Friday, February 25, 2011

A Winter Walk In Chicago

What Architects Do For Fun

"Why did we have to do this here in winter?"

"Couldn't we have gone someplace warmer?"

These are the questions I faced this week after assembling our firm's leaders in Chicago for our annual retreat. 

I had little sympathy. As a Phoenician I experience just two seasons: "Wonderful" and "Surface-of-the-Sun". So the chance to meet in one of America's finest cities in winter is actually kind of refreshing for me. I suppose if, year in and year out, I spent all winter in a cold place, my feelings would quickly change.

Chicago enjoys a special place in my heart as it is historically where most of America's best architects have come out to play.

Mies, Le Corbusier, and Wright
While Corbu's work remained largely in France, 
Chicago served as incubator for Mies Van Der Rohe 
and Frank Lloyd Wright

The reasons why Chicago assumed such an important role in design are many, but for the most part they all begin with the strategic placement of Chicago, its rapid industrialization, and The Great Fire of 1871.

The fire came during the very time when Chicago was emerging as one of America's pre-eminent economic powerhouses. This convergence allowed its architects to experiment with new structures and design heroic buildings. A movement that became known as the "Chicago School" of architects.

This is also the time when Adler and Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and William Le Baron Jenney were experimenting with steel structures allowing America to embrace its new icon - the skyscraper. Chicagoland is also where architects like Sullivan and Elmslie were creating organic shapes cast in steel and terra cotta to use as cladding for their new buildings.

Examples of the era's creativity included the Montauk Building in 1883, the Rookery in 1888, and the Monadnock and Auditorium Buildings in 1889. These buildings went boldly vertical. They embraced ideas like the expanded use of windows (the Chicago three-part window), and the start of cleaner, less fussy lines. The stage was now set for America's transition from classical to modernist design over the next 100 years.

The incredible energy of the era was showcased in 1893 when Chicago hosted the world with the neoclassical Columbian Exposition (otherwise known as "The White City"). The exposition planned by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead (who was deathly ill at the time) attracted 27,000,000 visitors! When one considers that this was approximately 1/2 the entire population of America in 1893, the success of the worlds fair is staggering.

Despite its commercial success, the fair became the third rail for critics like Louis Sullivan, his young protoge Frank Lloyd Wright, and the new modernists, who all felt the fair's neoclassical style "set them back decades".

Undaunted, Burnham's next milestone was to complete his majestic Chicago Plan which has guided the development of the city with wide boulevards, multiple levels (separating pedestrians and services), and the full integration of multi-modal transport to this day.

More recently, Chicago's energy has nurtured Wright, then Mies, Murphy / Jahn, Weese, and Beeby to emerge as a second "Chicago School".

Chicago still takes art and design very seriously. All along Michigan Avenue you see stressed out, chain-smoking, art and design students from the Art Institute and Columbia College.

In keeping with the theme of historic buildings, we chose to stay in the history rich Blackstone Hotel.

Now part of the Renaissance hotel chain, this luxe 1910 era hotel has welcomed presidents, captains of industry, rock stars, and mobsters. It's back rooms are the very dens were political deals were cooked coining the term "Smoke Filled Room". It is directly across the street from the Chicago Hilton where the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention erupted in riots.

The Blackstone is also where Al Capone regularly got his haircut. It is also where Hollywood had him club another dinner guest to death in The Untouchables.

The "New" Main Library (1991)

After our retreat, I ventured outside to take a walk. I first toured the Harold Washington Library. Word of warning do not bring in a cup of joe or try to eat a piece of fruit in there, the security forces swoop down on you from seemingly nowhere.

The Washington library is the result of an early 1990's design competition (that was spectacularly chronicled in an episode of PBS' NOVA called Design Wars.)

The building is an elegant composition of perfect urban proportions and durable timeless materials all working nicely. Then you look up to see the truly frightening Gotham City train wreck of a roof.

The Truly Bizarre Roof

Then I crossed to Dearborn St. to see Mies Federal Center (whose plaza is currently being restored.) Mies steel and glass box is directly across the street from Burnham's incredible Monadnock Building. I then stood in awe of Adler and Sullivan's rich detailing on the 1899 Carson Pirie Scott Department store. From there I made my way to Randolph Street for a wonderful latte from Intelligentsia Coffee. These guys are totally serious about coffee. In fact, I would have to rate this latte as a close second to the velvet foam latte served up at Uptown Expresso in Seattle.  

Intelligentsia Delivers A Work of Art in A Cup

With warm coffee in hand it was on to Wacker Drive to see the Wrigley and Chicago Tribune Towers. 

1924 Wrigley Building (Left) 
1925 Tribune Tower (Right)

From this vantage point you cannot miss the glistening new all glass Trump Building. It is interesting to note the stunning difference between the new and the old. The old buildings had many materials and they exuded power and style. The design of the new skyscrapers are completely devoid of soul and simply trade style for lazy computer designed glass-clad geometry.

2009 The Trump Tower

My time was now running short so after a view of the Marina Towers I returned to Michigan Avenue to ogle the golden topped Carbide and Carbon Building designed by Daniel Burnham's sons (now re-purposed as Chicago's Hard Rock Hotel.)

1929 The Carbide and Carbon Building 

Everywhere you look in Chicago is a framed vista. Whether it is up or down Michigan Avenue or beneath the steel structure of The "L". 

The Architects Are Always Looking Up

In special cities even a short walk in the cold grey winter is uplifting.

Next year we can go someplace beachy.

Is "beachy" even a word?

It should be.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

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