BEA New York, actual books…..


A good day yesterday–that’s the first stack of Chicago Skyscrapers 1871-1934 from the printers, and I’m delighted to report that they were snapped up in about 25 minutes at the Book Expo of America yesterday. I enjoyed signing and talking to the line of book types who showed up, many with good stories about the city, skyscrapers, or some combination. (And a whole gaggle of librarians, which was particularly encouraging!). University of Illinois Press has been fantastic in getting the word out, and I’m looking forward to a number of Chicago events in the next month–especially Printer’s Row Lit Fest, which takes place next weekend.

If, that is, I make it out of New York alive…this morning’s Times op-ed page puts the debate over One World Trade Center’s height front and center. I’d like to say it’s a normal Friday when I find myself wedged between David Brooks and Paul Krugman…


Some of the coverage of the Oklahoma tornado has asked a reasonable question–why is it that, in the middle of tornado alley, houses in Moore weren’t equipped with basements?  This morning’s NPR coverage had probably the most succinct answer.  Scott Neuman, one of their bloggers, talked to local contractors and heard that:

…the contractors are required by building codes to sink the foundation down below the frost line. So in a place like, say, Indiana, when you excavate to go down below the frost line to put a slab in, you’re already halfway there toward a basement.

Whereas in Oklahoma, you don’t have to dig down that far. So the up front costs for a homeowner to put in a basement is actually a little bit higher.

Furthermore, the clay in Oklahoma allegedly tends to hang on to water, making basements leak–in the past.  Waterproofing and sump pumps have gotten better, enough so that one contractor Neuman spoke with admitted that, basically, it’s a bigger hassle than most builders want to go through.  And more than one realtor in news coverage of the region’s aversion to basements points out that the cost associated with them is considerable–making homes with basements less affordable.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but this highlights a point I make all the time when we’re talking about building codes in tech class.  If codes in the area required basements in new construction, then every new house has to absorb the cost.  This  means that, yes, new houses are more expensive, but the ‘base price’ for every new house would go up more or less equally–adding a basement wouldn’t disadvantage one new house over another, because every house would have the cost built in.  Some buyers might prefer cheaper, older houses without basements, but anyone buying a new house would have the protection of the building code.  There’s no real reason that builders in particular ought to be against such a code provision.

The lack of safe rooms in schools is another issue entirely–even if a school district decides not to spend the money on a basement, there’s so much reinforced concrete being poured for floor slabs in a suburban school anyway that additional reinforced concrete walls are, in terms of overall scope, minor costs (compared with, say, artificial turf on football fields…)  If you want to live in a house without a basement and take your chances that’s one level of decision.  But building public buildings without any protection at all seems (again, in hindsight) unfathomable.  Somewhere down the road, a reporter ought to look at meeting minutes from the construction of the school that had no reinforced concrete walls at all and see how this happened.  It’s exactly the sort of thing that is easy to cut during value engineering, especially when there’s political pressure to build schools as cheaply as possible.  And, for most schools, it’s an expense that will never pay itself back.  But in the risk/reward calculation, this seems a classic example of the difference between cost versus value, and in the worst of circumstances, a few walls of reinforced concrete would have been worth an incalculable amount.


printer’s row lit fest, new york book expo

Printer’s Row Lit Fest has finalized their calendar, and it looks like I’ll be talking about Chicago Skyscrapers with Gary Johnson, president of the Chicago History Museum on Sunday, June 9th from 1:30-2:15 in the University Center/Loop Room.  Lit Fest tickets required, details here.  I’m also tentatively scheduled to appear at the University of Illinois Press’ booth at the New York Book Expo on May 30th, time to be determined.  Pleased to be a part of both events…!

new tallest building in north america?

sears freedom towerNot so fast…

With the erection of the spire atop One World Trade, the press is abuzz that there’s a new “tallest building in the United States/North America, Western Hemisphere.”  And the implication is that Chicago has, after nearly forty years, relinquished the title back to its rightful owner…

This, of course, is a never ending discussion, and the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats will make the “official” ruling later this month.  CTBUH has a number of agreed upon criteria by which they judge such things, including a very fine distinction between “architectural top,” which is not supposed to include extraneous antennas, “highest occupied floor,” and “height to tip,” which includes things like “spires” that are intrinsic to the building’s structure.

For comparison, I’ve drawn up a fairly crude diagram to the left, there, showing the key heights of One World Trade and Sears.  One World Trade’s claim rests entirely on whether you call its pointy thing an antenna or a spire–if it’s the latter, then sure, we have a new winner and North American champion.  But here’s the thing:  all of this week’s press coverage focused on the craning in to place of the 408-foot “spire,” in other words, an element that was simply bolted on to the building’s structure.  The CTBUH criteria oddly say that it doesn’t count as a “spire” if it consists of “functional-technical equipment,” and as the Times points out, One World Trade’s “spire” may actually be an “antenna” anyway because of its lack of architectural cladding.  (Interestingly, no matter what it is, the structure was designed in part by Kenneth Snelson, who’s widely credited with inspiring Bucky Fuller to take up tensegrity as a project…)

No matter how the CTBUH rules, from the profile I’d say this doesn’t pass the squint test.  If you look at the architectural structures, and not the pointy things stuck onto them, any Chicagoan would agree that Sears is still #1.  And yes, it’s still called Sears by most of us.

No doubt this will come up in the APTWGLC/CHSA skyscraper symposium on 22 June…

aptwglc/chsa skyscraper symposium 22 June at SAIC


Pleased to share the attached–the Western Great Lakes chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology, in conjunction with the Construction History Society of America, is sponsoring an afternoon-long symposium on historic skyscrapers on June 22 at the Leroy Neiman Center, the School of the Art Institute’s new student center at 37 S. Wabash.  There will be two sessions–one on current preservation projects, and the other, later one will be a debate between myself and Construction History superstars (?) Don Friedman, of Old Structures in New York, and Meghan Elliott, of PreservationWorks in Minneapolis.  We’ll be debating the origins of the tall building construction, and which city can claim the mantle of “home of the skyscraper.”  Promises to be a steel-cage-match showdown, full of terra cotta and steel details, discussion of how you really measure a tall building, and random swipes at the Mets.  Social hour to follow, hope to see a truly partisan crowd there!  More details as they’re confirmed at:


Today’s recommended reading comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has a suite of articles on the idea of ‘resilience,’ or a measure of a system’s ability to maintain its “operational integrity.”  The term first surfaced in 1973 to describe ecological performance–how well a species or population could survive given changes in their environment–but ‘resilience’ has found its way into social sciences as both a metaphor and as a model for population studies.  The results have been predictably messy and, as the articles note, somewhat controversial, but also interesting.

Anyone who has been stuck at O’Hare for 24 hours because of a weather system on the east coast knows the idea of resilience first-hand.  Airlines that have to cancel hundreds of flights because of a storm hundreds of miles away are, um, not resilient.  They may be lean, they may be efficient on good days, but if a predictable event throws the system into chaos, that’s a classic example of a non-resilient system.  (And yes, I’ve had hours and hours in Terminal 1 to sit and ponder this).

There’s an interesting hint here for environmental design and preservation, too.  If we changed our terminology, as the article seems to suggest, from “sustainable” to “resilient,” we’d be a bit more honest about what we really expected our buildings to do.  And it would put the focus more on improving what’s already there instead of on the latest gadgets.  If we build a ‘sustainable’ building, the rhetoric is that we can continue to build, exactly like that, for as long as we want, and in the back of our minds I think we all know that ain’t the case.  If, on the other hand, we build a “resilient” building, it’s one that will still be habitable through climate changes, floods, energy costing more, etc.  That seems a better goal ethically.  And it also implies thinking about how we retrofit existing buildings to make them more adaptable to change–foreseeable and otherwise.  For example, complex building management systems work fantastically well–when they work.  Passive daylighting and cooling, on the other hand, work pretty well no matter whether the power’s on, the internet is up and running, etc.  Embedded in this terminology is a pretty nifty rebuttal to the additive nature of a lot of ‘sustainable’ design today, and a suggestion that simple solutions that are easy to fix and to manipulate will always trump complicated systems that require several things to be going well in order to perform.

Worth a read…

wrigleyville or rosemont?

This rendering of Wrigley Field shows the proposed 6,000-square-foot video board in left field, including advertising on either side and on top. The drawing also includes a new, 1,000-square-foot ribbon advertisement in right field, a new LED board in front of the left-field bleachers, advertisements near the left and right-field foul poles and a new LED board in center field above the batter's eye backdrop. In all instances where Wrigley Field appears in the rendering, an advertisement would take its place.As a nominal Cubs fan, I’m as interested as anyone in the outcome of the Ricketts family vs. the entire world saga that’s going on right now.  The plan announced earlier this week to renovate and expand Wrigley Field was no surprise to anyone–big signs and scoreboards featuring plenty of ad space, some not-undesirable concourse improvements (save the troughs!) and the by now standard-issue historicist-lite satellite buildings (including a hotel on the site of a McDonalds that holds a dear place in the heart of everyone who went to Wrigley as a 12-year old and stopped for a burger and fries first).  From an architectural point of view it’s all fairly predictable, not inspiring, probably smoothing out a few too many rough edges, but undoubtedly welcome to the team’s demographic.

The controversy now seems to revolve around an increased night game schedule, the scale of the hotel, and–inevitably–the fact that the signage will impinge on views from the neighborhood rooftops, a business venture that started as a fairly charming goof and is now so thoroughly corporatized that the rooftop seating comes with concession stands.  Whether all of these might get ironed out or not is small beer, though, compared with the disastrous PR strategy being pursued by the Ricketts and the city, which seems to have been premised on shoving whatever the team asked for down the neighborhood’s throat.  Ricketts has–again–threatened to move the team to a site in Rosemont–at the end of one of O’Hare’s busiest runways, which no one seems to have noticed–and what could have been a conversation about how the team and the neighborhood co-existed has become an all-out ground war.

This rendering looks north on Clark from the intersection with Addison. On the left is the proposed hotel, health club, dining and retail development. On the right is the plaza planned by the Cubs along with an office building for the team. An elevated walkway over Clark Street would connect the two spaces. The obelisks on the plaza would feature static advertisements.What makes this interesting is that Wrigley is one of the shining–but unspoken–examples of how preservation can, in fact, be good for business.  Tom Ricketts is quoted as saying “”All we really need is to be able to run our business like a business and not a museum,” a line that preservationists hear all the time.  But Wrigley isn’t like a museum–it’s a bit like the 96th, the restaurant on top of the Hancock building.  No one really goes to the 96th to get the best meal in town, they go for the view.  And as long as I’ve been a fan, the ‘product’ the team has put on the field has been, with a few exceptional years, pretty terrible.  But attendance at the ballpark hasn’t been–in fact, if you look at their W/L record side-by-side with their attendance figures, you can see that people go to Wrigley no matter how bad the team is.  Last year?  Their W/L record was barely a good batting average.  Yet attendance was over 2,800,000.  (Attendance last year at the Museum of Science and Industry?  1,500,000.  Sounds like Wrigley’s outperforming other ‘museums’ pretty well).

Like the view from the 96th, one of the big appeals of going to a Cubs game is the park itself.  They sell tickets to tour the park when the team isn’t even playing.  A long-held conspiracy theory among Cubs fans is that the team has never felt the need to field a good ‘product,’ because people will come no matter what happens on the field, especially if the weather’s good.  There is no urban sports experience left like the one at Wrigley or Fenway, where you can spend an afternoon in the sun watching baseball with pretty much the same view as someone three generations ago might have had.  Add to that being in a real neighborhood, where you can walk across the street and enjoy a cold beverage in the company of a few (ahem) other fans to round out the afternoon?  Never mind being able to walk or take the El and avoiding the drive home.  That’s a huge draw whether the team is winning or losing.

The threat, currently, is that the team can build an ‘exact replica’ of Wrigley on the Rosemont site with hotels and parking that would be far more convenient for the suburban fan.  True enough.  But the ridicule that this suggestion has met so far illustrates just how much value can be associated with an historic building and its relationship to its neighborhood.  I would bet almost anything against the team moving, because the Cubs would lose the single most important piece of their business plan–a beloved, reasonably efficient building that relates to its neighborhood, offers easy pedestrian and mass transit access, and a real connection to history.

The Red Sox went through a similar crisis twenty years ago, with an owner who claimed that the antiquated and cramped Fenway Park prevented the team from maximizing its profit potential.  Plans for a ‘replica’ park across the street, or alongside the Patriots’ stadium in Foxboro, all came to naught.  In part that was due to public opinion, but it was also due to a city government that refused to buckle to the team’s threat to leave the city.  Ultimately the bluff was called, ownership changed, and Fenway underwent $285 million of renovations, some of them controversial, others roundly welcomed (oh, and did I mention that the Sox finally won the World Series…twice).  While some of the new stuff at Fenway seems a bit over-sponsored and corporate, ultimately the park feels more or less like it did twenty or thirty years ago.  Hope Wrigley goes the same route, because its loss would be an unthinkable one for both baseball and for the city.

npr piece on guastavino…

starring Construction History guru John Ochsendorf.  The Guastavino exhibit that formed the centerpiece for the CHSA conference in Boston last Fall is now at the National Building Museum, and he gives a good, albeit brief, tour of some highlights.  The exhibit is spectacular, with original drawings, tile samples, and digitally fabricated reconstructions that show how the Guastavino’s vaults were constructed.  Absolutely fascinating, even to a steel and concrete guy like me,  Well worth checking out both the story and, if you’re near D.C., the exhibit, which runs through 20 January 2014.

chicago events–upcoming

chicago of today 1946Save the dates!  Plans are still in the works, but it looks like I’ll be at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest talking about skyscrapers and signing copies of Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934 on June 8 and 9–more details on the event here.  It’s a classic Chicago spring happening, and with over 200 authors (including Judy Blume and Art Spiegelman), there will be something for everyone in case skyscrapers aren’t your thing (or if they aren’t someone else’s thing…)

I’ll also be part of a debate on the origins of the skyscraper on June 22 that should prove to be a barn-burner.  Venue and time TBA but it will be sponsored by the Association for Preservation Technology and the Construction History Society.   It will also feature presentations on current skyscraper preservation/design projects.

Finally, for any bookish New Yorkers, we’ll be promoting Chicago Skyscrapers 1871-1934 at the New York Book Expo on May 30.

More information to follow, but hope to see some familiar faces at these…!