mies cameo

“I’m the kind of guy, boy when I move–watch my smoke…”

I’ve been casually adjusting my entertainment options as the new Chicago project ramps up. Interesting, for example, that the really great releases on Chess Records were coming out at the same time as the classic postwar skyscrapers were going up. So my background music while I’m pulling notes together has occasionally tended toward Muddy Waters, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, and Koko Taylor–no great leap there.

Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm was a touchstone for postwar literary culture in Chicago, and while he largely disowned its 1955 film adaptation, this seemed like required viewing. It’s the story of the evocatively named Frankie Machine, a recovering heroin addict who tries to turn himself around after a prison stint by returning to Chicago, learning drums, and trying to sign on with a jazz band. It’s a pretty typical noir-ish drama, and it certainly plays into the stereotype of Chicago as a haven for vice and crime. But it has a lot going for it–Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak as the leads, Otto Preminger directing, and the first of Saul Bass’ iconic animated title sequences. Despite (or, maybe, because of) being condemned for its depiction of drug use, it was a popular and critical hit. Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar, and the art direction and soundtrack were nominated as well.

But it’s a brief, five-second cameo that caught my eye, especially as someone who’s slightly obsessive about architectural cameos. Thirty minutes into the film, Frankie Machine gets dressed up in a suit and bow tie and interviews with Harry Lane, a musical agent. And where is Lane’s agency based? Why, in the well-known Lane Building, which I’m guessing is located in the 800 block of North Lake Shore Drive:

Chicago’s well known Lane Building, 860 N. Lake Shore Dr. [?]

My first thought, of course, was that Preminger made a huge continuity error here–that font is not regulation Allzweck. But, more to the point, this is literally the one establishment shot in the entire movie–the rest of the film is clearly shot on soundstages that are deliberately devoid of any Chicago landmarks. There’s the standard police car with “Chicago” clearly written on its side, of course, but otherwise Preminger didn’t use any landmarks or skyline shots to set the location.

In 1955, he could have used the newly-completed Prudential Building, or any number of 1920s towers that would have been instantly recognizable as Chicagoan. Clearly, he was after a modern aesthetic, though–witness the Saul Bass title sequence. Given that, he could have used Lever House, or Manufacturers Hanover, two New York buildings that were more recent than 860-880. But he seems to have intentionally picked Mies’ 1952 apartment towers as a statement of particular Chicago modernity, as a statement of Lane’s success and sophistication.

Once inside? Ehhh, OK, here all bets are off. Lane’s office has chintz draperies, a brick fireplace, and a furniture palette that can best be described as Levittown modern instead of Miesian. Too much to ask for Barcelona chairs, I suppose, and there’s plenty of other visual sophistication around for the eyeballs to settle upon…finding Chicago landmarks in recent action films has become an architect’s version of trainspotting, but Preminger’s film shows that there’s plenty of untapped potential for this in classic cinema, too…

goose island’s lost skyscrapers

The Vernacular Architecture Forum’s annual conference took place virtually this past weekend, and while San Antonio was sorely missed (along with the chance to stay, again, in the Gunter Hotel, where Robert Johnson recorded his seminal blues record in 1936…) the online conference was well-organized and my session, on Agriculture and the City, had a good match of topics–Travis Olson from Wisconsin on Estonian and German farm buildings in rural North Dakota and Paula Lupkin from North Texas on the (lost) Farmer’s Exchange Building in Dallas.

Their papers touched on the necessity of railroads and boards of exchange to agriculture in the Plains and throughout the midwest, which linked nicely with my paper, which was an excerpt from a forthcoming paper on Chicago’s grain elevators, a happy rabbit hole that’s been my go-to procrastination research for the last few years. Their history parallels those of the city’s commercial skyscrapers in that they can be seen as ‘fossils’ of the economic, political, and social forces that shaped the city–structures that by their location, scale, and configuration show evidence of the flows of capital and power that converged on Chicago in a particularly turbulent era.

Philip Armour waded into Chicago’s grain trade as a sideline to his spectacularly brutal and efficient meatpacking empire in the 1880s, seeing potential fortunes to be won off of the vast–and often over-enthusiastic–bets being made on grain prices on the city’s Board of Trade. Few structures in the city owed their existence so directly to the machinations of commodities trading and speculation as Armour’s elevator complex on Goose Island, and few buildings in the city have disappeared with so few traces. But the elevators he built there at the end of the century illustrate the ways in which the city’s geography echoed the developing economic geography of the Midwest and upper Plains, and they show the scale and savagery of the fiscal warfare that took place on the Board’s trading floor every day.

VAF asked us to record our lectures, but decided not to archive any of the conference, so in the interests of previewing the larger paper and getting a ripping good tale of corn, bankruptcy, and tall timber construction out there, here’s my bit…

commencement 2020

It’s Commencement weekend here, and I’m honored to have been asked by the graduating B.Arch. class at ISU to be part of their ceremony today. Virtual, of course, but no less heartfelt. This year’s graduation is even more meaningful for me, as my daughter is also Class of 2020 and will have her own virtual ceremony next week. A bittersweet moment, but one that I hope is full of hope for times when we can gather and celebrate good things together.

So, for the record, and for anyone out there marking a transition this spring from school to practice or to more school, and especially for anyone watching their kids or students walk across a virtual stage, here are some thoughts on starting out in the midst of the unknown…

Today, as the father of a fellow graduating college senior, I empathize with you and your support teams. Graduation should be a coming together to share the sense of a long, difficult task well-done, and virtual events like this are showing us how important being together in one another’s company really is.

I hope that this strange end to your college years encourages you to champion those things that really do bring us together but that have clearly grown weak—the social and cultural infrastructures that help us enjoy one another’s company when things are good and that hold us together in tougher times. We’re used to thinking about the physical structures that do this like buildings, landscapes, and cities. But the pandemic is showing us that those are only the physical manifestations of other structures—ecological, economic, political—that are just as vital, and that have also fallen victim to short-term thinking and a profound lack of perspective. 

Our current predicament should move all of to act. To build, but also to rebuild.

So.  Go design better places, yes, but be good citizens and help design a better world. Work for the care, the foresight, the patience that we have been lacking. Work for fairness. Find causes you believe in passionately and work together to make them happen. If you find yourself less busy than you’d hoped as the economy recovers, take what you’ve learned here and build your own path.  You have a great excuse to be creative with your story. Think about what needs to be done, make that your calling, and don’t limit yourself with labels like “architect” or “designer.” All of this so that, when the next crisis hits, your generation will do a better job of taking care of each other and the abundant but fragile world we have.  

All of the usual commencement speech advice still applies. Work hard but stay in balance, keep in touch with your classmates and with us, stay hydrated, eat plenty of vegetables, and wash your hands regularly. But also: don’t waste a crisis. Take the pause that we’re enduring right now and use it. Think about the things you really value and how to do the hard work to make them really happen over the longer, happier years ahead.  

I hope that we’ll invite you back as a class soon and that we’ll give you the in-person celebration you deserve. When we do, I hope we’ll hear about the good projects you’re designing and the causes you feel passionate about and are working on. Most of all, I look forward to hearing about the lives you’re leading with the intention and the drive that comes from having had this chance—this excuse—to think deeply about what matters to you and how to design those values into the world you’re inheriting today.

Onward. Be well, do good work, and take care of each other.