Archive for May, 2008

The Contract

May 21, 2008

“Landmarks serve a community by providing a point of reference, an element of 
identity, and a source of pride. The community serves landmarks by providing
 for their protection, interpretation, and enhancement. We preserve landmarks
 because our history is part of us. Our historical built environment tells us
 where we came from and why we do what we do. When we lose landmarks, we lose a
 part of ourselves.”

I wrote these words twenty years ago when I worked at the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and in the early 1990s they adorned our Annual Report. In 2003 LPCI Chairman John Stassen quoted them during the Annual Meeting, held at the Humboldt Park boathouse and I walked up to him afterwards and told him that I had written those words in that same park. I was driving and thinking about why we preserve landmarks, and that trinity of environment, identity and emotion came to me so I pulled over in Humboldt Park and wrote it down. John asked me to email him the precise quotation last week as I was leaving for Denver and I did.

It seems to me that they still make sense, and they resonated yesterday when I was interviewed by a film crew documenting the restoration of the Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center and I talked about that place as a place of shared identity and civic pride, just like Millennium Park and the Reliance Building and Carson Pirie Scott, soon to be a Loop grocer. And they make sense because they are phrased in terms of a social contract, a formulation often forgotten in our recent national brush with radical individualism.

There are social contracts – commons, I believe the legal eagles call them – everywhere in our lives and especially in our environment, for while we may be moving to a world of virtual networks and virtual identities, we still move about and in doing so we must share space with others and the space we share is also an element of identity that we share and unless it is our mission to obliterate our neighbor’s identity we have a responsibility to preserve because it is our identity too.

Other things….

The Michigan Avenue Streetwall made the National Trust’s list of the Eleven Most Endangered Places in the U.S. The plan to facadomize the Chicago Athletic Association was the trigger, but the fate of the rest of the wall – where Millennium Park has driven values and building profiles skyward – is why it made the list. There is apparently a new plan that saves 2/3 of the building rather than 1/3, which means someone is listening, even if they aren’t “getting it.” They are responding to objections, but I doubt they have accepted the social contract implied.


We had great visits to the newest National Trust site, the Hotel De Paris in Georgetown, which is a fabulous historic town well worth a visit, and the Four Mile House, and the Navarre, an 1874 girls school that became an infamous bordello in the 1880s. This led University of Colorado preservation educator Tom Noel – in an extremely funny speech – to bring up the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which encourage that buildings we re-used for their original purpose when possible. Noel described the challenge presented by the one-time bordello and the rather elegant re-use solution: law offices. He then, in the tradition of Western tall-tale-telling, reported that the prostitutes objected to this re-use as a smirch upon their good name, since there were some things they would never do for money.

This humorous experience collides with my everyday in my new old house and makes me wonder about how spaces are always repurposed, and indeed as I approached the house – must be repurposed. Preservation is not about museums, and our Historic Sites meeting emphasized that. The trend, the goal and the overarching purpose of historic sites today is not about the past. Nor is it even about that limited (albeit large) sector of tourism. Historic sites today need to be place-based, not past-based. That is what that social contract I enunciated many years ago said: this is about place, and the place place occupies in you and me and us together.

Only of course I said it much better twenty years ago because youth does have its advantages….


Commencement Speech

May 12, 2008

Vincent L. Michael remarks 10 May 2008 UIC

Members of the Board of Trustees, Interim Chancellor Gislason, Dean Hulse, Dean Kirshner, members of the faculty, fellow graduates and honored guests…

I am honored and grateful to be addressing you at the UIC college of architecture and the arts graduation. I am honored by the degree, the institution I am receiving it from, and most of all, by the faculty and students who comprise this institution. I am grateful for the support of my family – my parents Tom and Lorrie, my wife Felicity and my children Felicity and Alexandra. I am humbled by those who surround me, particularly Professor Bob Bruegmann, who pushed me to do something new and different with my dissertation. He demanded that I question my assumptions, predispositions and beliefs. To continually question, inquire and reach outside of your comfort zone is the essence of education.

We are honoring the great Chicagoan Walter Netsch for the campus he designed. These buildings are forever part of our shared experience. I liked learning in this environment. I daresay they have a noble simplicity and a quiet majesty. But we also learned in the larger environment, in the city of Chicago. UIC is not limited to its campus but uses the city itself, a city that has been questioning and reaching and growing throughout its history. Chicago’s tradition of innovation in thought and design is manifest here every day and has enriched us all.

As graduates in architecture and fine arts I could tell you about form and content, about creativity and craft, about design and dialectics but you know that already – that is why you are graduating. I’d rather talk about excitement. I began my doctoral studies nearly two decades after I had completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I was already a teacher. Nonetheless, the overwhelming reaction I had from the day I started at UIC was excitement. Excitement. I had forgotten how much fun it was to be a student. I was excited – and impressed – by the quality of UIC faculty, their accomplishments and their skill at creating a lively debate. I was excited by the participation and enthusiasm of my fellow students.

Learning is not a one-way street. It is not even a two-way street. Learning is more like the highway cloverleaf that this campus was named after more than forty years ago, an endless flow of turning, dipping, rising, speeding and merging on every level. While I was here I could not wait to take another class, devour another book, enter into another discussion and attempt another exam. Everything about it was exciting.

This excitement came from the opportunity for scholarly inquiry – the opportunity to question, inquire and extend beyond your comfort zone. Education is the opposite of the soporific. It is the thrill of leaning over the edge of complacency. This excitement about learning drove me here and I hope it drove you here and I hope it keeps driving us for the rest of our lives.

Another great Chicagoan, John Dewey, said that education is not preparation for life; education is life. That was the feeling I had going to school here. The faculty and the students, the campus and the city constantly engendered the inquisitive, overreaching vitality that animates human experience. I hope that feeling never goes away.


May 6, 2008

They demolished the Berwyn Spindle but they might re-erect it because they saved the two top cars, which makes me wonder which cars they will choose – this was a spindle of 1970s cars, after all, which still had elegant lines, unlike the box-cars of the 1980s, and I can’t imagine the Beetle and the T-Bird topping out a short stack of c. 1999 Escorts and Corollas or even nasty Buicks. I suppose it is like a totem pole, in which case it should span time, but I think the original effect of this spike of cars in a parking lot was to suggest that your car could belong there as well and if all of the spindled vehicles are out of date the piece means something else entirely….

This is the last week for the “Squandered” show at CAF and I am in it but it is still worth seeing and there have been a great series of events along with it, the most recent being Daniel Bluestone’s lecture last Wednesday, which summarized all of his interesting research into the history of preservation in Chicago and the idea of an “aesthetics of eclipse” provided by layers of history in the landscape. I guess that is why I wonder so hard what kind of cars they will put on the new Spindle, since its original criticality depending on the abnegation of such an aesthetics of eclipse but with a Beetle on top how can you do that?

Our students presented their final thesis topics last Friday and they did a great job and Walker Johnson FAIA was there to re-present the Peterson Prize to the Class of 2008 and Professor Charlie Pipal.
pipal, johnson, rainka, little, patel, blasius, shymanski
Also we opened our end-of-year show on the 12th floor of Carson’s in the AIADO space which includes the resurrected volute from the 1926 Granada Theater by Eichenbaum – this was the piece that was infamously smashed to bits by a moving company this January when they surprise moved our studios and resource center.

Too bad, but Craig Deller’s class did a great job with it.

Irit Rogoff gave a keynote for the Master’s presentations that was really pretty cool and helped organize some thoughts I had in a month-old rambling blog draft that has yet to see the light of day. That evening the wonderful Mira Patel – who gets the prize for the first finished thesis turned in! – hosted us for an end-of-year gathering in her highrise. Saturday I was back at school to talk about First Year Program and Sunday I saw Rebecca Keller’s class’ intervention/installation at Pleasant Home, a series of intriguing pieces inspired by the history of the place, including a pantryload of cinnamon plates, roller skating John Farson stickers, an etched egg chandelier, hurdy gurdy types and ceramics cormers. Rebecca’s piece took the honeysuckle – one of the architectural themes of the house – and presented it “preserved” – dried and colorless in a closed box – and “living” green and lustrous in a vase, which pretty much summarizes my ideas about house museums and the goal of preservation.
Rebecca Keller\'s preserved and living honeysuckles at Pleasant Home

I made beer for the first time in almost six months last week so life is returning after the longest winter and the biggest move and Wednesday I am in Elgin talking about windows and Thursday thesis class and Roger Brown Study Collection Steering Committee and Friday the neighbors come over to warm the house and Saturday I get a hood and give a commencement speech and of course Sunday is Mother’s Day and the following weekend is Denver and then the following weekend China….

in the middle of the night

May 3, 2008


Originally uploaded by vincusses

Last night, in the middle of the night they demolished the Berwyn Spindle, an artwork of cars and commentary in a Berwyn strip mall that was once bedecked with simlar works. Local efforts to save it and the fact that it was the suburb’s most famous landmark did not help.

Well, they helped enough that the demolition occurred in the middle of the night, like a crime. It reminds me of other middle-of-the-night demolitions, from the sheds behind Dearborn Station in the 70s, the DeKalb Post Office in 1990, even lots of suburban teardowns where the owners know the neighbors will object. Demolition at night, under the cover of darkness, a wholesale admission that what you are doing is wrong, or at least viewed as wrong by society.