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.)