Posts Tagged ‘Chicago Olympics’

Olympics in Chicago 2016

September 30, 2009

It is potentially foolhardy to predict the future, even on the Orwellian internet that allows you to rewrite history as fast as you can type, but the fact of the matter is it is September 30 and Chicago has not been awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics but the POTUS is going to shill for the city at the IOC meeting in Copenhagen so I think we are the team to beat.

Some of my friends are totally against this, for reasons ranging from the obvious public cost and funding issues to the landmarks issues, which include permanent alteration of the most intact Frederick Law Olmsted landscape in Chicago – Washington Park – to demolition of a bunch of Walter Gropius buildings for the Olympic Village. Those issues are still there and they are not finalized, although the city is proceeding with the demolition for the Olympic Village with typical clumsiness, most recently half-demolishing the Laundry Building with a comically clumsy asbestos-abatement that involves a lot of plastic wrap blowing in the wind. Hmmm. Seems to defeat the purpose.

I was in the Bird’s Nest and outside the Water Cube this summer in Beijing. Heck, I saw them last summer from a distance. For Beijing it wasn’t about money, it was about pride. They ALMOST won the right for the 2000 games – that was a tough loss and they knocked it out of the park in terms of an event and promotion of the home nation and even the home city.

I guess it is pride that makes me lean toward wanting the Olympics. The funding issues don’t bother me – Millenium Park was four years late a hundreds of millions over budget and two weeks after it opened it didn’t matter. Every citizen felt a part of that place and made that place their own and the park is kicking off 20 times its construction cost in nearby rehab and development.

The landmark issues do bother me. Gropius is not my favorite architect, but he has a lot of the 20th century resting on his back and to have a near south side in an American city with a chunk of Mies on one side and a chunk of Gropius on the other side is an architectural historian’s fantasy island. Forget the Wiessenhofsiedlung: check out Michael Reese and IIT.

Washington Park is an area of concern. Our best bet after the temporary stadium goes is a 2,500 seat amphitheater that might disappear like the ha-ha of a Jacobean castle. Might. From some angles. I still don’t get why they can’t put it on the mostly empty blocks just east of the park – and closer to the ‘L.”

I traveled the world 23 years ago and everyone asked me whether Chicago was near Los Angeles or New York. And how was Al Capone. I came back and realized Chicago is as worthy of attention as any great city I have seen. It is what it is, and it is a city that can sit with Barcelona and Rio and Beijing and Athens and Rome and London and Seoul and Sydney.

22 years ago Le Monde said Chicago’s great contributions to world culture were the blues and architecture. Yes. Sure you got the wink-wink politics (that ain’t beanbag) and development deals that seem crafted out of Play-Doh in a nursery school and a funding scenario that looks like it is sailing off the edge of the earth and some real important historic resources that may – or may not – be ruined in the less-than-transparent process, but…

maybe sitting on that stage will remind others to make us realize what we have.

FRIDAY AM UPDATE: The decision is a few hours away. Eric Zorn’s piece in the Trib today nailed it: having the Olympics is like having a child. It doesn’t make practical or economic sense; it is about love. Colleague Craig Downs put it well on FB: if we get it I will be happy; if we don’t, I will be relieved. That’s about right.

10:22 AM. Apparently Chicago flubbed the final presentation. Rio is now the favorite.

11:37 AM. Totally flubbed it. We finished last. Yow. Now what are we gonna do with those Gropius buildings? Good news for Washington Park. And cricket.

12:23 PM. Rio wins. I guess that was sort of obvious in retrospect. Sex appeal. Nobody beats Rio in terms of sex appeal. Eric Zorn was right about the nature of the decision, just wrong about who the IOC wanted to impregnate.

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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.
MRH friendS
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.

Gropius in Chicago

March 16, 2009

Grahm Balkany, a student at IIT, the school designed by the great Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, has uncovered a surprising amount of evidence that Mies’ fellow modernist Walter Gropius had a hand in as many as 8 of the buildings at Michael Reese Hospital, the venue for the planned Olympic Village 2016. While the 2016 committee has always said they would save the main building, by local hospital heavyweights and sometime Prairie specialists Schmidt, Garden and Martin, the Gropius buildings are a big question mark at best. I saw Balkany’s presentation and it was very impressive – Gropius’ name appears on drawings as well as that of his firm and local planning director Reginald Isaacs. And as Balkany told the Landmarks Illinois’ Issues Committee, once you start looking at the buildings….
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These are the only Gropius buildings in Illinois, much less Chicago, and they are part of a near South Side that is an essay in modernist planning, flanked by Prairie Shores, Lake Meadows, and to the west, IIT.
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All of a sudden, it seems near South side Chicago is a Gropiusstadt, and the parallels in materials and idiom between the works of the Bauhaus’ first and last directors is stunning.
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iit-typicals
ok, that is Mies
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iit-modeules
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It’s like a showdown between two architectural Olympians, and it’s all here.

The Gropius in Chicago website is at http://www.savemrh.com/home/