Friday, November 4, 2016

Lee Bey on Television

When a big architecture story breaks in Chicago, television stations often call for comment. So from this point on, I'll start posting links and video--whenever possible--of my appearances.

Here's one from a few months ago from CBS2 Chicago. I'm talking to reporter Dana Kozlov about the sale of Tribune Tower.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Urban Observer revisits the Harold Washington Library in honor of the building's 25th birthday

 For a quarter century, the Harold Washington Library has walked a tightrope of public opinion with updrafts of dislike from one side and breezes of adoration on the other.

The library opened in October 1991, but is dressed up to look a century older. The building was a retreat to Chicago's architectural past. And it arrived just when Chicago--adrift in bland postmodern skyscrapers--needed an edifice that could confidently help reclaim the title America's architecture capitol.

It was a rebuke of the new.

My cameras and I have been revisiting the library over the past few days in preparation for a free public discussion I'll be giving today, Wednesday  Oct 19th, at 6pm. I'll discuss the library's history, impact and historical context. I'll also talk about the political and civic forces--and the high-profile design competition--that gave us the building we have today.

And what do we have after 25 years? Walk by and you see passersby and tourists pointing out its architectural details or marveling over the enormous ornamental owls perched on each of the building's four corners.

The big building commands the large intersection of State and Congress, stealing the eye from landmark Second Leiter Building at 401 S. State. The two buildings together play an architectural mindfreak: the minimalist Second Leiter, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, was built in 1889, but looks decades more modern while Thomas Beeby's Washington Library looks as if it could be heated by coal and lit by gaslight.

 Inside, the main lobby, however still feels vast and underlit. The Van Buren entrance is the worst way to approach the building. An often unsmiling uniformed security guard is stationed right inside the doors, and visitors must walk a long perimeter hallway to reach the main lobby. And while the former main library, which was converted into the Chicago Cultural Center in 1977, treated patrons to Tiffany domed interiors, and spectacular staircases, the Washington Library turns pretty functional--maybe even a little too much so--once you get beyond the lobby.

Still, the building does feature one of the finest interiors in the city: A glass-roofed wintergarden atop the structure.

Revisiting the building also means taking a new look at the five designs from which the winning scheme was selected. I'll more to say at my talk on Tuesday. But until then, here the models. Which would you have picked? Comment below.

Hammond, Beeby and Babka

Arthur Erickson/VOA

Dirk Lohan

SOM with Ricardo Legoretta

Helmut Jahn/Murphy Jahn

Monday, October 17, 2016

Modernist building--the 'Pride' of the South Side--goes on sale

Pride Cleaners, one of the city's finest and most exuberant examples of postwar modernism--and a good dry cleaners, to boot--is for sale.

Asking price: $650,000.

Designed by architect Gerald Siegwart, the building, 558 East 79th St. has been an architectural icon in the Chatham community since 1959. With its angled concrete hyperbolic parabaloid roof and freestanding marquee-like electric sign, Pride brought a bit of the Space Age to the otherwise 1920s business strip.

It's a fine piece of architecture. The self-supporting roof touches the ground in the rear of the building, then shoots skyward. Beneath is a glass curtain wall that allows views inside the cleaners, revealing original signage, color schemes and doses of neon.

New technology of the time made dry cleaning faster. Siegwart used near futurist architecture to convey this breakthrough. Pride is showing its age, but is nearly unaltered since its completion--with the exception of a 1966 addition designed by Siegwart.

Fortunately, the building is being marketed as an active, stable business and not a teardown, according to the listing brochure from Matanky Realty, meaning Pride Cleaners could continue to be preserved under new ownership.

But it's a thing that shouldn't be left to chance. Now is a good time for the city to step in and seek protected landmark status for Pride, its sign, and critical portions of the interior. The protections would make sure the building is safe from demolition and would help insure alterations would be in line with Siegwart's vision. It would also draw attention to Chatham's overall wealth of modernist residential and commercial architecture.

Given Mayor Rahm Emanuel's fondness for the South Side neighborhood, such a move would be another needed feather in the community's cap.

Friday, December 4, 2015

In Chicago, an overlooked midcentury gem vanishes

I saw and photographed this midcentury beauty during a quick weekend drive through Chicago's Northwest Side and adjacent suburbs back in 2011.

It's the American Management Association's Executive Conference Center, 8655 W. Higgins Road, right on the north edge of the city. Built in 1971, the building looks like a scaled-down work of Edward Durell Stone--particularly Stone's 1959 U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.

Given its location in an ocean of parking lots and near a parking garage, they could've gone with a bland structure--who would notice? Instead, someone had the good sense to give us a nice little surprise in a quiet spot where the city meets suburbia.

I never did go back to photograph the conference center a little more seriously. No need to bother now though: The building was demolished a few weeks ago.

Frank Butterfield, director of the Springfield office of the preservation group Landmarks Illinois, posted the bad news on the Facebook page of Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond.

His post was in response to images I'd put there, inquiring about the building. Frank found a demolition permit to wreck and remove the two story building. Then a short time later, he posted this photo of his own:

Gone. At 45.
 Groups like Landmarks Illinois, Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond and the international group DoCoMoMo are speaking up for postwar buildings. And praise to them. But we're still losing far too much midcentury architecture here and across the country. 

Structures like the AMA building--away from downtown, or in suburbia where landmark ordinance are toothless if they exist at all--are the most endangered. And while the birthplace of modern architecture should know better than this, the city lacks a real survey of postwar buildings. Without one, the city's ability to identify and protect these structures is severely curtailed.

And so is our ability to learn more about these buildings before the bulldozers roll. Who designed the AMA Center? What's went on structurally or architecturally that might've made the building worthy of saving? A survey can help us find that out.

If there were a postwar survey in place for the building, application for a demolition permit would have triggered a crosscheck prompting city landmarks officials to investigate if the center is worth saving. A survey of pre-1940s Chicago buildings has performed the same function for a decade now. And Landmarks Illinois' online survey of postwar buildings in suburban Chicago provides a current model.

The youngest of the postwar buildings are approaching 40. That's make-or-break time in the life of a structure. Without a postwar survey, we better get used to seeing more vacant parcels like the one above...where thoughtful pieces of architecture are wrecked as if they were no more than abandoned garages.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Interior design...with Soul: A look inside the former Ebony/Jet HQ Building

The interiors of the former--and now vacant--Ebony/Jet Building at 820 S. Michigan continue to fascinate me. And I'm not alone. A Chicago photographer shares the same fondness. More on that later.

Columbia College has owned the 11-story one-time headquarters of Johnson Publishing Company since 2010. I got a tour of the place in 2013 when I wrote an architecture photoblog for WBEZ.

What I said then:

"Behind pioneering black architect John Moutoussamy's four walls were offices designed with an exuberant, high-style and fearless mix of a color, texture, art, contemporary furnishings and pattern. Created by interior designers William Raiser/Arthur Elrod, the offices embodied an Afrocentric modernism that was well-turned, avant garde and quite hip--a perfect match for publisher John H. Johnson's groundbreaking magazines.. [and] those stunning, original interiors remain in the empty old building--virtually unchanged since the tower's 1972 opening."
"The colors of the '70s are still there--and boldly so: rusts, reds, harvest golds, deep browns."
I didn't have much time to shoot during my visit, but I got what I could. My favorite of the bunch is the above photo of the JPC's so-funky-it-is-almost-undescribable test kitchen. 

I have no idea what Columbia now intends to do with this building or those mind-blowing interiors. The college originally bought the structure to convert it into a library and a historic center that would remember and honor John H. and Eunice Johnson's incredible contribution to culture and society. 
But that was under a previous university president. Plans seem a bit mothballed now and the university won't return phone calls on the matter. There is a pop-up gallery that ends this week in the building's lobby. So at least that's something. But still..

Which brings me to Chicago photographer Barbara Karant. She's spent the last couple of years documenting those wild interiors and bringing them renewed notice recently. She appeared on my Architecture360 podcast on Rivet Radio to talk about the project. She also brought along some of her images (dig that crazy wallpaper and floor covering).

 Karant hopes to do a book with her images--and I hope does. Photos like hers are the only way most people will see this one-of-a-kind spaces. Columbia--which bought the building with such fanfare in 2010--rarely lets the public inside there. 
Which is a shame. A tour of that building could have been a high-point of the Chicago Architecture Biennial going on now, or the Chicago Architecture Foundation's yearly Open House Chicago, which happened last month. 
Such exposure could've only helped their cause.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Aging Lakeside Center: Keep the building. Change the use

I spent a bit of yesterday morning at McCormick Place's Lakeside Center, architect Gene Summers' modernist beauty at 23rd and Lake Shore Drive.

The building turns 45 next year. And it looks it. Carpet is worn. I saw duct tape sealing a window crack on the east facade. A 1990s interior redo has somehow made the building look even more dated than it otherwise would have.

Lakeside Center feels as if it's playing for time. And it probably is. With newer and bigger McCormick Place buildings across Lake Shore Drive to the west, the aging lakeside hall with the table-flat roof, squatting on acres of parkland, could be easy pickings to get rid of now. In fact, the Chicago Tribune's editorial board and the paper's architecture critic Blair Kamin have openly called for the wreckers.

But that's a wrong and wasteful move I hope the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority does not seriously consider. Especially in a city known across the world for its architectural modernism. Not to mention the city is good at saving buildings--when it wants to, that is.

So keep the building; change the use. A building so clear, bold and well-executed, must be preserved, restored and given over to better service to the public. What might that look like? Check out the Nationaal Militair Museum, built on a former airbase in Soesterberg, Netherlands, in 2014:

The museum is a near-twin of Lakeside Center. And like Lakeside Center, the Netherlands building is inspired by Mies van der Rohe's New National Gallery in Berlin. (Gene Summers led the Berlin project for Mies in 1968 before coming to architecture firm C.F. Murphy to design Lakeside Center ).

The Netherlands museum shows how a converted Lakeside Center would be a true civic and cultural asset. Those vast spaces and huge ceiling heights could be used to bring in some one-of-a-kind, large-scale things for the public to see.

Here's an interior view of the military museum along with an iPhone snapshot I took of a Lakeside Center interior during my visit:

Here's another view of the museum along with iPhone grab.

The calls to demolish Lakeside Center--and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's equally wrong suggestion to do away with the Thompson Center--began right as the Chicago Architecture Biennial got underway last month. Could the timing be any worse? A city trying to reposition itself as a global thought leader on 21st Century architecture and urban planning shouldn't begin that bid by swinging the wrecking ball at its iconic buildings.

(By the way, many thanks for Ellen Schindler for letting me know about the Netherlands project. Ellen is a partner and CEO at Kossmann.dejong, an architecture firm that worked on the museum. She sent posted a link to her firm's work on my Facebook page after seeing my post advocating for Lakeside Center's reuse.)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

What's cookin' inside that old Schulze Bakery building?

Good to hear long-stalled plans to redevelop the former Schulze Bakery are starting to move forward.

The new venture promises to create much-needed jobs in the Washington Park community; a South Side neighborhood that, for the moment, sits between an unkind past of economic abandonment--and a future uncertain, given that a large private Midwestern university is now expanding its footprint there.

Architecturally, the planned new use is a good thing for one of the city's finest neighborhood commercial buildings. Built in 1914, the five-story, terra cotta clad Art Deco terra cuts a beautiful figure on wide and leafy Garfield Blvd between State and Wabash. It's been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982.

For 85 years, bread was made in this industrial cathedral designed by architect John Ahlschlager & Son, filling the neighborhood with an warm, unforgettable--and dearly missed--aroma until the place went out of business in 2004.

Ghian Foreman, head of the Washington Park Development Group, owns the building. He let me and my camera inside last week. All of the breadmaking stuff is gone, as you can imagine. What's left? Tons of glorious empty space...and possibilities.

Huge columns line up like soldiers on each floor, holding up the massive building and the equipment that was once there. Still, enough care was taken to give the columns a bit of decoration.

The major machinery is gone, but countless details of the building's past remain.

This stencil is an example of the impromptu art that's popped on on the walls inside the building.

Bandit left his (or her) mark.
Light pours into the south-facing windows on the bakery's upper floor. The building has 700 windows.

Make it to the roof and you're rewarded with this fine view to the north. The downtown Chicago skyline, just seven miles away, is visible.
Foreman has partnered with 1547 Critical System's Realty, a data center company from Matawan, N.J. to get things going. The New Jersey will cough up the dough and data center knowhow. The $130 million project could take five years.

The renovated building will be called the Midway Technology Centre.