Foster’s Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Thomas De Monchaux reviews Foster’s knitting together of the MFA’s various pieces in this week’s Architect’s Newspaper, and gives it a mixed review–competent and diligent, well-detailed, but with a few missteps.

This project came into the office while I was there–more than 12 years ago–and it has always been one of those alternate realities.  So I’ve been interested in its outcome, of course, but today’s review included what I think is a really cogent description of Foster’s work, and of an entire way of thinking about design that resonates well:

What makes Foster + Partners an essential institution in world architecture is their neo-modern seriousness, both technological and rhetorical, about architecture as a form of environmental and cultural problem-solving. This powerfully counterbalances a contemporary tendency towards trivial formalism and material excess, especially in large-scale cultural buildings of this type…

The idea that design is, first and foremost, problem-solving won’t strike many as an enlightened view, but at its best Foster’s work has always been about expressing this process at all levels, from coarse-scale circulatory and programmatic problems down to issues of detailing and construction.

Iowa’s Top 100

A not-to-be-yet named project is seeking the top 100 buildings in each state’s volume of the Buildings of the United States series, and I’ve been asked to make suggestions for Iowa’s list.  You can see what I’ve picked here:  Iowa 100.

BUS left out some notable buildings when they compiled our state’s volume in 1993–no Stephens Auditorium, for instance, which was named Iowa’s “Building of the Century” a few years ago, and Des Moines’ Masonic Temple failed to make the cut, probably because it was something of a ruin then.  Likewise, there are numerous buildings included in the book that don’t exist anymore (including, I’m sure, one or two that I’ve picked).

Interested to hear thoughts on what the state’s top 100 would be, or if there’s anything I’ve left out or included that readers think is wrong.  I have to say, this wasn’t that hard–a state like Illinois or New York would be far tougher…

target moving in to carson’s–? or !

Chicago Real Estate Daily reported over the weekend that developer Joseph Freed & Co. is close to signing a lease with Target for the first two floors of the Carson, Pirie, Scott building, so the rumors of a year ago may well turn out to be true.

Any move involving the now immaculately restored structure is bound to be controversial, but there are good reasons why Target is a decent fit.  Most commentators have noted the dearth of grocery retail in the Loop, and the gradual transformation of the ‘neighborhood’ into a gigantic live-work zone is going to rely on tenants like Target (and Whole Foods, another rumored tenant) moving in.  Of course, keeping the space’s retail function keeps an important aspect of its historic nature intact, too.  There were also stories that the Chicago Architecture Foundation might move into the famed corner space, but some felt this ran the risk of turning the building into a museum piece.  Finally, while I hate the Michael Graves kitchen stuff as much as anyone else, a tenant that at least pays lip service to design is likely to understand what it has in the space, and to work with it creatively.

The concern, of course, is that Target will cheapen a masterpiece.  Big red circles in Sullivan’s ground level windows, for example?  That may be, but such criticism misunderstands the building as it was originally conceived.  Carson’s became one of Chicago’s elite department stores, but it began as a humble, low-rent dry goods concern.  (Actually, it started in the first floor of the Reliance Building, where Atwood’s is now).  Sullivan’s building is actually a collection of three phases, all of which were built quickly for the even lower-rent Schlesinger and Mayer, at an astonishingly low cost, and with only the lower two floors and the corner dedicated to anything other than low-rent, cheaply illuminated retail space.  Even as Carson’s became the department store giant that was synonymous with the building, the store itself turned out to be a terrible tenant–the damage done to the building’s ornament both inside and out by neglect or careless remodeling was staggering to anyone who saw the renovation job.

Anything is better than blank storefronts, of course, and Freed has really gone the extra mile in restoring the building, so they deserve to have a major tenant.  And State and Madison, once “the busiest corner in the world,” deserves to have some high-volume retail, too.  It remains to be seen just what Target will do with the space, but there does seem to be reason for optimism.

Civic Classicism– “some degree of dignity…”

Writing in Harper’s Weekly in 1901, critic Henry H. Hyde noted a “new era of building in Chicago” that combined the city’s well-known reputation for “utility” with  “some degree of dignity, if not beauty.”

Anyone familiar with architectural trends at the time would have recognized exactly what Hyde was talking about–Beaux-Arts classicism, the style of Frost and Granger’s Northern Trust Bank (1905), shown above.  The 1892-3 Columbian Exposition had inspired architects and patrons to experiment with heavy, ultra-regular classical elements and proportions as cloaks for all manner of buildings, and the march of the style into Chicago formed, for later historians, one of the great tragedies of the modern era, as the style allegedly replaced the more functionalist (and thus, to many, more progressive) synthesis of structure, cladding, and planning that marked the city’s architecture in the 1890s.

But Hyde’s article is interesting for what it doesn’t mention.  Here is his list of important buildings constructed in Chicago since the Fair which, in his words, “stood for Beauty”:

“The Art Institute, Illinois Trust and Savings, Chicago National Bank, Illinois Theatre, Federal Buildings, Crerar Library, and Field Columbian Museum…”

What’s missing?  All of these are either civic buildings, in which the display of monumental classicism sent an important message about the government constructing it, or dedicated cultural facilities, or small 3-4 story bank buildings.  The Chicago National and the Illinois Trust were both essentially banking halls with two stories of offices above (the Northern Trust had a hat added in 1910).  None of these are commercial skyscrapers, and none of them contain lettable office space.

To me, this is evidence that the Beaux-Arts style wasn’t compatible with the need for daylight in speculative office development.  Other than the Stewart, there was not a skyscraper that adhered to real Beaux-Arts compositional principles until the Continental and Commercial Bank (later the Edison) of 1907.  The Stewart and its progeny–Burnham’s buildings for Merchant’s Loan and First National–all deployed classical ornament, but around windows that according to strict academic orthodoxy, were two or three times as large as proportion and taste dictated they should be.

Hyde’s article thus unintentionally demonstrates that while classicism was undeniably popular–and useful if you were a wealthy branch bank seeking to impress the hell out of your clientele, or the average person in the street–it was counterproductive in providing well-illuminated office space.  At least until 1907-1910, when electric lighting became affordable and allowed designers to shrink those large, light-gathering (and environmentally appalling) windows for facades of greater solidity.  Which, in turn, allowed the popular Beaux-Arts style plenty of room to roam.

It’s probably all too apparent that I’ve been editing the book’s chapters on the later, neo-classical skyscrapers of that decade the last couple of weeks.  There’s some good stuff in there that challenges a lot of traditional Chicago architectural history, and I’m keen to keep as much in as possible.  But there are also a lot of digressions–still worthy, but not necessarily salient to the book’s main thesis.  So some of those may get farmed out here…my apologies to any die-hard anti-classicists in the audience.  I feel your pain, but also find this stuff almost a guilty pleasure…

old chicago skyscraper of the week–Stewart

One of the main points I want to make in the book is that the classically-inspired skyscrapers from 1900 on weren’t the cultural betrayal that traditional histories (Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture in particular) have made them out to be.  The work of Daniel Burnham and his successors usually stand for the ‘infection’ of the Chicago School by the classical principles of the 1892 Columbian Exposition, but my research has pretty well shown that these buildings were, like their more structurally ‘expressive’ forebears, equally responsive to functional and material concerns, and they were certainly no less technically accomplished.

To do this, the book has to take seriously some previously unstudied or marginalized examples.  The first resolutely classical skyscraper in the Loop was the 1893 Marshall Field’s extension, designed by Charles Atwood and still standing (barely, from the looks of the facade) at the corner of Madison and Wabash.  But that was an explicit marketing response to the Fair.  The first tall building after the Fair didn’t occur until 1897, when a syndicate that included Burnham among its investors built the Stewart, shown here, across Washington Street from the Reliance (where the execrable Block 37 now stands).

Burnham was experimenting here, and the results weren’t entirely successful.  He had been interested in the commercial possibilities of the classically dressed frame, clearly, and saw the Stewart as a chance to apply these principles to an otherwise lightweight, quite open structural grid.  In 1897, daylighting was still a paramount concern, and this guided the sizes and proportions of the building’s windows.  Such apertures left limited space for solid elements in the elevations, and while Burnham applied academically correct ornament to the Stewart, the proportions are all wrong–far too light to be a truly Beaux-Arts composition.  Those demanded serious monumentality.

Draftsman A. N. Rebori, reflecting on his work with the firm after Burnham’s death in 1913, wrote of this and other early experiments in the office that:

“It requires…but a casual study of the structural conditions upon which modern construction is dependent, to realize that the laws of Vignola were not drawn to solve such problems as those with which the designer starts out to illustrate them.  Surely the difficulties are not lessened when classical detail is employed, for the moulding and ornaments, increasing with the module of measure, tend to sacrifice the space in the façade that is needed for light and air, which to say the least is a costly procedure.”

While other, more civically minded buildings–or buildings such as hotels or banks that needed to project a more pretentious image–would adopt a more monumental style during the early 1900s, the classical skyscraper developed more slowly.  The Stewart was modestly successful, but the office’s experiments in classical language reverted to the application of ornament to more functionally proportioned frames in the next decade.


2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2010. That’s about 29 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 67 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 105 posts. There were 81 pictures uploaded.

The busiest day of the year was May 5th with 131 views. The most popular post that day was old chicago skyscraper of the week–Daily News.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were, Google Reader,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for monadnock building, old chicago, old skyscraper, tallest building in the world, and unity temple.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


old chicago skyscraper of the week–Daily News May 2010


Old Chicago skyscraper of the week–Woman’s Temple June 2009


Kimbell Art Museum–Renzo Piano Addition May 2010


old chicago skyscraper of the week–Reliance May 2010


old chicago skyscraper of the week–home insurance building September 2009