Archive for March, 2007

The Rosenwald

March 30, 2007

The Rosenwald

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

I was at a Financing workshop this morning at the Bronzeville Visitors Bureau for what is affectionately called simply “The Rosenwald.” Organized by National Trust Advisor Paula Robinson and Harold Lucas, who have been involved in South Side community preservation for a generation, the effort was the latest in an ongoing series of attempts to save a truly important building. As Harold pointed out at the outset, the building – which covers most of the block between 46th and 47th Streets, Michigan to Wabash, was significant in both the history of Bronzeville as the home of famous individuals like Quincy Jones and Joe Louis, and in the history of Chicago’s greatest philanthropist, Sears, Roebuck Chairman Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald is known nationwide for his early 20th century empowerment efforts, building schools for African-Americans across the south. The Rosenwald was one of two predecessors to public housing in Chicago, the other being the Marshall Field Garden Apartments on the north side. Officially called Michigan Terrace Garden Apartments, Rosenwald had his nephew Ernest Grunsfeld, Jr. design the 5-story Art Deco complex for Bronzeville in 1929. It was listed on the National Register in 1981.

The building has drawn the attention of preservationists for a while. The National Trust put it on their 11 Most Endangered List three years after it closed in 2000. Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago have put it on their most endangered lists as well. Architect Phil Kupritz presented the redevelopment plan, which will add corridors and elevators, create 300 units instead of 440, and bring the building into the modern market.

The market is on its way already. If you haven’t been to the Near South Side lately – say 26th to 47th Street – it’s too late – that train left the station. The new housing at 35th and State where the Robert Taylor homes used to be has shot up in the last few months, and new greystones line every street from the lakefront to Michigan. Bronzeville has been one of the hottest markets for new single-family homes for the last decade. As one developer at the meeting said: it is only a matter of time before the Rosenwald is redeveloped. This thing is solid – concrete, not the knotty sticks they are using to build the new houses.

The scale of the building – almost a full block, well over 400,000 square feet, combined with the lack of elevators and fire exits to scare off developers a few years ago, but they are running out of excuses. A TIF district and a raft of tax credits – historic, low-income, New Market, make the deal better, and a preservation easement could add more. If it goes condo, the Illinois Property Tax Freeze could offer an extremely enticing incentive for new homeowners.

It’s not out of the woods yet, but I suspect the real challenge will be keeping the community – ably represented by Paula and Harold and Rosenwald preservationist Bobbie Johnson – in the deal. Harold has a nice sense of history – he talked about the proposed National Heritage Area for the section of the South Side where blacks were forced to live by racial covenants before 1948. This heritage area is a worthwhile goal, and like most historic projects, it will recall a time and place that is, in ways both good and bad, long gone.

Save The Rosenwald!


Space Time

March 23, 2007

neo romanes mcmanS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

One of the most common explanations for teardowns of perfectly sound historic homes is that our modern lifestyle requires different space. Mike Jackson of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency acknowledges that today we live in great kitchens and use bigger bathrooms. IHPA will allow such changes to historic homes seeking public subsidy through tax incentives.

The issue of space is a frequent justification for demolishing historic buildings, and like most justifications, it is usually false. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency published an article last decade called “You Can Have That Old House and A Great Room Too” heralding the potential for adding on to historic homes. You can almost always add on to a historic house – you lose yard space, but that is even more true with teardowns.

There are several pathologies in the “how we live now” argument. The first is the typical American tendency to have it both ways. I want a 5,000 square foot house and I want it to be energy-efficient. You can make a 5,000 square foot house energy efficient in relation to other 5,000 square foot houses, but not in relation to a 2,500 square foot house. Either you care about energy or you care about space – you can’t have it both ways. That is like “we can win a war abroad without sacrificing at home.”

Yes, we live in our kitchens and bathrooms more, and recall that back in the 1950s bathrooms had only been inside most houses for less than a generation. But these contemporary lifestyle changes only drive HOW we use our space, not HOW MUCH of it we need, And this expanded space need is driven by our stuff.

Thus the second pathology. I read yesterday in the Tribune about the American addiction to storage, which is a $22 billion dollar industry that didn’t exist 35 years ago. Not only do we occupy three times the interior space we did 50 years ago, but we have so much crap 11 million of us are storing it offsite. Some of those 11 million are just waiting for a bigger house to put all their crap in. They quoted a psychologist who specializes in treating people with pathological hoarding issues. Given the size of houses today, it seems most of the middle class has at least a mild version of the disease.

That is the essence of “how we live now”: we live to buy stuff and we buy houses to fill with stuff. Yes, we have gotten physically larger in the last 50 years as well, but not three times larger. All that extra space is for our stuff, neatly stacked thanks to the Container Store, a store that did not and could not exist 35 years ago.

There is a third explanation for the expansion of interior living space that is never mentioned, and I think it is the most important. The last 35 years have witnessed the demotion and destruction of community space in our landscape, so the interiors have grown to compensate for the exterior spaces we have lost. Prviate spaces must take over in an era of lost public space, which is a social pathology.

Is your house healing you or enabling you?

McMansion World

March 21, 2007

Portuma McMansion 2002

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Morning news: McDonalds is suing the Oxford English Dictionary over the word “McJobs,” describing low-paying menial jobs without hope of advancement. This made me wonder if the golden arch attorneys would be heading after “McMansions” next.

McMansions are what follows the teardown. They are franchised, mass-produced homes that are “mansions” in size and price only. They are McMansions because, design-wise, they are collections of signifiers, generally assembled artlessly, like the eponymous sandwiches. Palladian windows. Curving front staircases. Quoined corners. Big flat warpy windows with fake muntins that look like scotch tape because people read “divided lights” as “classy”. Balustrades, columns and pediments, the bacon, lettuce and cheese of Classical style (heavy on the cheese). They also tend to be SUPER-SIZED. Entrances tend toward the subtlety of a streetwalker, with similar effect. Like the burgers, they have all the outward signs of taste but the inside is nothing but architectural trans-fats: pressboard and PVC.

They are actually very useful for illustrating the importance of proportion, because they almost always get it wrong, even in Hinsdale. The windows are too big and/or too divided, the quoins are usually WAY too big. If they have urns, they look out of scale, which is odd, because Wright could design 2-ton urns that didn’t look out of scale. Gables inset in gables, as if mere doubling masters an effect. The relatively inoffensive Irish example here has those inexplicable entrance sidelights and the bizarre fanlight below a pointed (but pointless) little eave gable. You can actually spot these things at 4-5 blocks distance because of the mistakes in proportion and because the windows give them an empty-eyed look, like a zombie in search of a brain.

And you can spot them EVERYWHERE. Not just Orlando, Dallas and Denver. I’ve seen them in Ireland, where the houses have the ostentation and only the garages are smaller. I’ve seen them in the former farm fields outside Wroclaw and Toronto, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Paris and Shanghai and yes, even Portland. Every nation in the world uses the same architectural symbols that signify elegance to the buyer and sudden wealth to the trained observer. In their global reach, they are the 21st century answer to 20th century urban renewal, which had ruinous effects not only in the Bronx and Kalamazoo, but pointedly in places like Marseille, Berlin and Sheffield.

This is another reason the name “McMansion” is good, because like the fast food franchises, they are all over the world, and they always look the same. I’ve seen them in Kyiv and Vienna, and in the curious attenuated sliver towers of Hanoi, where the columns and balustrades surmount a functionally useless top story. I haven’t been to Moscow or Lahore, but I am sure I would see them there, because I have seen them in Park Ridge, where the best way to advertise American arrivistism is a Louis XVI porch with gargoyles.

New Seven Wonders of the World

March 15, 2007

angkor wat telescoping roofs 2nd gallery

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

So, there is this international vote-on-the-web for the NEW seven wonders of the world. I have this memory from childhood that this was all decided some time ago, but that was probably by white European men so it is time to do it again. Egypt got its knickers in a bunch because the Pyramids at Giza (only surviving site from the Ancient Seven Wonders) were going to be subject to voting rather than an automatic.

I haven’t seen any criteria beyond “humankind’s heritage,’ so that is what I will use as I give you my take on each candidate.

Colosseum, Rome: Iconic, recognized, and pretty awe-inspiring in real life. Thanks to Pope Clement, there is enough of it left to get the original idea, and thanks to Mussolini every road leads to it. I give it a 7.

Kiyomizu Temple, Japan. Super temple complex at Kyoto, although I am a bit partial to Todai-ji at Nara, which I believe is the largest wooden building in the world. I’ll vote an 8.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. This is a shoo-in. Totally awesome, at 500 acres the biggest religious structure in the world, and if you count the oodles of other temples in the park (Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Bayon, Phimineakas, Baphuon, etc.,etc.) it rocks 400 years of history and the best of both Hindu and Buddhist architecture. 10.

Statue of Liberty, New York. As a symbol of the eternal bond between France and the U.S. the timing is odd, but I would have to say as one of only three “statues” on the list, it is our closest modern parallel to the Colossus at Rhodes. I give it a 8.

Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow. Haven’t seen this one, and if it beats Lavra in Kyiv, I suppose we need an Orthodox site and Hagia Sophia doesn’t quite fit that. Another 7.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. Another one I haven’t seen but I am voting 8 just for its role in architectural history. Squinch.

Alhambra, Spain. I must profess experiential ignorance again, but I know it is up there. Another 7.

Acropolis, Athens. Fourth in a row I haven’t seen but this is even easier. This one weighs on the whole of Western history and a lot more than just that. 9.

Neuschwandstein, Germany. A 19th century fantasy castle copied by Disney? Can’t we do a real castle for our German token? Or the Bauhaus? I’m sorry, but this is a 5.

Stonehenge, England. Okay, best stone circle and I have seen a few of those. A clear 8, inching toward 9.

Great Wall of China. The scope and breadth of 4000 years of construction history for a wall that never worked is impossible to ignore. Kafka wrote about it. The myth about seeing it from space underscores its importance – and the need to see it from a great distance. I say it’s in – 9.

Eiffel Tower, Paris. Interesting, we take a building from the modern culture capital that was hated by cultured Parisians when it was built. Sort of like Chicago’s Picasso. I’d say a 7.

Pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico. Certainly more ornate and elegant than Teotihuacan, but the latter even awed the Aztecs. Either one is worth an 8.

Christ the Redeemer Statue, Rio de Janiero. The mountain and bay make this site more than the statue itself. I’d say a 7.

Machu Picchu, Peru. Much better choice for our South American token. Great site, huge complex, elements of mystery like Stonehenge. I’d say 9.

Easter Island statues. Talk about elements of mystery. If “wonder” trumps actual heritage of humankind, these brow beaters are in. Overall, I’m voting 8.

Taj Mahal, India. I saw this 20 years ago and thought it was the greatest work of architecture I had ever seen. Angkor Wat runs with it, but it is still a 10.

Petra, Jordan. I’ve only seen it in the Indiana Jones movie. Arguably a better Roman choice than the Colloseum, but equally awe-inspiring? I’m going with a 7.

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. I vote Zahi Hawass – this one is automatic, despite the fact that we know so much about it. 10.

Timbuktu, Mali. Sub-Saharn token? Pretty impressive, and beats Petra in the rising-out-of-the-desert category. I’ll say 8.

Sydney Opera House, Sydney. Oh, heck, it is an icon and locational shorthand like the Taj and Eiffel Tower. It out Gehrys Gehry a quarter century earlier, although like so much modern architecture, it fades up close. I’ll vote 7.

So, my seven are:
Angkor Wat
Great Wall
Taj Mahal
Machu Picchu

Now, for those left out:

Borobudur – come on guys! You rate China and India but leave out Indonesia? Learn to count! Since the Taliban whacked Bamiyan, this is the coolest Buddhist site.

Forbidden City – this is almost as big as Angkor Wat and while it is definitely younger, it is awe-inspiring. Maybe the Starbucks got in the way.

Empire State Building. You gotta have a skyscraper – if the ancients were making this list, it would consist ONLY of skyscrapers. Yes the mystery quotient is down, but these things are symbols and they are the culmination of 20 centuries of architecture. We could do the seven best: Empire State, Chrysler, Hancock (Chicago), Jin Mao (Shanghai), PSFS (Philly), Petronas (KL) and maybe Le Grande Arche at La Defense.

Golden Gate Bridge. You gotta have a bridge. That would’ve totally roiled the yarbles of the ancients. Other contenders: Sydney Harbor, Brooklyn. The ancients also would be all over the Chunnel.

Chartres, Beauvais or Salisbury. No Gothic cathedrals? You don’t get skyscrapers or bridges without Gothic cathedrals. Come on! Easter Island and Macchu Picchu are Komodo dragons – Beauvais is a Holstein. This is our cultural genetic inheritance, dudes, not some branch that dies off.

What about modernism and the 20th century? Sure it was the century of genocide, but it was also the only American century, and there was tons of cool architecture. My favorite modernist monuments would include: Weissenhofseidlung, Hook of Holland, La Defense, Chandigarh, Parliament at Dhaka. Mumbai Deco, Pudong, Brasilia, US Air Force Academy, New York Capitol, Marin County Courthouse, Salk Institute, IIT, Tel Aviv Bauhaus … out of time… talk to ya tomorrow

Park Ridge: a Fistful of Dollars

March 8, 2007


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Park Ridge, a suburb northwest of Chicago is careening into mediocrity thanks to teardowns that are turning a once-elegant neighborhood into a fast-buck boomtown, a Wild West municipality.

They tore down a Barry Byrne house Monday because contractors (several of them) told them they could get a new house for the same price as rehabbing and adding on to the old house. That is true, if the contractors lack skill.

Fact of the matter: Your new pressboard, gypsum and formaldehyde house with plastic windows can’t last a third as long as the one you already had (clay tile construction – brick basically). You just traded a 1923 Studebaker for a ’07 Kia. You been hustled. Bad.

The photo says Contractor Greed but it isn’t really that simple. There is also laziness. Most contractors in a teardown-happy town like Park Ridge already have had one or two McFinger McMansions approved and they can recycle the plans. It is always easier to build new, requires much less brain work, much less skill. Yes, it is cheaper if you don’t need new plans or you don’t have to pay experienced tradespersons, so greed is definitely there. But there is a fair admixture of laziness.

Barry Byrne was arguably the most original architect trained by Frank Lloyd Wright, a lifelong running friend of Wright’s sons John and Lloyd, a lifelong collaborator with Alfonso Ianelli, one of Chicago’s greatest sculptors (he did the Prudential Rock you know, and the sprites from Midway Gardens in everyone’s backyard). This demolition destroys not one house but five, since they were designed as a group. Now the others are ready to demolish, and one of the three Harold Zook houses next door is for sale and the realtors say it is a teardown too.

Paint the town red. This ain’t no place to live – it is a place to make a fast buck and get the hell out before they start shooting.

Sustainability vs. Architecture

March 5, 2007

angkor wat view

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

This building was built for Lord Vishnu – The Preserver.

You hear a lot about sustainability in architecture and “green” design. Sustainability has become a holy word in urban design and architecture circles. If you wanted to build something in the 1960s, you talked about Progress. If you want to build something in the 1970s or 80s you talked about Community and Diversity. If you want to build something today, invoke the goddess Sustainability.

The problem of course, is that “building something” is inherently unsustainable. Fixing something, improving something is sustainable. The idea that you could demolish a house built before 1950 and replace it with a more sustainable, greener house is either insane or infantile.

Each year in this country we demolish and discard 1,700,000,000 square feet of buildings. That’s 1.7 billion square feet, or 425 Sears Towers. One-third of all of the landfills in the United States is old buildings. Disposable diapers got nothing on demolition refuse. Anyone who tells you they can raze your house and build a greener one isn’t counting the carbon footprint of the demolition itself and where that stuff ends up.

In the early 1960s they celebrated the joys of demolition and the attendant virtues of slum clearance. One of the benefits cited was the productive life demolished buildings would serve in much-needed landfills.

I don’t think that is our view of landfills anymore. They certainly aren’t part of the worship practice for the goddess Sustainability. But the problem is everything we do is framed by an economic system that rewards waste and innovation.

Innovation is Good. Waste is Bad. But you can’t separate them out in the current system – they are interdependent and integral, like Harihara.

Architecture has always (or at least since the Renaissance) defined itself as newness, as innovation. This moves products off the shelves, which is good for the economy. It also has occasionally given architects the devaraja complex. This is aided by our metaphysics, which also (since the Renaissance) has given those who design something new the role of historical agents. In order to DO something, you must CREATE something from nothing. Unlike the Hindu leitmotif herein, there is no role for the preserver, only the destroyer and creator.

You think architecture doesn’t dwell in devaraja complexes? Here is a great quote from Irving K. Pond, a Chicago architect of 1920:

“Among the first to impress upon insensate matter, or materials of the earth earthy, the god within man, was the architect. Probably he was the first to symbolize or interpret social consciousness, the abstract social idealism, in material substance; the first to breathe the breath of life into material forms, holding up to humanity a mirror of its ideals, longings, and aspirations.”

No small brief that. The problem with this godlike formulation is that it ain’t sustainable. Building something new is always less sustainable than fixing something old. The architects know that – 70% of their billable hours are in existing buildings. But don’t tell the economy….

Parks and Politics

March 2, 2007

Morning paper today had a cute contrast “Park vs. Park” between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama based on their Chicago connections: Clinton with Park Ridge and Obama with Hyde Park. They should have noted the preservation differences: Hyde Park has several landmarks and districts and preserves its Barry Byrne buildings, while Park Ridge is hellbent on looking like Orlando and is demolishing a Barry Byrne house. That landed Park Ridge’s Cedar Court development on Landmarks Illinois’ most endangered list (link at right). Hyde Park has more pre-Fire buildings than any other Chicago community and Michele Obama served on the Landmarks Commission. This is looking like a landslide, folks.

BTW – What about the other four property owners on Cedar Court? Depending on what gets built there, it could trash their values.