Archive for January, 2007

Certainty versus Reality

January 31, 2007

Aw view

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

In the 12th century, as the French began work on Notre Dame, the Khmer king Suryavarman II constructed what is still the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat, 500 acres of walls, walks, peaks, passages and bas-reliefs. Like so many great works of architecture, Angkor Wat was full of symbolic meaning. Its measurements, from the initial approach across a bridge over the moat to the aediculated peaks of its five shikara, were determined by Hindu cosmology, and specifically by the need to prove that the current age of Suryavarman II was a return to the golden age. The sculptural program explicitly paralleled the king’s achievements with those of the Hindu pantheon, proving his devaraja (god-king) status.

Suryavarman II came to mind, when I was reading a review of the DVD Jesus Camp, a documentary about the indoctrination of far right Christianists, contemporary devarajas who try to convince people that they are ushering in a golden age, a return to a virtuous and glorious past, a time before abortion, infidelity, terrorism, drug addiction, delinquency, perversion and impiety.

But of course there wasn’t such a time ever. Ideologues idealize heaven but they also appeal to a virtuous, mythical past. The parallel between their use of future and past is hardly accidental, because they are made of the same stuffery. As they were at Angkor, although at least we got some timeless art and architecture out of it.

“Timeless” is an instrumental word here. Ideologies and belief systems – especially extremist/fundamentalist ones – tend to be static and thus profoundly ahistorical and more ominously, antihistorical. Not only do they point toward historic periods that never happened, their static, unchanging nature denies the whole dynamic process of life and human history. “Fundamentalism” of any brand is a longing for certainty, the kind of certainty children need to feel safe: the kind of certainty that makes adults infantile and dangerous. Morality and virtue can serve as goals that motivate individuals and thus can have historical agency, but the wingnuts reassign that agency to magical forces, thus relieving the individual of responsibility, rendering her or him infantile and dangerous.

History, and real life are uncertain, contingent, and full of complexity and contradiction.


Lying Liars in Oak Park

January 29, 2007

colt lake obliq

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Next week – February 9 – a business group is hosting a breakfast about preservation and development in Oak Park. They are doing their level best to prove Santayana right – namely – forget history and be condemned to repeat it.

2004: Crandall Arambula do a downtown plan for Oak Park that calls for widespread demolition. People are mad.

Spring 2005: The ruling party is voted out of office for the first time in 50 years. Because of the bad plan. Westgate (a street in downtown Oak Park) makes Landmarks Illinois’ Most Endangered List.

Fall 2005: A broad community group redoes the plan for downtown Oak Park and their “consensus plan” recommends demolition of the Colt Building (see the picture) in order to save the other buildings on Westgate.

2006: The radical Village Board overrules the community and tries to save the Colt Building for a year. One of the radical Village Trustees resigns.

2007: Business groups start spreading lies that the Village has landmarked everything over 50 years old. The Preservation Commission votes to save a graystone and is overruled 5-2 by the Village Board. Business groups and the Hearst paper push for more change on the Village Board. Another radical Trustee resigns.

Actually, if you read the summary above carefully, the story is over. The Village Board is already voting down preservation by a comfortable margin. But, like Fox News, a local group is trying to get a wedge issue out of preservation, but in order to do that, they need to repeat history, to whit:

Summer of 2004: Crandall Arambula does a telephone survey with questions like this:

Which is more important, development or preservation?
Should downtown focus on development or preservation?

Fast forward February 9, 2007: from the ad for the panel:
“seek a better balance between development and preservation?”

DUH-OH! Call Santayana – they done did it agin!!

Which is more important – ice cream or dessert? Talk about false freakin’ dichotomies!

I know a woman who sits on the Board of Wal-Mart and the Board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Another National Trust Trustee runs the Sonic fast food franchise. Welcome to my world, which is real, and not some ideological dream.

PRESERVATION IS DEVELOPMENT. Sorry to shout, but between the Wednesday Journal and the “Business and Civic Council” of Oak Park there is a heckuva lot of misinformation going around, and sometimes you need to bust some caps.

A whole bunch of preservationists agreed to the demolition of the Colt Building and then the Village Board turned it over 4-3. Two of those votes are already gone. Now they are turning on the Historic Preservation Commission, which has been a model of due process and deliberation (and also voted for the consensus plan).

This 50 year thing? Wha-a? When I was on the Oak Park Commission we approved the demolition of at least four such buildings. This is what the Hearst paper and the narrow-minded miss: Preservation is not a thing, it is a PROCESS. The results are not predetermined.

I have argued this point with developers, but they are just angling – angling for the absence of a process, which would make their job easier. And like any job made easier, it is done worse. You do economic development without any process and it happens faster and easier and it is gone in two years and looks like..well…

That is what the Wednesday Journal and this pretend business and civic group are up to – desperately looking for a wedge issue so it can elect no-process economic development junkies, the same kind who gave us the Cramble Tarantula plan and the retail equivalent of a floating crap game.

Preservation development is development done with a plan, done within the character of a community and with a process. It is a marriage made to last a lifetime, not a one-night stand.


January 22, 2007

sold field west

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Okay class, here is the quiz for Monday January 22, 2007. Last year Soldier Field was stripped of its National Historic Landmark status thanks to the methamphetamodernist addition put on four years ago. Now that the Bears have won a championship in the stadium with snow falling like confetti and George Halas’ daughter accepting the trophy, will the new Soldier Field have enough history to qualify for landmark status again in the future?

The Bears used this public stadium ten times this year, the absolute maximum possible. The old Soldier Field had a bevy of stories, from the 1986 championship back to famous boxing matches, auto shows, rock concerts, college football games and even some of the events the place was built for – track and field. So I don’t think yesterday can do it alone.

I have lunches today, tomorrow and Wednesday. I had lunches last Tuesday through Friday: Landmarks Illinois Board; Chicago Public Housing Museum; Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation; Gaylord Building. Today I welcome SAIC transfer students and tomorrow I think it is about our Weishan project and Wednesday is our Faculty Meeting before the semester begins. And they call it winter break….

January 16 2007

January 16, 2007

pilg bap spandrels

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Lots of landmark news today. Mayor Daley promised $500K to rebuild Pilgrim Baptist Church, the landmark Adler & Sullivan house of worship destroyed by fire a year and a week ago. Fundraising for the small congregation with a new pastor is slow, and the big questions about what it is going to look like aren’t being answered but it seems they are tacking toward a creative rebuilding within the original Adler & Sullivan walls. The architect, Frank Christopher Lee, suggested a range of options from reconstruction to something “unexpected but really nice” within the old walls. Put your money on the unexpected – unless you have a spare $12 million for the reconstruction.

The Segal Estate plan was revealed today, and developer Orren Pickell took all the credit for the sensitive plan to save the original house and coach house, build 11 new homes and maintain the great majority of the Jens Jensen-designed landscape. Truth be told, it was Landmarks Illinois that did the deal in a federal courtroom. But hey, that is part of the job of saving landmarks – letting other people take the credit. We do it with politicians all the time (and so do other advocacy organizations).

Barry Byrne said “True architecture is humble” (Mies actually said almost the same thing, believe it or not) and I would offer that true advocacy is humble. Take the win and pass the credit. The reality is that architecture and preservation are a lot like filmmaking – you can honor the director/architect/advocate but the reality is a five-minute roll of credits. The big wins in preservation usually involve everyone: National Trust and Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago and politicians and developers and lots of citizen activists.

Meanwhile, out in the bucolic People’s Republic of Oak Park, the ongoing debate over the Colt Building and “Downtown Oak Park” continues with a series of community meetings. This has been a fascinating story, beginning with a hack plan in 2004 that called for the demolition of half of the downtown and led to the Village Board being kicked out (on account of cupidity and stupidity) a new plan being crafted that only demolished two buildings, and then the new, radical preservationist Village Board trashing the consensus plan in a quixotic bid to save the Colt Building, based on a fetching image of the building, drawn prior to its 1931 completion. It never quite looked like that. They’ve run the numbers a half dozen times now and the Colt is a $5 -$10 million loser no matter how you slice it, so the Village Board has backed off a little, and now the radicals have lost their majority. Endless fun.

BTW, after 100spam days in the summer I tinkered with this blog and even though it seems to me that comments should be allowed, I have heard that it isn’t working. Please KMP.


January 12, 2007

The Chicago Tribune today editorialized that the Commission on Chicago Landmarks should have approved the skin job on North Michigan Avenue’s Farwell Building, buying the rationalization that it needed the economic generator of the superhigh Ritz Carlton condo tower in order to save a very badly deteriorated facade.

Fact: facade is badly deteriorated and needs a lot of money to fix.

Fact: the proposal before the Commission was NOT DESIGNED TO DO THAT.

The proposal was designed to build a big Ritz Carlton tower with loads of parking and ease of access for construction. Clearly Prism has never built in Manhattan because part of the reason the Farwell had to go was staging the construction and the other part was parking.

The logic is sort of like “your leg is broken so we are going to replace your heart and liver.” The Tribune bought the idea that “The City and Prism worked closely for more than a year and considered eight or nine scenarios”. Not so. A year ago a previous Planning Commissioner told Prism they could have what they wanted. The Trib says a stand-alone boutique hotel was looked at and wouldn’t work. WRONG.

It would work, but it wouldn’t give the owner (not Prism but the former Terra Museum, now a well-endowed foundation) as much money. Here is the economic reality at the heart of most landmarks “hardship” cases: I only make a million dollars instead of 3 million, Or, I only make 20 million instead of 50 million. Slice that flippin’ salami however you want, it ain’t a hardship. Yes, it is one of the worst facades engineers have ever seen. That doesn’t mean you solve it with a program conceived and designed for a clear site.

Right now my friends at the AIA in Washington are discussing how architecture schools can incorporate preservation by understanding existing buildings as sustainable resources that are factored into the design and program from the start. It seems here that the Farwell was an obstacle from the start.


January 6, 2007

Well, Blair Kamin said it better than I can – pigs flew. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks acted independently and voted down the Farwell Building skin job on Thursday. So, I guess 2007 is off to a good start after all! Now the developers can come back with an economic hardship exception hearing – which is what they should have done in the first place. Why is it a point of pride in the development community to circumvent due process? I guess real estate development is a field of endeavor that fosters endless perverse pissing matches.

On a very sad note, one of the greatest people to serve on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks passed away – Marian Depres, who I was grateful to know and who deserves all of the accolades being heaped upon her – she was enormously intelligent, gracious, open and committed to Chicago, history and architecture. When I worked at LPCI in the 1980s and 1990s she was one of the Commissioners we could count on to do the right thing. For 97 years she stood tall.

Happy New Year

January 3, 2007

Farwell Building_PetersS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Well, it’s a good day for global warming in Chicago – our 25th consecutive day of above-normal temperature. I went downtown with only a blazer on January 3 – amazing. Haven’t used the long underwear in five years. Sure, I miss skiing, but this is a good spot to be on the globe during an emission-enhanced climate shift.

So, how does 2007 look for landmarks? Not that it is hard to top 2006 – if less than three Louis Sullivan buildings burn down this year, we are ahead. Hell, there are only 20 left out of the 135 he designed in Chicago. Still, 2007 may start off on the wrong foot tomorrow if the Commission on Chicago Landmarks approves another skin job on North Michigan Avenue.

The Farwell Building is one of a small handful of Art Deco landmarks left on North Michigan Avenue, part of the old Terra Museum. A clodlike developer, noting the building’s landmark status, is proposing to do to the Farwell what John Buck (not Joe Buck, although there is a physical resemblance) did to the McGraw-Hill Building ten years ago.

It goes like this – you take the whole thing down, numbering the bits like Abu Simbel, put up a new building, and then reclad it with the old skin. The McGraw-Hill, at 16 stories, was the largest example of this sort of preservation travesty, and we hate to admit it, but it looks pretty good. The Farwell can’t look as good – a good chunk of its footprint will be taken up by a new residential highrise that will loom over and well into the Farwell Frankenstein. Moreover, the Farwell is already a landmark – McGraw-Hill wasn’t.

Landmarks Illinois (I’m on the Board) sat down with the architect a year ago and heard about the desperate condition of the roof and roof facades. This was a gambit to get preservationists to go along with the skin job. It failed, and the actual plan makes it look even sillier – the problem for the developer’s dreadnought is not the skin but the bones – the structure is in the way of the parking garage, of the construction staging – of everything. Sure, the façade needed repair and/or replacement – not the structure.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks should have made the developer go through the economic hardship process before approving taxidermy on this scale. I would have paid to see that hearing – the pathos and poverty of a project that’s already a third sold without city approval.

Lynn Becker rants off the rails on this one at

Damn, my blog is tame….