Posts Tagged ‘UIC’

Hull House Again

March 10, 2009

Well, I took my grad students to the Jane Addams Hull House Museum and Director Lisa Lee did it again – wowed everyone with her enthusiasm and creativity in reimagining what a house museum is. Not that Jane Addams’ Hull House was ever a typical house museum – preserved under duress during the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the house was sort of a shrine to Addams herself and the institution she created, which still exists elsewhere. It was also subject to an absolutely bizarre restoration – you can see my 2003 research on the subject at
Addams was all about the radical democracy of speech and free interchange of ideas, and solidarity much more than service. The “residents” of Hull House were people who could live elsewhere but chose to live among working class immigrants, not simply to “help” them but to be with them and learn from them. It was a melding of public and private space and it was an extension of the ideals of a nurturing family to the entire city. I learn something new everytime I go there. They have even started the cell phone tours that will soon be EVERYWHERE
Anyway, Lisa reported that they recently received an NEH grant to put into practice her radical reimagining of this historic site. They are going to restore Jane Addams’s bedroom while they continue to make the main floor of the house a hybrid interactive museum space that interprets the many stories of Hull House, of the women (and some men) who gave us public health, public schools, playgrounds, parks, child labor laws, universal suffrage and a whole lot of art. Lisa talked about art today and it was a taut reminder that art must be in the everyday because it acculturates the other things we do. I suppose many schools will cut art in the name of the current economic conditions, as they often do, but it is no more separable from the body politic than your left arm. Yes, you can cut it off, but the rest won’t function nearly as well. Lisa also repeated the things she learned about TRUTH in South Africa. There are four kinds of truth: Forensic truth – the provable, scientific kind; narrative truth, which is what each of us tells ourselves about ourselves and our experiences; dialogic truth, which is the truth we share with others and thus not identical to our personal narrative truth; and finally restorative truth, which is the hardest of all because…I think because it requires a reckoning of all three other truths. This is what they were doing at Hull House HISTORICALLY and what they are doing there NOW.
I have blogged before about the “Rethinking Soup” they do at Hull House every Tuesday that carries not just the MESSAGE of the building but its historic PRACTICE into the present day, fomenting modern conversations about things like food and health and sustainability just as the Hull House residents debated these subjects for generations in the same space.
This is how historic interpretation should be done; a combination of third person, second person and first person, not one or the other, but all of them. That is the beauty of Jane Addams’ original Hull House – it was experimental and open, it evolved constantly, and it was constantly reinvented and reinvigorated by new blood. Which is what every museum – every institution really – needs to be to be relevant and worth preserving.
Hull House was saved at a time when house museums were shrines, when they told singular, uninflected and generally SAFE stories. Jane Addams’ Hull House museum is one of the best in the world right now because it is always experimenting, never safe and fueled by the energy of people like Lisa Lee. Half of my students wanted to BE her after the visit. Her energy is that infectious. How do you bottle that? That is the great challenge of interpretation, which if it works, is a constant reinterpretation, and like Einsteinian physics, that interpretation understands that the interpretation itself is affected not only by the interpreters but by the viewers. Hence, it is best if they are both, which they are at Hull House. Go. See for yourself. Better yet, see, hear, touch, taste and feel for yourself. Better yet again, do for yourself. It is the story of transformation, of immigration, of a constant arriving and redefining, of the formation and reformation of self and society.

2010 UPDATE: See my posting on the brand new reinterpretation of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum HERE!

Yuck at UIC

December 18, 2008

I admit it. Back in the day (early 1990s) the committee I staffed at Landmarks Illinois refused Walter Netsch’s request that we try to preserve his UIC campus design, replete with double-decked concrete walkways and a concrete forum/agora/ampitheaters in the center of the supposed commuter campus. The center was replaced with typical 90s Vanilla Town Center but the basic brutalist buildings remained. And I liked them and I went to school in them for much of the early 2000s and I liked them more as I spent time in and around them.
I even referenced the buildings in my speech there last May (see the blogroll from May) and they had a clear elegance in concert with their material, the lancet lattices of beveled brut framing windows in a delicious evocation of gothic aspiration that did not detract from the atomic optimism of the campus’ 1960s conception.
So I am teaching a class there this spring so I went back to campus for the first time in a couple of years and found this crap
How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways….
1. Goodbye Lincoln Cathedral, Hello bicycle shed. The original buildings had layers, rhythms of solid and void, a sense of depth. Now they look like toasters, and I don’t mean an elegant Sunbeam from the 1930s. Flat and formless.
2. Aluminum cladding. This stuff makes siding look good. It is what everyone uses nowadays for storefronts, even on nice projects, but the detailing is godawful – the cuts are rough, the joints are artlessly placed, and the whole thing depends on caulk. And how do they weather?
What will it look like after a whole year?
3. They boast about having more natural light – this is true. They also probably have more space, because the exterior column system so reminiscent of Corbu’s Do-mi-no is now on the inside, and the concrete lancets are gone, along with any sense of romance. And purpose. Design? gone. Nuance? gone. Meaning? gone. More natural light? Check.
4. The sign says “eco-friendly design.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but has ANYONE seen ANY building project in the last two years that DOESN’T claim to be an “eco-friendly design?” The only challenge is trying to figure out their reasoning behind making THE SAME CLAIM AS EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD. CF bulbs? Wait! It must be the natural light, because that is light from nature, which is pretty darn eco-friendly. Increased heat loads, but hey, they probably tinted the glass, solving the heck out of that problem, and they probably added a layer of glass, so it won’t cost more to heat the increased amount of interior space. As long as that caulk holds.
Okay, I looked it up, and they got a big grant to go geothermal, which is a good thing. I can say nothing negative about this except that I have seen other buildings go geothermal without going UGLY.
5. Walter Netsch died this year. This is a hell of a way to commemorate him, but then again we celebrated Louis Sullivan’s 150th by torching three of his buildings.
6. Contemporary architecture is designed from the inside out. The only difference between this approach and that of classical modernism, is that Frank Lloyd Wright and friends continued to design when they got outside. This may be a lovely learning environment inside with lots of light and perfect climate control. It certainly will encourage students to stay inside and learn more because once they get outside, they have to contend with a whole lot of ugly.
Bottom line? This is an aesthetic call. This renovation looks cheap and boxy and really, really makes the Netsch buildings look fantastic in comparison.