Posts Tagged ‘Gropius’

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.

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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.

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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ok, that is Mies
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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/