Archive for August, 2009

Pipal and the Peterson Prize

August 26, 2009

Charlie Pipal has taught our Physical Documentation class since the onset of the millenium, and during that time his students have won six Charles E. Peterson prizes in the NATIONAL competition for the best HABS measured drawings. Charlie never takes the credit and always gives it to the students. He is right, but HIS students have done this six times in eight tries, so I would suspect he has something to do with it.

Last year I wrote a blog calling Charlie the Michael Phelps of preservation because his students’ drawings took home not only the fourth Honorable Mention for a set of HABS drawings, but a Third Place!
But now they have really done it: Kudos to Carol Adams, Ginny Way, Mitch Brown, Frank Butterfield, Ceylan Celebiler, Tianyi Jiang, Pam Pietrowsky, Susannah Ribstein, Kathleen Shanley, Noel Weidner, Christine Whims and Teaching Asistant Emily Spreng of Charlie Pipal’s Physical Documentation class because they won FIRST PRIZE this year!
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These are the drawings of the 1924 On Leong Merchants Association Building (now Pui Tak Center) in Chinatown, Chicago. Stunning work by all. I am so proud.

The prestigious Peterson Prize is awarded annually by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) of the National
Park Service, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia and The American Institute of Architects (AIA), and recognizes the best
sets of measured drawings prepared to HABS standards and donated to HABS by students. The drawings will be added to the permanent HABS collection at The Library of Congress.

This is the third Peterson Prize in two years awarded to projects from the SAIC Historic Preservation Program. The previous two were awarded in 2008: a Third Place for drawings of the Pullman Greenstone Church, Chicago; and an Honorable Mention for drawings of the Chicago Athletic Association Building. Drawings from the class also received Honorable Mentions in 2000 (Quinn Chapel), 2005 (Thalia Hall) and 2007 (First Congregational Church, Western Springs). Charlie Pipal taught all of the courses. Don’t tell me he doesn’t have it goin’ on.

Congrats to all!

Style and Authenticity (versus Sustainability)

August 21, 2009

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“Retro” describes the design of a hipster’s bicycle, and “Old World” describes the interior design of a lawyer’s new suburban house. The past, or rather, the FORMS of the past, are popular and thus marketable. They carry connotations that are coveted in 2009.
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A bath remodeling catalogue announces that “recreating a retro look is definitely in vogue” as well as “traditional décor is never out of style.” The homes section of the newspaper defines “Old World” as “a look or a feeling” rather than a style. Both stress the importance of modern conveniences and the ability to realize same within the comforting confines of traditional style.
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I look through the bath catalogue and every fixture looks a hundred years old. I glance across the photos in the new homes section and the details have the same appearance – leaving the massive windows and conspicuous lack of walls to tell you this is a 21st century building. I wonder at a phrase like “recreated the ambience of Old World charm” that would stymie a logician. Talk about nailing jello to a tree.
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I have seen the return of traditional style in the last quarter-century. We could call it a by-product of the preservation movement, especially the mass movement starting in the 1950s and 60s that saw Victorian neighborhoods restored. A guy named Clem Labine started a little newsletter to help his fellow brownstoners find the products they needed to restore these homes in the appropriate style, and today that catalogue is the centerpiece of Restore Media, which runs several magazines and trade shows with restoration workshops across the country.
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Success breeds imitation, and as soon as a sizeable demographic proved their devotion to the past, entrepreneurs decided that it would be simpler to manufacture it than preserve it, and thus we have the plethora of ersatz home styles. This is not a bad thing in an of itself. Most of our historic buildings were themselves, and in their time, trading on historic associations: Colonial purity, Romanesque stability, Classical refinement, Moorish exoticism.
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The problem comes when market demand for modern habit – the ginormous bathroom; the cathedral ceiling – takes over and authentic traditional homes are destroyed because they can’t provide the “authenticity” and convenience we now demand. Of course they can, if you are a talented designer. But we are economically set up for waste, hence the destruction of the old. I remember a decade ago watching the demolition of a fabulous Italianate commercial building on North Avenue, which was replaced – without announced irony – by a Restoration Hardware.
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There are many reasons for preservation, but the most compelling today have to do with sustainability. Historic buildings represent embodied energy and their destruction creates a massive carbon footprint that even a vacuum tube of a building coated in solar panels and windmills circled by winged Priuses can’t erase. Pre-World War II historic buildings can – and usually do – operate more efficiently than all but the most recent green buildings. This is my biggest concern about the mass marketing of authentic traditional retro style – it deceives us into thinking that form always reflects content.

A Better Plan

August 18, 2009

One of the things that has made Landmarks Illinois an effective preservation organization has been its ability to transcend the primal impulse of many preservationists – the “Just Say No” response – and provide a more intelligent way to proceed. When a developer/institution/politician/agency says “This is what we want to do” the preservationist in all of us just wants to shout “no!”. But that is neither effective nor even a complete response. Much, much better to say: here is the better plan that achieves your goals and saves historic buildings.

This is what Landmarks Illinois did this week with their new plan for the 2016 Olympic Village on Chicago’s lakefront – they picked the best Gropius buildings – not all of them – and came up with a more intelligent and sustainable plan – you can see it at http://www.landmarks.org or click at the link on the right.
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The organization actually has a long history of doing this – coming up with a more sustainable plan than what is first proposed. And the plan is usually a compromise – it doesn’t save everything the most ardent preservationists want to save, as is the case here at Michael Reese Hospital campus. Landmarks did it way back in 1980 when the City of Chicago proposed demolishing Block 37. They picked 4 of the 8 historic buildings and proposed a development that met all of the city’s requirements for the block. The city ended up demolishing the whole thing and then letting it sit vacant for 18 years.

They did it several years ago with Soldier Field – developing a new stadium for the Bears while holding onto the history – and National Landmark status – of Soldier Field. The Bears went ahead and modified the field and lost the landmark status.

They did it again with Cook County Hospital, showing how the old hospital could be adaptively re-used for needed office space. That one got enough traction that it came to fruition – albeit with the loss of the rear of the building. But that is what I like about Landmarks Illinois – they know how to save something by coming up with a better plan. You can argue that they should have saved more, but you can never argue that the original plan was better. And it meets the opposition to preservation on its own terms: What do you want? How many square feet, what uses, what plan requirements? Let’s take all of those parameters and do it WHILE saving the best historic buildings.

This is what good planners, good designers, good developers do. They take the MORE creative approach of looking at how all of the programmatic goals can be achieved without starting from scratch. Creativity is not measured by how blank the canvas was at the start. Heck, the vaults of the Sistine Chapel are a huge impediment to a decent painting.

It is a measure of the maturity of an organization like Landmarks Illinois that it chooses to argue for preservation by doing a BETTER job of planning than the opposition. You can argue about the significance and beauty and innovative epoch-shattering character of a building, but it can all be for naught if you can’t show them a better way. As baby preservationists, we first just see those arguments of history and architecture and beauty and human scale. Eventually we learn that we have to speak the language of those who would throw away those qualities. It is a language Landmarks Illinois has mastered over the years.

Longworth’s Caught In The Middle

August 12, 2009

Royce Yeater, Director of the Midwest Office of the National Trust, lent me Richard Longworth’s 2008 book Caught In The Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. It is a compelling read, thanks both to Longworth’s skill (I saved and filed every one of his 2002 Chicago Tribune articles on Europe) as writer and researcher, and also because of what it portends for the future in terms of regionalism, planning, and the survival of place.

Royce warned me that it was depressing, and indeed the book clearly states that many Midwestern towns, cities and places created during the 19th century for an industrial/agricultural economy will not survive into the future. He describes many places that are already emptying out – in the age of globalism there are global cities and there are places that don’t matter so much. Chicago is lucky – it is the global city in the Midwest and it has already adjusted to the new economy, but cities like Cleveland and Detroit are half their historic size and shrinking. Smaller cities dependent on certain industries, like the auto industry swath that stretched from Flint down into Akron are in similar straits, and the era of the megafarm has made hundreds of rural agricultural towns redundant.
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As places become redundant and people leave them, they become ghost towns to some extent. Their buildings and streets become redundant and fall into disrepair, or they become meth labs and plunge headlong into despair. Young people go to the big cities, even in the 1980s when I lived in Wicker Park it seemed all my friends were from Michigan. Heck, almost everyone in Manhattan is from somewhere else.
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The reason the outlook is grim for preservationists is obvious – if you have an historic town like Galesburg that loses its industrial raison d’etre – a lot of historic buildings will go vacant and die as well. Longworth describes some smaller towns that survive because they are within commuting distance of a big town that still functions as an agricultural processing center. And of course, in the age of the internet certain people can live anywhere and stay in touch and in business electronically. I recently visited an old friend who does just that near Savanna, Illinois. But the idea of business people living anywhere came with the telegraph, not the internet, and the reality – as Longworth notes – is that people want face-to-face contact and the successful global cities attract lots of creative young people who want to be around others.

Much of the book describes the trains that have already left the station – the family farm is not coming back, and subsidies to farmers accelerated that process. Yes, organic farming and local farming via farmer’s markets is more sustainable and has made headway, but that is still a tiny boutique portion of the marketplace. The corn and soybeans of the Midwest are in competition with China, the Ukraine and Brazil , or even Saudi Arabia as a full tenth of the corn becomes ethanol.
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The industrial transformation is even more dramatic and complicated. Not only has tons of industry abandoned the Midwest – we were talking about the Rust Belt three decades ago – for the South and China, but the industry that remains is really, really different. Caterpillar is still in Peoria, Harley-Davison in Milwaukee and cars are still in Detroit, but they are modern industries. Gary produces more steel than ever – but it does so with one-tenth of the workforce. Moreover, modern factories no longer employ high-school graduates – you need at least a couple years of college to operate the computers that operate the machines on the assembly line.
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Longworth is particularly damning of the educational system – most Midwestern states spend more on prisoners than students, and even the so-called public universities – the great land-grant schools like Illinois and Michigan and Wisconsin and Indiana – are now major research institutions that are becoming increasingly private as research grants grow and state support vanishes. By next year, the University of Michigan may get as little as 3 percent of its budget from the state. That’s not a public school anymore. He chides the Midwestern ethic of “it’s good enough” for perpetuating an educational system that got people through high school so they could work on assembly lines or farms – but that doesn’t cut it anymore.
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Longworth’s primary frustrations have to do with the fact that the Upper Midwest is – and always has been – an economic and cultural region, but it is hopelessly divided by outdated political divisions. In terms of education, he longs for a California system that would allow various Midwestern schools to play to their strengths rather than duplicating each other – and giving all Midwest students “in-state” tuition. Given the extent that states DON’T support their schools, the idea makes complete sense.

He is similarly frustrated by governmental divisions determined by horses and buggies. Counties and townships and even state capitals often make little sense in a global world and indeed impede our ability to compete globally. He repeats the legendary story that county seats were located so that young couples could travel there for a marriage license and get home by nightfall, thus “forestalling any twilight hanky-panky among the hedgerows.” He advocates getting rid of the redundant counties while retaining the old courthouses as museums “which is what they really are.” Thus the recent Richard Driehaus initiative through Landmarks Illinois, saving and drawing attention to the historic courthouses – but they need new uses, especially as their counties depopulate.
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Globalism’s most obvious aspect is the urban-rural split (look at China), which in the Midwest is already a long-running political battle that the new economy has only made worse. Chicago’s epic battles with Springfield are symptomatic, but other states are also divided, and the economic divisions exacerbate the split: Most of Wisconsin’s economy is in Milwaukee and the forty miles north of the Illinois border – a huge chunk of the Indiana economy revolves around Indianapolis. Old political divisions haunt the REAL economic divisions of the Midwest like ghosts of a bygone era. Chicago is famous for having 1200 separate units of government. I have a friend who got rid of one of those, but he is the exception. The worst aspect of the multiple jurisdictions is that they compete with each other for economic development – which drags the region down because they are fighting over scraps rather than banding together to land real global industries that would benefit the region and play to its strengths – like bioscience industries which by all rights should be in and around the Midwestern farms and research universities but end up in California because that’s where the VCs are. If the Big 10 schools got together and the Midwestern states got together they could lure the VC to the Midwest and create Soybean Alley or Switchgrass Plains or whatever you want to call it but right now the money sits on the coasts and collects all the good talent from the Midwest.

This is a great read and a call to action. It is also a dire prediction for a wealth of historic resources in a series of shrinking communities. But that is always the preservation challenge – finding the new use in the new economy for the embedded energy and place quality that survives from the past as a physical, economic and aesthetic resource.

I like the Midwest and I think Chicago is making a go of it in the global economy – as much as we wring our hands about the details, I think we will get the 2016 Olympics seven weeks from now, in spite of the local political culture – BECAUSE of one local politician who is currently the most impressive leader in the world. The real future challenge lies with our politicians and university administrators and their ability to see the future and make common cause. At the National Trust, we already see the Midwest as a region – maybe the Midwest will see itself that way as well.
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2016: Chicago Plan or Chicago Way?

August 7, 2009

On the front page of the Chicago Tribune today is an article about a Chicago Olympic committee member who is also a real estate developer and how the Olympics will help him develop numerous parcels near Douglas Park, an Olympic venue site. On page 11 is an article about the city’s landmark commission voting against landmark status for the Michael Reese hospital complex, site of eight buildings by Walter Gropius and site of the proposed Olympic Village, which the city will deliver to another developer after spending about $100 million on acquisition and demolition.
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This is all more of the same, a familiar pattern in Chicago, which has every right to become a world city but seems intent on doing so without disrupting its long reliance on politically connected real estate deals. Not surprising, not necessarily illegal, but disappointing because it treats the physical fabric of the city as a liquid asset, not a character-defining element.
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This is the 100th anniversary of the Plan of Chicago, the 1909 Burnham and Bennett document that crafted such a compelling vision for the future of the city that we still refer to it more often and with more affection than any city plan since. There are two pavilions spending the summer in Millennium Park as part of the celebration of this centennial, along with a whole slate of other activities.
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Chicago’s strong candidacy for the 2016 Olympics should be an opportunity to rekindle the visionary spirit of Burnham and Bennett, and there are aspects of the plan that do so. I am enough of a realist to understand there will be deals cut and politicians will take advantage. To a certain extent they did that 100 years ago, but what survives today is a bold plan that rose above petty temporal interests. What will we leave for 2116?

I regularly share with my students the October 1992 issue of the journal Chicago Enterprise, in which Rob Mier and Laurel Lipkin interviewed seven major figures in Chicago real estate. They were asked what their vision for the city was as they redeveloped it in the decades after the Second World War. In their own words, they professed NO VISION AT ALL. Harry Chaddick, who wrote the city’s second zoning code, defining its land values and development potential for a half century, said “I took on the job of rezoning Chicago because Parky Cullerton asked me to when he couldn’t get anyone else to do it. I worked on it for five years, developing a complete inventory of the city’s land use. I did it with no vision in mind, merely figuring out how the city’s land was being used.” Ferd Kramer, who redeveloped huge swaths of the South Side, said “I never had a vision for the city exactly. I guess you could say I had one for the communities I worked in.” Marshall Holleb described “street deals” that developed loads of lakefront land and Miles Berger said “I can’t take credit for any kind of vision for Chicago.” Phil Klutznick, who built Park Forest and Water Tower Place, claimed the latter “was not a visionary project” and Marshall Bennett said of postwar development: “It didn’t take vision because the market was fantastic. You had to be an idiot not to make lots of money. Really. I’m not kidding.”
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Well, I guess that’s the Chicago Way. And that is why we don’t remember the plans made since 1909. Maybe the developers who have reshaped the city in the wake of the urban renaissance of the 1990s and 2000s would come off better if asked the same question today, and certainly Chicago’s positive trajectory since the 1980s stands in contrast to the decline that preceded it. But reading the newspaper today gives little cause for hope.

2016 could be the opportunity for another grand vision for the Sustainability Century, one that encourages the reuse of city fabric and requires development to reveal its true costs to taxpayers and to the environment. Or not.