that – New York is a whole world every few blocks – if I were there it would be hard to see beyond the Hudson.

And New York looms large in preservation history. They gave us zoning in 1916, and their 1965 local landmarks law – while not the first – had a big influence on the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and famously held up in court in the 1978 Grand Central Station case. On Saturday I had the good fortune of meeting with Dorothy Miner, a key attorney on that case, and her insights were revelatory. She was also the least parochial, keenly aware of landmarks litigation in Chicago over the years. Unlike some advocates she also was willing to count the successes over time, particularly the large historic districts on the Upper West and Upper East Sides. She was genuinely amazed that New Yorkers had chosen to regulate so much valuable real estate.

A lot of my investigation centered on Greenwich Village, still the largest district in Manhattan. This is valuable real estate. Rows of Federal and Greek Revival rowhouses were being frantically leveled for giant white brick air conditioner piles right up until the 1969 designation. “Pile” is a derisive term in architecture with a long history and the clunky step-box stacks of New York embody it perfectly. But they stopped them in the Village. The neighborhood even has its own staffed preservation organization that is adding more landmarks as well as downzoning to maintain Village character.

New York is less coherent than Chicago to my eye, and less architecturally notable, but it has great buildings and it has a lot of what most people understand a architecture: swooping stoops and swelling swags and all of that ornamental decoration that even politicians understand as architecture – the opposite of Mies, if you will.

I did visit our Chicago heroes – Mies’ Seagram Building and Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict with its restored storefronts. They fit right into the universe that is New York. Everything fits in there because it is a universe, a world unto itself, lacking nothing and keeping a heck of a lot of it.

Replacement Windows

December 3, 2005

Heating bills going up? You need replacement windows – save up to $200 per year with $20,000 in new plastic windows – guaranteed for up to 10 years!

I suppose “Truth in advertising” is as oxymoronic as “sport utility.” Fact is that replacement windows are the most successful home improvement marketing scheme of the 21st century. More buildings have had their windows replaced in the last five years than ever – not because more buildings NEEDED their windows replaced – it is simply super successful marketing, the kind that crawls under your skin and populates your dreams and becomes entirely reflexive.

As soon as you think about making any improvements to your house, you think about replacing the windows. You don’t think “whether,” you think “how.” That’s hot marketing. It has become an instinctive response. People ask me about which replacement windows to get. I always say what is wrong with your windows? Probably nothing.

Replacing your windows is almost always trading down, ditching functional, repairable old-growth high-density wood windows for new vinyl windows that can’t be fixed. Like so much else in contemporary society, if they break you just throw them out and get new ones. I have old windows. One broke one day, I popped out the stops, disconnected the sash cords and got a new piece of glass for $1.60 at the hardware store. Points, putty. in. Took less than an hour.

What about saving energy? This is silly on several counts.

FLASH – News Alert! HEAT RISES!

Once you insulate your roof, you have saved 80% of all the energy savings that are possible. The oldest, leakiest, brokenest windows on the block can’t account for more than 10% of energy costs.

On top of that, most replacement windows are squeezed into the existing frames and rough openings – where almost all of the energy loss happens! In fact, putting super-tight windows into an old frame will push MORE air out of the rough opening. Try caulking the exterior of your window frames – that is where it happens. Reglazing, painting and weatherstripping saves more energy than new double-glazed windows.

Third, the miracles of double-glazing are not new – Victorian homes had storm windows – the original double glazing. Often more effective, too, since they covered the whole frame and not just the sash. There is this myth that energy was cheap in the 19th century. It wasn’t. Energy was cheap in the middle of the 20th century – those are the buildings that were sloppy when it came to energy. Victorians were much more concerned about “drafts” than us (they were deadly back then) and made their buildings accordingly.

Fourth, if we cared about saving energy we wouldn’t take up so much space. The average American has three times the interior square footage they did 50 years ago, so even if you turned every window into a wall, you would still use more energy because you have more space.

Now, you might want (or, if the marketing has worked its magic – “need”) new windows because they will function better – old windows are sticky. My sister just bought an 80-year old Berwyn bungalow. I went around and opened and closed all the windows easily. They even had their original sash cords. If one had been sticky – like mine were in my house, I would have used the 7 cent solution – rub some candle wax on the jambs, perhaps a drop of oil on the pulleys if the sash cords had been replaced with chains.

In contrast, I have seen replacement windows downtown falling apart after less than 10 years. The really cool thing is when the old double-glazed units go bad and create these wild patterns on the glass. You can’t see through it, but it’s trippy!

See the woman in the replacement window ad tilting the window in and cleaning it? Old windows are harder to clean, so I suppose “ease of cleaning” survives as a reason to replace your windows. They will look nice for a few years, since modern plastics yellow quite slowly.

Ever wonder why the replacements have two little locks on the meeting rail? Warping. That can also happen with new wood and aluminum. Most older houses and apartments and offices have windows made from old-growth wood. This is dense-grained wood, more structurally stable, thermally efficient and repairable than anything you can buy today. This is not a question of how much money you have to spend – you CAN’T buy this wood today, period. There are some people salvaging the old windows, just as they have long salvaged brick and other materials, but most are tossed away.

I have watched a lot of window replacements over the last five years and most are pointless, expensive and will need to be replaced again in less than 20 years. That is the true brilliance of the marketing, because getting replacement windows insure that you will need to get them again in 20 years, maybe less! It is a brilliant business model because it is self-perpetuating.

The success of the marketing has also meant dilution of contractor skills. Last year the Tribune reported that 12% of all windows in NEW houses had leaks in the frame. Skills can’t keep up with a mass marketing phenomenon. There are five window guys out there for every real carpenter.

Finally we have aesthetics. New always looks better, Except the nasty cut aluminum (or plastic) panning that passes for brick molds (the frame around the frame) nowadays means that most replacement windows make their buildings look like Little Orphan Annie – a face with its eyes punched out.

So what’s your problem? Windows broken? Fix them. High heating costs? Insulate your roof and caulk. People buy replacement windows because they are Starbucks and Harry Potter, a cultural marketing phenomenon ticking away in your brain telling you it’s okay.