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

1 comment:

  1. The top-heavy cornice and the weird corner gargoyles (?) have always ruined this building for me. It's too bad because the masonry is excellent and the modulation of the fenestration does indeed hearken back to the previous century. I'm sorry, but the garish, even grotesque, lid on this hybrid really bothers me.