Archive for April, 2006

Jane Jacobs Dead

April 27, 2006

Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities whupped the ass of the architectural and planning establishment, has died. Jacobs wrote until the end of her life, just a week before her 90th birthday, but that first book was the barn-burner. “A city cannot be a work of art.” She said, and italicized it to make sure we got the point. The city is organic, said Jacobs. You can’t plan it.

Jacobs emerged as a community activist who took down (an already wounded) Robert Moses and launched the concept that neighbors had a right to say how their neighborhood looked and what should go in it. A fifty-year history of urban planning as an elite, expert enterprise ended on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village when Jacobs systematically disemboweled the “Radiant Garden City” of Howard, Burnham, LeCorbusier and Moses.

A housewife and mother who pulled apart the metalogic of urban planning. She wasn’t just against urban renewal – she understood it better than its proponents. My favorite part of Death and Life –which I assigned in my seminar this semester – is near the end when she exposes the pseudo-science of urban planning. Twenty years earlier Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture had trumpeted modern architecture and planning as an expression of the new Einsteinian understanding of space and time. Jacobs exposed this as a rank falsehood.

Scientific thought had three phases, she noted. First, in the Enlightenment, was Newtonian physics and the ability to solve problems of two variables. Next, modern physics gave us the ability to solve problems of disorganized complexity, dealing with multiple variables through probability. Planners still operated in these phases: the neighborhood is 60% low-income and 50% of the housing stock is substandard, therefore it should be renewed, or the classic – the buildings cover only 10% of the land, leaving 90% open for parks and playgrounds! Jacobs said LeCorbusier “assumed the statistical reordering of a system of disorganized complexity, solvable mathematically”

Jacobs said the problem with the planners was that they didn’t know what a city was. It was not a simple two variable problem nor even a problem of disorganized complexity but a problem of organized complexity – a biological problem – a problem of processes.

Here’s the beauty part. She told all the smart experts that they were stupid, that they were pretending to use advanced science when they were using concepts “to which nothing new has been added since their fathers were children”. Then the coup de grace.

“The processes that occur in cities are not arcane, capable of being understood only by experts. They can be understood by almost anybody.” This was a total kick in the nuts to the establishment. Not only are you experts WAY behind the scientific times in terms of your analyses, you are also WAY behind the average person on the street. Cities required inductive thinking, not the deductive thinking the guys in the suits learned.

Jacobs wrote a lot more books, including a rather dire one about our future just recently, but every obituary mentions that 1961 book because it was Ruth’s called shot, Beamon’s Mexico City long jump and Roger Whittaker’s 4 minute mile all rolled into one for the ages. Everything changed after that book.

Now is the part where we say: So we will miss her. Don’t kid yourself. She’s not gone. Those books, those community uprisings she led, they are never gone. Hudson Street is still there, White Horse tavern and all.

All the articles pictured her in the 2000s, a very elderly if still impish lady, but I will remember the 1960s views on Hudson Street, in her awkward trench coat talking to ladies on folding chairs or posed at the White Horse bar with a beer and a cigarette. She could kick it. She still is.

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Soldier Field

April 24, 2006



sold field west

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

News came out Friday that the departing Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, had signed an order removing Soldier Field’s status as a National Historic Landmark. LPCI (see link at right) filed lawsuits to try to stop the Soldier Field project, so they (we) see this action as a vindication. Blair Kamin celebrated the decision today in the Tribune, noting that some 80,000 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places but less than 2500 have National Historic Landmark status. Your house can be on the National Register because it contributes to a local historic district. National Historic Landmark means the building is important on a national scale.

I recall that Illinois has more National Historic Landmarks than other states, largely because of all of the architectural landmarks we have, being the home of the skyscraper and the Prairie House. There are a couple of NHLs within two blocks of my house, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple and George Maher’s Pleasant Home, one of the first Prairie houses. Throw in the surviving works of Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe and Daniel Burnham and Illinois has a good claim to more national significance in architectural history than any other state.

I wrote a letter in support of the effort to de-designate Soldier Field, not because I hate it, but because the changes wrought by the Bears so overwhelmed the original that it really doesn’t deserve to be in the rareified NHL category any more. We brought in Doug Garofalo to a 2003 Symposium because he was one of the few people who publicly liked Soldier Field at the time. He thought it was an interesting dialogue between old and new and projected that in the future it might be beloved. I’m not sure he’s wrong, but I am confident it is not a National Historic Landmark.

There are loads of historical ironies here, not the least of which is Soldier Field’s purpose. It was built in 1920 as a track and field stadium when the Bears were still the Decatur Staleys playing corn country. It hosted every kind of event from rock concerts to prize fights to auto shows and even the World Cup, which I saw in 1994. It was never meant to be a football stadium.

Here’s an irony: the Green Bay Packers played in Soldier Field twice before the Chicago Bears moved there. I saw the Packers play the College All-Stars there in 1968 or 1969. The first time I went to a Bears game it was in Wrigley Field – I think December 1970. The Bears didn’t show up in Soldier Field until both the stadium and the team were over 50 years old. (Geek historians will note that the Bears did play there in 1964 in the College All Star game, but hey, the Packers played there twice in the 60s.)

The thing that got me most upset about the rehab of Soldier Field was not the flying-saucer-in-the-Parthenon of it but the hundreds of millions of public subsidy for a private business that uses it 8 days a year. In a public park. That’s almost enough to make an Illinois politician blush.

I said almost.

Traditional Modernity

April 11, 2006



carb carb addition streetlvl

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Last week the Traditional Building show was in Chicago, which is a trade show catering to the needs of preservationists. The floor was full of window and masonry restorers, stained glass outfits, museum villages, and manufacturers of everything from floors to real roofing tiles. They also had a row of us not-for-profits, including the National Trust and LPCI (link at right) and the dear old School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Historic Preservation Program.

Traditional Building is the name of a magazine founded by Clem Labine, an original Brooklyn Heights brownstoner, back in the early 1970s and he was there as well. The group that puts on the show also put on a series of speakers and presentations that were really quite excellent. I’m not saying that just because I was one of them, nor because we all got to see Bob Yapp do his fabulous, funny and fact-filled number on replacement windows. Everyone I knew commented on the interest and quality of the presentations.

The keynote was actually a debate between Steven Semes of Notre Dame’s architecture school and Paul Byard of Columbia University’s preservation program. And it was actually a debate – not the 21st century FOX news cage fight of screaming ideologues, but an interesting series of arguments on two very different sides, each carefully and quietly supported so that the audience suspended prejudice and listened, trying to decide which side they were on.

In super simplistic terms, Semes was arguing for classicism in additions to historic buildings, while Byard was arguing for modernism. I have generally been on Byard’s side, wanting new additions to be clearly new and distinct so as not to create a false sense of history. But Semes made some good points, including asking why a modernist addition was okay for a 1950s Park Avenue highrise, but a Georgian addition was not appropriate for a site in Williamsburg. He charged architects with modernist bias and told us to watch out whenever architects talk about the idea of a building or what it is trying to say. Byard played into his hand with a description of Manhattan’s Austrian Cultural Center full of reference to the demi-nihilism of contemporary novelist Elfriede Jelinek. Buildings and music don’t speak like the other arts, said Semes.

He almost had me, which is a testament to the quality of the debate. Ultimately I am much closer to Byard’s position, but I was also struck by a couple buildings that contradict each assertion. First I though of Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe (See LPCI link at right) which is an icon of modernism. But if you have ever seen it you also realize that it is a perfect classical Greek temple despite or more likely because of its modern materials and idiom. It is Paestum and it is Alexander Jackson Davis and it is 1949 on the Fox River, all at once.

The other example is the Austrian Cultural Center, which I wrote about for a major tour guide long before I actually visited it. To contradict both Semes and Byard, I thought the building was perfectly contextual in mid-town Manhattan. Part of that stems no doubt from the fact that absolutely EVERYTHING is contextual in a chaos-bucket like Manhattan, but part of it is inherent. The building juts and slices, but it is narrow and its monolithic qualities make it the ultimate brick in the midtown wall, a completing composition more than a competing one, despite its semiotic sympathies with Jelinek’s self-loathing anti-heroes. Perhaps like her novels it is not about the exceptional protagonist so much as the cultural condition, which is what Semes and Byard’s debate was about.

I think you move forward and create new expressions, never content that the past can say it all, never so confident that you think it was never said before.

replace your windows

April 3, 2006



crap aluminum window

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Image: The permanent fog of a 1980s replacement window.

Friday there was an article about replacement windows in the Tribune. Like most consumer-oriented pieces, it warned about the pitfalls and pitches of various types of window replacement – wood is a better insulator but more expensive; plastics can’t match colors and look like crap; installation makes all the difference. The last point is a good one – a large fraction of people who replace their windows don’t get much energy savings because the key is the window frame and if it is not replaced, the air just runs right around those new $500 double-glazed tilt-pacs.

But the key consumer decision was left out of this article, as it usually is. How about repair? The sustainable answer, the answer that employs people but pollutes less.

I don’t care about using wood as a window replacement because the wood you get nowadays is quick-warping, fat-grained, IKEA-knotty sludge next to the wood that is in your 80-year old windows right now. I’m not bothered about aluminum replacements if they look nice. I’ll reserve judgment on the plastics.

What does bother me is the fact that the best choice – repair – is always left out. This is the fault of marketers who have a gimme gotcha scheme better than the cell phone pitch that I am endangering my wife and babies by not owning a cell phone. We have been beaten over the head about replacement windows for 15 years so we can make this huge investment decision without conscious thought.

Yes, it is hard to find contractors to repair windows – but they exist. And your repaired 80-year old window will cost less and last longer than the replacements.

My favorite part of the article was the sidebar “Is It Time For New Windows?” and the very first indicator was “Fogged glass. The seal between panes likely has ruptured.” I love it – this is a problem that can only affect windows built in the last 30 years – which gives you a sense of how long your new investment is going to last.

As the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s architect Mike Jackson always says – they are called replacement windows because that is what you have to keep on doing.