Sunday, March 15, 2015

Chicago Facade

When I was a kid, there was urban renewal.  This meant many vacant lots with construction debris, rebar, huge piles of dirt; they were perfect.  When they rebuilt the neighborhood, the adults asked us what kind of playground we wanted.  We tried to tell them: construction debris, rocks, huge piles of dirt, what we were saying is that we wanted our vacant lots.  So they put a bump, a little hill, in the middle of the playground.
LaSalle Street is an architectural success, in large part, because the buildings have a common proscenium.  I have heard that word used to describe the theatrical nature of the buildings street level.  I think of it as a kick plate, like the ones at the bottom of kitchen cabinets or doors.  Even the State of Illinois Thompson center has a line distinguishing the bottom of the building from the rest.  On other streets, the buildings kick plate/proscenium, in deference to Chicago’s plaza law, raise their skirts to give more walking space. On LaSalle they come up to the sidewalk.
The building at 10 S. LaSalle is particularly odd. It replaces the Otis building. That experience has been so traumatic that the new building does not have a name.  On top, it is a normal blue skyscraper. The kick plate however is an old granite facade tacked around the bottom of the building. What happened is that the developers didn't coordinate their normal process of destruction and building sufficiently and they destroyed several landmarks at the same time, the Otis building and the Chicago Stock Exchange building.  There were conservation meetings, a photographer, Richard Nickel died in a salvage expedition; the developers had to respond.
One story has the sister of the Heller brothers attending a conservation meeting:
-This is terrible, who owns that building?
-You do.
For her they took a room out of the Stock Exchange building and installed it at the Art Institute. Another sop to the preservationists was to take the old front of the Otis building and stick it around the bottom of its new blue skyscraper. Just as the adults had tried to assuage the kids’ nostalgia with the playground, the developers halfheartedly made a gesture to preservation.
Turning a disaster into a tragedy, this response became an architectural fashion, trotted out whenever they need to flatten landmarks. The worst example is the flying saucer landing on the coliseum at Soldier Field.  The fashion has reached the neighborhoods.  Walgreens, the destroyer of the Car Kabob in Berwyn mentioned in Wayne’s World, is now carefully keeping the Midwestern storefront at Oak Park and Madison on the front of that new store.
It’s not enough to raze landmarks, now we have to make fun of them.

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