skyscraper museum debate online!

Very happy to have video evidence of the debate between myself and New York rock star preservation engineer Don Friedman up and online at the Skyscraper Museum’s Youtube channel (which, let’s be honest, if you’re a regular ArchitectureFarm reader, you already subscribe to…)  Afterwards we realized that we forgot to take a straw poll, so Chicago remains undefeated in these debates after running the table (almost) a couple of years ago at a similar steel cage matchup in the Loop.

Don’s introduction is a good one (Chicago’s case gets made starting about 41:00 in…) in that he makes it clear that asking which city built the “first” skyscraper is, as the fantasy sports sites say, “for entertainment purposes only.”  But framing the history of the high rise in competitive terms forces us to ask some good questions, like what do we mean by “skyscraper?”  “Tallest?”  “First?”  And, the crux of Chicago’s case, in my view, whether height alone defines the type, or whether materials and systems have a role to play.

Other great bits of video on the Museum’s channel include sessions from the Ten and Taller symposium earlier this month from Lee Gray on elevator history and others on the role of residential construction, the growth of Manhattan, and Don’s project to document every single building over ten stories built in New York City–and throughout North America–before 1900.  Ten and Taller also has a phenomenal website that will let you play around with the data set…unmissable, but wait until at least your lunch hour before playing with it.

Carol Willis at the Skyscraper Museum puts on a great show. And they even let me give a book talk on Chicago Skyscrapers prior to the symposium–a good audience with excellent discussion afterwards.  As someone who has also cheered on the Cubs at old Shea Stadium, this had a similar vibe, but with a far friendlier crowd…

george braziller

18braziller-obit-master768In 2004 I answered my kitchen phone to find George Braziller on the other end.  After seeing Nat Kahn’s film, My Architect, he had called Penn’s Architectural Archives to find out whether there were any Louis Kahn projects in the works that might be worth publishing.  As he put it to me, “We published the first book on Kahn in 1961, and we think it’s time we did another one.”  Julia Moore Converse, then the head archivist at Penn, mentioned that a junior faculty member from Iowa had been spending a week or two at a time in Philadelphia over the last few summers, seemed diligent, and had what she thought was a unique take on Kahn’s architecture.  Would I mind sending a prospectus, George asked?  I did, and a few weeks later I found myself sitting in a midtown Manhattan bar with him and his editorial assistant talking about Kahn.  Eventually we moved up to his wonderfully overflowing office, where he offered me my first book contract.

About a year later, Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science landed on shelves.

It was hardly George’s best seller–his original series of ten Masters of World Architecture books had been exceptionally popular in the sixties, and he was even better known for publishing American editions of European luminaries (I occasionally got away with saying I shared a publisher with Sartre).  But sales weren’t the point.  George was in publishing because he loved books.  And along with literature, poetry, and fine art, he loved architecture.  His 1961 book included a fantastically literate essay by Vincent Scully.  The series’ book on Nervi (!) was authored by Ada Louise Huxtable.  To say I barely felt up to the task is putting it mildly.  But George had confidence in the book, and he put a stern editorial team on the project.  I’ve never seen so much red ink, but every cut, every correction, honed the text and made my writing better.  George arranged for a book launch at the National Building Museum, and for talks in Philadelphia and at Prairie Avenue Bookshop in Chicago.  I felt like a real author, and I could not have been happier with the book.  It was very clear to me that it was good because he made sure it was something he could put his name on.

The New York Times reported tonight that George died yesterday, at the age of 101.  It’s hard to feel sad about a life that was so long and that was responsible for bringing so much fine art, literature, and architecture to appreciative audiences, but it’s also hard not to feel like one of the last true believers in the power of words and images isn’t with us anymore. To have a first book published by a company so devoted to quality was an impossibly rare bit of luck, and every time I’ve heard praise for the book I’ve quietly thanked him and his editors and designers who made it what it was.

“His driving goal and ambition,” according to his son, Joel, was “to bring good writers and artists to the American public.”  Twelve years later, it’s humbling to think that the Kahn book was a small part of that mission.

neh and nea

NU Lecture Chicago Innovations short copy.001It’s three fighter jets.  Or the cost of putting up the POTUS’ family in New York instead of Washington for the next four years.  Or 1/1000 of the U.S. military budget.  For just slightly over a buck and a half per citizen per year, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities fund over 50,000 annual events throughout the country.  They’ve made possible Ken Burns’ documentary on The Civil War.  Sponsored publication of American classics in the Library of America series.  Funded institutes on rural and urban design.  Kept local theater alive in hundreds of communities.  Helped teach kids to write, draw, and paint.

In 2006, the NEH also gave me a small summer grant to spend some time in Kokomo and Elwood, Indiana, researching a hunch about the American plate glass industry and its effects on Chicago architecture.  Without that grant, Chicago Skyscrapers would never have happened.  Admittedly, finding out that the largest plate glass factories in the world once graced the Indiana countryside isn’t the same thing as curing cancer.  But multiply that by hundreds of scholars, artists, performers, and designers getting small boosts, being able to devote a few weeks here and there to questions about who we are as a country, or what it means to be an American, or even just to create in our world, and you get things that are of tangible value, even if they don’t immediately reflect a fiscal gain.

The difference between those two things is really one indicator of the depth of our political divide today.  Do we even bother to spend 1/12,000 of our national budget on such questions?  Some of us think that’s a good investment, and that rewarding the top 5% or so of scholars and artists practicing today (and yes, that’s how competitive the NEH and NEA grants are these days) is likely to pay off in new knowledge or meaningful experiences that will make us, if not immediately wealthier, more thoughtful and appreciative as citizens, and more aware of the complexity and depth of the world we find ourselves in.  Today’s proposed elimination of these two agencies is another symptom of an epochal decline and fall in American culture.

We read the front page, the saying goes, to find out what our country has done wrong.  We read the arts page to find out what our country is doing right.  The balance between the two is being lost, and this is cause for genuine despair.

define your terms

Just hanging out on Wall Street drinking coffee and fussing with slides for tomorrow’s New York/Chicago skyscraper debate with ace NYC preservation engineer Don Friedman.  I thought it might be useful to start off with a history of the term–and what those who have tried to define “skyscraper” thought might constitute the first one.  So, not to give too much away, but here’s what I’ve come up with.  There’s a missing fifth column, and some of you may have a pretty good idea who and what goes in there.  But no spoiler alerts–you can find out tomorrow morning at the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park City when Don and I unpack this and other complexities about the “first skyscraper.”  See you there…

save the thompson center?

img_4747A brilliant weekend last week in the big city, highlighted in part by this view from the hotel of the possibly doomed State of Illinois Center, more recently the James R. Thompson Center, designed by Helmut Jahn and opened to wildly mixed reviews in 1985.  The state is in year two of a fiscal meltdown, and Illinois’ governor has proposed selling the nearly 1 million square foot structure, which raises the possibility that a developer might buy the complex for its land and raze the building.

Which raises all kinds of interesting questions.  1985 is only 32 years old–far short of the 50-year cutoff that raises instant questions of historic preservation.  And we’re still in the midst of battling the destruction of brutalist and late-modernist works from the 1960s and 1970s.  Are we ready to talk about preserving post-modernism?

This is a particularly complicated question, because the Thompson Center is a failing building on many levels.  Most notoriously, the structure is entirely single-glazed, which would have been a borderline choice in the early 1980s when energy was still relatively cheap, but today is absolutely insane, especially for a building with a 17-story, south-facing atrium.  And those colors, “more suited to Acapulco than the Loop,” wrote Paul Gapp in 1985–in the midst of an era when what Jahn called “a return to optimism in architecture” was all the rage.  Gapp went on to twist the knife:

It is above the level of the granite that the building falls apart esthetically. Jahn intended that the high-tech glass top convey a message of the less noble, more banal activities that are an inevitable part of everyday government activities. The bright blues, whites and silvers of the curtain wall were also to project the center’s symbolic optimism.

But it doesn’t work–not by half. To the building’s chunkiness is added the seeming quality of cheapness. Thirty feet above the ground on the LaSalle, Lake and Clark Street sides, the glass-walled center begins looking not simply out of context, but tawdry and vulgar. It is an embarrassment unredeemed by the greater integrity and glitter of the sloped setbacks facing the plaza. Much of Jahn’s highly abstract symbolism will go uncomprehended by anyone, including other architects.

Paul Gapp, “Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Center is: 1. Breathtaking? 2. Impudent? 3. Outrageous? 4. Idiosyncratic? 5. All The Above?”  Chicago Tribune, Feb.  17, 1985.  Arts, p. 16.

Gapp noted, though, that the “vulgar” exterior was nearly redeemed by the amazing 17-story atrium, complete with futuristic glass elevators and a floor pattern that recalled Michelangelo’s Campidoglio–a classic piece of postmodern appropriation.  Jahn’s inspiration, it was reported, was Henry Ives Cobb’s monumental, domed 1905 Post Office, which stood on the site of Mies’ current one-story structure.  Cobb’s building, unfortunately, matched grand civic dignity with a total lack of functionality, and its replacement was planned within weeks of its opening.

The Thompson Center’s obsolescence has come more slowly.  Initial reports found the interiors and furnishings cheap and flimsy.  Occupants reported that the elevators left many with vertigo.  By the building’s first summer it became apparent that the air conditioning system was no match for the 17-story greenhouse facing the morning sun, as well as the back end of the Daley Center.  Cost cutting had eliminated doors on most offices, and the atrium’s hard surfaces made acoustics throughout the structure difficult.  (Bonita Brodt, “Worker’s Eye View of the Building.”  Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1985.  1:1.).  The air conditioning system was replaced in 1987, but the simple physics of the atrium have always made it difficult and expensive to heat and cool.

Coupled with benign neglect over the budget-plagued last few years, the building hasn’t aged well.  The stone paneling at the base is chipped, colors have faded, and the retail and food court have gone steadily down market as other venues with better access to street traffic have taken higher-end merchants and restaurants away.  So, what to do when such a flawed structure is threatened with sale and demolition?

The usual adaptive reuse arguments are problematic here.  State of Illinois’ floor plates are gigantic–even with the atrium, there are spots on each floor that are more than 70 feet from windows or circulation.  And the shapes of the floors themselves may make any of the traditional conversions–condominiums or a hotel–virtually impossible.  So it’s hard to imagine anything other than offices moving in, meaning either a huge corporation that can best use acres of open floor space, or lots of renovation work to create lettable parcels inside and fix the acoustic problems that still persist.  Even if those issues get solved, there’s the single-glazed skin itself and the cost of heating and cooling the building.  Maybe the best hope for the building and for the city would be a complete re-skinning with materials that made sense with the city’s context (one tenet of post-modernism that Jahn seems to have missed entirely), and that worked with today’s energy concerns.  The sloped top of the atrium, for instance, would benefit from some active solar panels, except of course that they’d be in the Daley Center’s shadow much of the morning.

So, die-hard preservation fan that I am, this is a really tough one to get behind.  It’s easier to imagine buildings that extended the pedestrian scale of Lake Street, or the civic monumentality of the Daley Center, replacing Jahn’s infamous donut of a suburban Phoenix office park.  The Thompson Center was ill-conceived and dysfunctional when it opened, and like its inspiration, Cobb’s Post Office, its urbane intentions shouldn’t be enough to save it on their own.  Do the studies, figure out what might be able to re-inhabit the building’s 40,000 square foot floor plates, but given its youth and its remarkably early obsolescence, there may be other battles on which we should be focusing our preservation energies…