prentice, pan am…

It’s been an upbeat week for me with a good five days of book-related talks and meetings in Chicago, but all of that has come with two bits of genuinely frustrating preservation losses.

ImageAs reported by the Chicago Architecture Blog, among others, Northwestern has begun demolition work on Prentice Hospital, Bertrand Goldberg’s four-petaled concrete tower in Streeterville.  While the work so far has been limited to the lower, podium piece of the pavilion, this seems to mark the end of one of the most visible–and almost miraculously successful–preservation fights in the city’s recent history.  Northwestern has argued that the building, designed primarily for labor and delivery, couldn’t be economically renovated or transformed.  And while the 2012 Burnham Prize competition offered some dramatic proposals, none of them caught on with the Hospital or the development community, and after a lengthy (and confusing) administrative and legal battle, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks finally denied the building protected status in February.


Meanwhile, across the country, Delta Airlines has started preliminary demolition work on Terminal 3, the original Pan Am Worldport.  The group Save the Worldport posted yesterday that the edges of the terminal’s roof were being dismantled, and while the airline has said this is only preliminary asbestos abatement work, it looks both destructive and irreversible.  The airline offered similar rationales for the demolition–obsolescence, changing requirements, along with an undercurrent of changing stylistic preferences.  In this case, a good bit of the original’s charm had long since been obliterated by additions in the late 1960s, but even these claustrophobic extensions were historically relevant, as they showed the profound changes in airport planning and architecture wrought by the onset of the 747.

In both cases, it’s been an uphill battle to rally the public to the cause.  Postwar modernism remains a tough sell to a public whose vision of a ‘historic’ building involves bricks and turrets.  But these two examples are important case studies of what we stand to lose.  Many of the same arguments being made by the owners of postwar structures today–that these buildings are obsolete, that they’re outdated, that people think they’re ugly, , they can’t economically be renovated, and that a new building will serve the organization’s purpose better–were the same arguments being proffered in the 1950s and 1960s when countless historic commercial structures in America’s downtowns were wiped out.

There’s an understandable argument that owners shouldn’t be burdened with a legacy of buildings that are either inefficient or that genuinely stand in the way of getting business done.  I’d be the last to argue that either of these buildings rise to the level of being museum pieces–that is, structures that ought to be preserved even if there’s no function associated with them.  Both are big buildings in the middle of complexes that have onerous requirements for space in tightly delimited urban areas.  Anything that makes JFK more navigable would be worth listening to.

But with Prentice and Pan Am there seems to have been a dearth of real thought about how the structures might themselves anchor new development or construction.  The Burnham Prize visions for Prentice were, in many ways, disappointing–they were almost entirely conceptual, with no attempt to understand or explore the economics or planning involved in the rigidly laid out concrete structure.  For anyone interested in actually saving the building, this was rearranging the deck chairs after the iceberg, arguably a genuinely irresponsible capitulation to the simple, unconvincing argument that we ought to just save whatever the historians say is worth saving.  Preservation has to be a win-win-win situation to work, and if that brainpower had been applied to understanding the limits of the plan as put forward by Northwestern, and juggling ideas about reinhabitation either as a lab, as some studies tried to do, or as something new–boutique hotel in a part of town that’s a bit underserved by the new lodging boom?–just such a redevelopment might possibly have emerged.

No such competition was held for Worldport, though the possibilities of restoring a jet-age landmark to its ‘vaporous’ early glory might have created a fantastic entry space to JFK, one that could have oriented people, offered a hub for light rail or buses, or even provided space for retail and dining.  The original building proved a popular destination for plane-watching New Yorkers, complete with a white-tablecloth restaurant overlooking the tarmac.

Here’s a thought.  Let’s say that an organization that owns an historic building wants to tear it down.  There’s a debate, series of hearings, etc.  But instead of just an up or down vote, what if city landmarks commissions had a third option, one that required owners to do two things.  First, a fully sponsored ideas competition that would solicit redevelopment schemes for the property in question, with a commitment to follow through with a feasibility study for the top three schemes.  No commitment beyond that necessary, but imagine what would happen if an owner suddenly realized an opportunity for profit that also put them in the public’s good graces?  Second, if in fact the economics prove intractable, then the owner would be required to hold an international competition for whatever the new construction would be.  There’s no guarantee there of something wonderful, of course, but at least there’d be some attempt to replace quality with quality, instead of the run-of-the-mill design for which both of these sites seem to be destined…

Skyscraper symposium–thanks and conclusions?

Many thanks to all who turned out Saturday for the annual APTWGLC symposium, this year focusing on historic skyscrapers. And particular thanks to Rachel Will of WJE for organizing, and to Don Friedman of Old Structures NY and Meghan Elliott of PreservationWorks, Minneapolis gamely agreeing to debate the origins of the skyscraper in partisan territory,

It was a good afternoon, and the mix of historic and contemporary skyscraper practice was well done. Shankar Nair of EXP gave maybe the best capsule history of super tall construction in the last fifty years I’ve ever heard, concluding (incidentally) that there’s no structural reason we couldn’t build a 35,000 foot tall skyscraper today if we could find the trillions of dollars it would cost. (And, crucially, if no one minded the half hour vertical commute…). Aaron Mazeika of SOM also presented current work they’re doing involving parametric design that goes beyond shapes and starts to optimize not only for structural performance (old hat) but also for constructability. And Ed Gerns of WJE talked about contemporary skyscraper preservation, including the requisite shots of facade specialists rappelling down various domes and curtain walls, making me think I got into the wrong end of the profession.

A highlight was hearing Mark Sexton talk about their work on the restoration of Mies’ 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, and what a unique challenge gets presented by the super-precise minimalism of postwar buildings. His firm has now worked on three icons around Chicago–the apartments, Crown Hall, and the Farnsworth House–and he talked about how these projects have all involved combining some fairly rigorous technical fixes with some serious design work. Mies’ aesthetic involved absolutely flat planes and sometimes impossibly consistent coloring and patterning, for example, and the simple replacement of travertine in 860-880’s plaza ended up involving no small amount of gymnastics. A great project and a good story.

As for the debate itself, I’m not sure we reached any conclusions–the crowd, perhaps hyped up for that evening’s Hawks game, voted overwhelmingly for the hometown as the “home” of the skyscraper. New York and Minneapolis both had their cases well made, though, and Meghan Elliott did a particularly good job of explaining why “first” and “important” aren’t always the same thing–the Plymouth Building in Minneapolis emerged as a particularly vital concrete foil to the steel-framed buildings going up in Chicago, for instance. Enjoyed the debate, and the happily long Q&A afterwards. And the Hawks did win…

One more day in the big city today, doing a rainy walking tour. Other good news this weekend is that the book is in stores, officially up on Amazon and other Internet sellers, and off to a good start. Nice to have it out in the real world!

that petition…

Heading downtown for the APTWGLC skyscraper symposium today, and my attention’s called to this news–that the Pritzker Prize organization, and specifically it’s Chair, Lord Palumbo, have formally rejected the–very popular–call for Denise Scott Brown to formally be named co-winner of the 1991 prize with her partner, Robert Venturi.

This should have been a no-brainer–I haven’t heard of anyone who was against such a retroactive inclusion, and such a move would have made a much-needed statement about the growing understanding that our field is a collaborative one, often with unsung partners toiling away while the firm’s figurehead gets the glory. In this case, the Pritzker organization had a chance to correct an utterly bone-headed move, but one that reflected the pervasive bias against women in the field. Her name is in the firm’s title, for crying out loud.

With this non-decision, the Pritzker has cemented it’s reputation as the most relevant architecture award of the…er…20th century. Memo to young architects–when naming your firm, women’s names go first, at least until there’s full parity in ownership and partnership. Then we can start flipping coins.

On to skyscrapers. Hope to see many loyal AF readers there today. SAIC Nieman Center, Wabash and Monroe, 1-6:30 (registration required). We’ll be done in time for the Hawks game…

national trust’s 11 most endangered…

…is out this morning, and it includes the Pan Am Worldport at JFK.  This structure has always been the TWA Terminal’s less-known cousin, but it’s concrete parasol and glassy interior made one of the greatest statements about jet age architecture and fashion (quick–how many airline terminals do you know that have been featured in Vogue?  The image there is from a spread in that mag in 1961…)

This one’s kind of personal–my master’s thesis focused on airport design and looked at the transformation of this jewel-like bit of aeronautical architecture’s transformation into the lumbering, jumbo-ready building that it is today.  There’s a good story there about the very fine line between the ethereal aesthetics of the original and the utterly disorienting, systems-based planning of the addition.

New York’s Port Authority has plans for the site that involve demolishing the structure in its entirety–there’s a group fighting to save the building, though, and they’re worth checking out.

The list also includes the Houston Astrodome, among older structures, and the James River in Virginia.

APTWGLC/CHSA Skyscraper Symposium 22 June, 1:00-7:00

ImageDetails have firmed up for next weekend’s symposium on historic skyscrapers–it promises to be a solid afternoon with an all-star cast of preservationists.  And the debate that I’m taking part in should be both enlightening and enjoyable.  The New York/Chicago fight has a 120-year track record, and Don Friedman and I have been happy to carry our respective flags for the last few years.  Adding Minneapolis, and one of their leading preservation engineers in Meghan Elliott, should provide an even wider discussion.

Anyway.  Thanks to Rachel Will at WJE for organizing, the schedule (always subject to change) looks like this:

Historic Skyscrapers

A Joint Symposium sponsored by APTWGLC and CHSA

22 June 2013

Nieman Center, SAIC, 37 South Wabash Avenue, 1st Floor Event Space

12:15            Registration and refreshments

12:50            Welcome, Introduction Rachel Will, APTWGLC President, WJE Chicago, IL

1:00            The Evolution of the Skyscraper, Dr. Shankar Nair, EXP, Chicago, IL

2:00            Evaluation and Repair of Historic Skyscrapers, Ed Gerns, WJE, Chicago, IL

3:00            Break

3:15            Preserving the Mies Skyscraper, Mark Sexton, Kreuck and Sexton, Chicago, IL

3:45            The Skyscraper Today, Aaron Mazeika, SOM, Chicago, IL


4:45            Break and Brief presentations by representatives of: APTWGLC, CHSA, AIA Historic Resources, Landmarks Illinois, SEAOI

5:00            The Great Debate:  What city can claim to be the home of the skyscraper?


5:00-5:30  New York and the Birth of the Skyscraper:  Don Friedman, Old Structures, Inc., NYC, NY


5:30-6:00  Chicago: Thomas Leslie, Iowa State University, Ames, IA


6:00-6:30  Minneapolis:  Meghan Elliott, Preservation Design Works, LLC, Minneapolis, MN


6:30            Q&A, Town Hall Debate Style Discussion

We plan to continue the Town Hall Debate at one of Chicago’s fine watering holes afterwards, of course.

Registration is required, and the fee is discounted if you’re an APT member.

printer’s row lit fest


A solid weekend in Chicago celebrating the release of Chicago Skyscrapers.  The highlight was a good Sunday at Printer’s Row Lit Fest, the city’s giant outdoor book festival.  Gary Johnson, president of the Chicago History Museum, and I had a public conversation about the book, and it was great to see a room full of interested folks–some familiar faces, some new.  Many thanks to all who came, and especially those who stopped afterwards to talk or to pick up a copy of the book.  And special thanks to the University of Illinois Press staff who set this up and who manned the tent.

Additional thanks to the folks at Gensler, who had me do a lunch and learn on Friday.  I knew Iowa State had a couple of grads there, but had no idea there was a growing Cyclone mafia at that firm.  Good to know–and it bodes well for the office.  A particular thrill to give the talk in the actual Carson’s building (OK, OK, the Holabird and Root addition, but still, big windows).

It’s fantastic to see the book out in the world, of course–a good ten years after the project got started.  And very glad to see that it’s of interest.  By far the best part of the weekend, though, was the excuse to catch up with friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers who’ve all played some role in my Chicago travels over the last decade–or in some cases well beyond.  From the high school classmate, Mike, who owns the Floradora boutiques in the Monadnock, to the group working with us on planning 5ICCH in 2015, to college friends, it’s nice to have an excuse to share good news with bunches of folks who’ve been hearing about the book for years.


And at least one colleague had a weekend as good as mine.  This is the view from his–brand new–office window.  Nicely done, Russ, and thanks for the tour.

I have a weekend ‘off,’ teaching studio and catching up at home, before heading back to Chicago next weekend for a talk at the University Club and the joint APTWGLC/CHSA symposium on skyscraper historyfeaturing a debate between myself, Meghan Elliott, and Don Friedman, who are brilliant preservation engineers from Minneapolis and New York, respectively.   It promises to be a good discussion as we argue about where the skyscraper was really born, with plans for the Q&A session to spill over into happy hour.  The symposium will also feature a set of case studies on skyscraper preservation, so it should be a solid afternoon.  (And it comes with 6 AIA CES credits, which I need…)

A full weekend, but Sunday afternoon is free, and the Cubs will be in town…

philly collapse, chicago events

Yesterday’s collapse of a four-story building in Philadelphia looks like an unfortunately classic SCI-TECH teaching moment.  As I explained to Turi Ryder on WGN radio last night (audio, somewhat unbelievably, here), from photographs taken a day or two before the incident it looks to me like the demolition had removed a lot of floor (read: horizontal diaphragms) compared to the amount of free-standing party wall left.  And brick walls need  bracing, otherwise they get flimsy quickly.  Good questions, and a real thrill to be on WGN.

Off to Chicago tonight…I’m scheduled to be on WGN-TV midday tomorrow, and we’ll have our semi-regular planning meeting for the 2015 Construction History Congress on Saturday  evening downtown (interested?  We could use a few more volunteers…).  The highlight of my weekend, though, will be Printer’s Row Lit Fest, where I’ll be in conversation with Gary Johnson, President of the Chicago History Museum, on Sunday afternoon.  That talk is sold out (!), but come by the University of Illinois Press book tent on Dearborn St. afterwards to say hello–I’ll be signing books from 2:30-3:30 or so.

Also pleased to mention that I’ll be giving a lunch talk at the University Club (Holabird and Roche classic) on 20 June.  Details here