Archive for April, 2009

Tuesday: Unity and Sustainability

April 29, 2009

Yesterday I brought my class to Unity Temple for the announcement of this iconic landmark’s listing on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List for 2009. As a Trustee, I got to make the announcement. It is a challenging issue, because Unity Temple is threatened not by demolition, but by deterioration. Moreover, it has a congregation that has spent $750,000 on maintenance in the last five years plus the separate Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, which has raised $3 million for restoration during the same period. The problem, however, is even bigger, and the building needs a national and international community to save it. Village President David Pope offered a compelling analogy: the local community of monks that used Angkor Wat did not have the resources to preserve it.
I stressed the international significance of the building – how the Schroeder House in Utrecht, the Dessau Bauhaus and the Farnsworth House would not be possible without Unity Temple. It really is a stunning place and every time I go I discover something new and wonderful. I quoted Alice Sinkevitch who in the AIA Guide called it “a transcendent work, bound to the earth and open to the heavens.” Gunny Harboe described the architectural challenges: failing plaster and concrete in the roof systems, exacerbated by some bad repairs and the fact that reinforced concrete just was not very well understood here in 1906.
The building has made it 100 years. The question now is the next century and whether we can find the resources to save it.

Our class toured the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio after lunch and then it was back downtown for Doug Farr’s lecture on Sustainable Urbanism, which was well worth it. He has written the book on the subject and over the last dozen years has built a practice that stresses not only green designed buildings and historic preservation, but the “integrated design” of the new planning, which stresses a systemic analysis of buildings, landscape, and human conduct. His biggest point is that we are still used to thinking about sustainability and green as a product choice, when in fact technology in all its marvel can only accomplish half of the goal. The other half must come from altered human conduct. And humans are problematic. You produce a more efficient car, and humans drive it more. Produce a more efficient house, we make it bigger. The net gain in terms of emissions, energy use, etc. ends up being nothing. Doug showed a funny slide from The Onion newspaper where the headline said a majority of Americans favored public transit for other people. It is like building highways – the more you build, the more they drive. Farr’s goal is to get us driving like we were in 1970 – maybe 4,000 miles a year. Driving was fun then. Now we drive over 10,000 miles a year and it is a chore. He compared it to drugs and alcohol – you do it a few times and it might be fun. You do it a bunch and it is a debilitating addiction.

And the way we design buildings is code-driven, which is ultimately lawsuit-driven. Our building codes are designed to protect people from fires and structural collapse, issues which affect a few thousand lives a year. Meanwhile, up to half a million people a year die from obesity – Americans add a pound a year after age 30. A simple walk to a train station or up a few flights of stairs could halt that trend. Again, Farr had a funny slide showing an escalator going up to a fitness center.

At any rate, Farr is a national leader at looking at the interrelationship of these issues. LEED began as a checklist for buildings and for the last five years Farr chaired LEED for Neighborhood Development, which is developing a more integrated approach to development that addresses these issues. The LEED ND guidelines have been studied by the Center for Disease Control and found to also promote more healthy living.
And there is a preservation angle as well. As we began to drive more, we devalued buildings and the landscape. Their details and appearance just didn’t matter the faster you drove, and especially as driving became a chore and addiction rather than a treat and a joy. It isn’t just that we devalued historic buildings – we devalued ALL buildings.
To promote change (and his book) Farr has bumper stickers that say “Your SUV makes you look fat” and buttons reading “Sex is better within 1/4 mile of public transit.” Women prefer the stickers and men like the buttons. Doug gave me a button.


State Reopens

April 23, 2009

Late last year I wondered in this blog how the Governor (Blagojevich) could close 11 state historic sites when tourism was the state’s top industry. Then he was indicted on a variety of pay-to-play charges and today Governor Quinn has reopened the sites, including the must-see Dana Thomas House in Springfield by Frank Lloyd Wright, Fort de Chartres (the oldest state site), the Lincoln Log Cabin, Carl Sandburg’s birthplace in Galena, and the amazing Bishop Hill Colony. This is good news!

Dumb Down

April 16, 2009

Well, the Public Building Commission is taking bids (RFQ actually) to demolish ALL of the Michael Reese campus for the Olympic Village, now that the IOC committee has been shown a lovely vision of loveliness that could only come from renderings and never from reality. This means not only the recently documented eight buildings by Walter Gropius (the only ones in Illinois) but also the Schmidt, Garden and Martin building that was shown as being preserved in the plans for the village. This is dumb, and both Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago have said so.
I would like to have the Olympics in Chicago. I am proud of Chicago because it has always innovated in architecture and planning. Why stop now?
It’s not that you have to save everything. It is NEVER that. It’s that you have to at least look at the more sustainable, more energy-savvy option of saving things. You have to do your homework. Can these buildings be rehabilitated as the Olympic Village? Do they have the lovely lake views shown to the IOC? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Maybe they can be rehabilitated efficiently, maybe not. WE DON’T KNOW. And with this call for demolition, WE WILL NEVER KNOW.
Why – at the moment when you are about to stride onto the world stage as a player – would you pull a punk move like this? Jim Peters, President of Landmarks Illinois, called the demolition without reuse study “premature” and “foolhardy”. I think it also hurts the bid. The rest of the world knows about this architecture.

To learn more about the Gropius buildings, see this Monday’s presentation by Grahm Balkany at 5:30 PM at the Haefele showroom, 154 W. Hubbard in Chicago – registration required – check for updates.

TUESDAY UPDATE: Now the city is saying again they will save the Schmidt Garden building (first one pictured). They are saying the others are not feasible to save. Could be. Could not be. Will they prove it?

WEDNESDAY UPDATE: See Blair Kamin in the Chicago Tribune on this issue today. He makes the point about the Private Pavilion (second image above) which looks like it could easily be re-used for exactly the purposes needed. Wouldn’t it be nice to know whether or not it is?

One of the links talks about the LEED rating plans for the new Olympic Village. Will that offset the amount of debris and dust and waste created by demolishing a dozen multistory buildings? Or we will just skip that analysis as well?

THURSDAY UPDATE: Don’t miss Lynn Becker’s excellent article on this in the current Chicago Reader.


April 13, 2009

I am reading Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing which is an excellent journal about the death and life of a traditional Beijing hutong, which is a narrow lane of courtyard houses. I was reading about how the planners and developers considered these areas slums even though they functioned extremely well and served more as incubators of improvement and socialization than harbingers of decay. Yet a crime and statistics that “proved” the area was overcrowded were enough to mark it for demolition.
As Meyer described it, I thought immediately of Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities and the story of Boston’s North End, which was statistically a slum but visibly NOT. I only had to turn the page and Meyer told of Herbert Gans’ 1959 article on Boston’s North End and Jacobs’ coverage of the same subject and her wonderful term for what was happening in these traditional “stable, low-rent areas:” Unslumming.
Wow. There it is. For the last quarter century we have had only the term “gentrification” but the problem with that term is that it describes something that can happen with old buildings – like much of the near north side of Chicago or Wicker Park – OR with new buildings, like those unprotected areas near Old Town and Wicker Park where the values rise so fast and high that the developers are putting up $2 million Lollapallazzos on spec. Like this one on Burling. Which is probably $5 million.
But “unslumming” DOESN’T happen with new buildings. It only happens with old buildings. I had forgotten Jacobs’ term, but it exactly describes what happened in North Kenwood and Oakland in the early 1990s, which I chronicled in Future Anterior four years ago (
In Meyers’ Dazhalan hutong in Beijing, as in the 1950s North End and 1990s North Kenwood, people with middle-class aspirations were unslumming their neighborhoods by rebuilding them bit by bit and little by little and with the existing buildings. But – as Meyers’ quotes Jacobs – such neighborhoods are doomed because no one is making a fortune on them. No fortunes, no big plans, no developers, just tons and tons of incremental improvements in safety, in socialization, in economic strength, in morality and education. A brilliant story of reclaimed humanity and human progress, but one with no place in our limited, clumsy economy.
It’s funny. In politics this Spring, the LOSERS are whining about socialism but when it comes to real estate development, it works the same under socialism and capitalism. I noticed it when I first went to China in 2003: In communist China huge skyscrapers were built not because they were needed but because their were pension funds that needed to invest in real estate, whereas in capitalist USA huge skyscrapers were built not because they were needed but because their were pension funds that needed to invest in real estate.
Neither country makes room for the aspiring middle class that wants to do what Jacobs counseled: Save the people and fix the buildings. But in socialist China, that approach doesn’t show enough progress fast enough for government officials and it doesn’t show enough profit for wealthy developers. In capitalist USA, that approach doesn’t show enough progress fast enough for government officials and it doesn’t show enough profit for wealthy developers. So you see the difference, right? Right?
Preservation as we know it today derives from a postwar effort to rebuild with what was already there. It was opposed to centralized planning in the form of urban renewal and it was opposed to catastrophic development in the form of big projects. Preservation actually points the way toward a third economics, a democratic economics that frees us from the clumsy hands of the cadres and the equally clumsy hands of the hedge fund managers, from the destructive tendencies of two outdated approaches to city building.

I & M Canal

April 10, 2009

I gave a tour of the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor on Wednesday – well, half of it, since it is a 100 miles long and you can only do about half of it in a day. We went through Willow Springs, Lemont and then spent time in Lockport and Joliet, visiting OF COURSE the Gaylord Building in Lockport and the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet. I have been doing this tour for OVER 25 years, so it provided some reflection on how much progress there has been over that period of time, but I also noted – having done the same tour for the Art Institute last summer – how much progress there has been in the last 10 months.
There is now a “Rialto Arts District” featuring three galleries around the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet. There are even more sculptures and murals in that town (and a few less landmarks). The best change is undoubtedly the reopened Public Landing in Lockport, which provides incredibly great vistas of the Gaylord Building and most importantly, from an interpretive point of view, allows you to see how the Gaylord and Norton buildings functioned during their heyday as transshipment warehouses for grain and goods traveling from farm to canal to market.
When I first took a tour group along this route in the fall of 1983, the Gaylord Building was a rotting hulk and a fifth of Joliet’s residents were unemployed. I remember how impatient I was in my 20s at the progress of this grand experiment – the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor – which Jerry Adelmann envisioned. But it has happened. And I’ve gotten older and perhaps less impatient.

Speaking of Jerry, our friend Professor Fan Jianhua of Yunnan will be speaking today at Noon in the 112 S. Michigan Avenue Building about the Architectural Treasures of Weishan. Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao and I will be taking 14 students to Weishan this May to continue work on the preservation of the Weishan Heritage Valley – a national heritage corridor in China which has some roots in Lockport and Jerry’s work. We met with the students Thursday night and they are stoked. Our project will be trying to figure out ways to modernize traditional courtyard homes with modern conveniences, like plumbing.
This is a VERY busy semester. I looked at my “to do” list and it had 20 categories – not 20 things to do, 20 CATEGORIES of things to do – like my three classes, my program, my consulting job, my six or seven boards, and all those extras like tours and lectures. more to come….

Whan that Aprille

April 5, 2009

Another blistering blitz of bleary activity for the ever weary never teary preservation professional during the last week. Thursday we had a followup with our Burnham Centennial Bold Plans partner communities as they prepare for their practice tours this month. You can go on one or two of the tours during Chicago’s Great Places and Spaces May 16 – Pilsen, Albany Park, Quad Communities/Bronzeville, Auburn-Gresham, South Chicago and the Indo-American Heritage Museum of West Ridge.
Ahh, Winneconna Parkway – I first learned of this hidden Chicago treasure back when I was on Chicago Ed’s late night radio show with the Chicago History panel in the 90s. Ed died this year and I occasionally see Vic Giustino, but I wonder about Ken Little, Father John McNallis, Bob Heinlein and some of the other regulars.
Back to 2009. Friday we had a morning meeting on High Speed rail, which is a long-standing (and therefore shovel-ready) plan to institute faster trains between Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis. Our concern at the Gaylord Building in Lockport (where I am Chair of the Site Council) is that the trains run right by the building, subjecting it to vibrations but more importantly, cutting through the National Register district that connects the Gaylord Building (1838) to the Will County Historical Society (1837) and the downtown district on State Street (1830s-1930s) and of course the Norton Building (1855) across the Public Landing. This is of especial concern now that the Public Landing has become the Lincoln Landing (see February post) and resembles its historic character.
This is NOT a matter of supporting High Speed Rail – it is simply a matter of using an alternate existing track that doesn’t carve through the historic district. Unlike almost every other site in the State of Illinois – these buildings PREDATED the railroads.
By the way, the high-speed rail is a bit of a misnomer. Due to the surfeit of grade crossings through this historic corridor, the trains won’t be able to exceed 80 mph or so – all of the “high speed” will be below Joliet. We won’t be competing with the Europeans or Japanese on this project, although knocking the trip to St. Louis to 4 hours from 5 will make the crucial difference in terms of competing with air travel.
Later Friday, I picked up our great friend Professor Jianhua Fan of Yunnan, a key supporter of our Weishan Heritage Valley project. Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao and I will be bringing a bunch of students there this summer and Fan will be lecturing this FRIDAY APRIL 10 at NOON on the Architectural Treasures of Weishan in the ballroom of our 112 S. Michigan Building. Please come.
Fan is mad about photography and I took him on a chilly but sunny walk through Chicago Saturday morning as he ran through 4 rolls of 2 1/4 and god knows how many digital shots.
We need people to visit our city so we see those parts we don’t always see, just like the Olympic committee that has been visiting this week. There is an anti-Olympic sentiment out there which I don’t share, although I do share doubts about the money side of things. I suppose I could look to financial experts to sort that out. If there were any. Anywhere.
For the preservation world, the Olympic issues deal with the venue sites, notably the Olympic Village, which could – but likely won’t – reuse the Gropius buildings at the Michael Reese Hospital site.
And of course the temporary 80,000 seat track and field stadium in Washington Park, our greatest Frederick Law Olmsted landscape. Again, there is a way to do it right. And a dozen ways to do it wrong.
Irony alert: As I blogged a couple of years ago, Chicago built an 80,000 seat track and field stadium in an attempt to win the Olympics. In the 1920s. It was called Soldier Field and a few years ago we converted it into a football stadium seating 2/3 its original capacity. Oops.

19 hour update: Check out the excellent op-ed piece by Dick Moe in the New York Times today: