Mad thanks to Marci Uihlein, design and structures capomaestro at UIUC, for inviting me to speak earlier this week on home turf…great to see what folks at the alma mater are up to and to catch up with a group of faculty who were far more influential than I realized at the time. The talk there capped off a week at the SAH annual meeting in Chicago, where in between long stretches of watching Cesar Pelli’s Wolf Point Towers grow skyward from the best seats in the house (one of the Mart Center’s rare redeeming qualities) I took part in a panel on environmental technologies in Chicago. An honor, indeed, to share the podium with Joseph Siry from Wesleyan and Ellen Grimes from SAIC, who talked about the surprising source of Frank Lloyd Wright’s inspiration for the ducting in the Larkin Building and the even more surprising history of privy vaults in Chicago housing.
The paper I gave there, on the transformation of light courts in the interwar years, matched a slightly new take on the Chicago story that I tried out in Urbana that explicitly looked at how frame and skin separated during the steel and terra cotta era in the city. Both of these points are covered in the skyscraper book, but in looking a bit further ahead I’m thinking about how what’s become known as the “obvious sequel” might develop–skyscrapers in the city from the end of World War II through (depending on how ambitious things get) either the Sears Tower or, perhaps, the State of Illinois Center. The story of the pre-WWII buildings is complicated but boils down to a handful of factors–real estate, structural innovation, material development, and illumination and environmental response. The story of the post-WWII buildings seems to me even more complicated–real estate, structure and steel, and plate glass and aluminum, for sure, but added to that mix is a strong socio-political climate in Chicago that pushed development in the Loop in very particular ways, and developments in environmental control that led to very different formal and component development than environmental response had earlier. Light courts turning ‘inside out’ to form dumbell and h-shaped plans in the 30s are just the opening shots in the story of how ducted air and mechanically controlled temperature and humidity removed (possibly productive) constraints from architects’ and builders’ ambitions.
We’ll see where that goes…all rather far off in the future. But having the chance to throw some ideas around in front of smart, querying audiences was a good opportunity to see where this all might go next.
Should also shout out to the Structural Engineering Association of Illinois, which hosted me for their regular lecture series downtown last month. That Q&A was fantastic–talk about a knowledgeable crowd.
And, finally, in my mailbox this morning was The Architect’s Newspaper: Southwest Edition, which was a surprise. My best guess is that I got this version this month instead of the Midwest edition for the following quote from Arkansas architect and general all-around sage Marlon Blackwell:
I’m just dismayed at the level of talent that comes out of schools and runs through the profession. I’ve never had a client come to me and say, ‘what I want is an ill-proportioned, unresolved, expediently delivered project that underperforms, and I’ll pay you for that.’ I’ve never had anybody say that. I would doubt that most people cranking out this shit have either. What are we doing in schools that permits that?
Right on. Blackwell stepped down from chairing the Arkansas program this year, which is a loss for the profession there and in general. As he described his philosophy to our state AIA convention last year, good design requires being resolute at the level of the city, the building, and the hand. Same philosophy distilled differently, I think…