Thursday, September 30, 2010

Powerful Political Art - - Jitish Kallat's "Public Notice 3" at the Art Institute of Chicago

A new site-specific installation has opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, Jitish Kallat's "Public Notice 3". Briefly, it is the text of a speech given at the Art Institute on September 11, 1893, on the topic of religious freedom and co-existence. The text is displayed in LED lights, using the Homeland Security terror threat colors, on the risers of the Grand Staircase. The speech was delivered by Swami Vivekananda in Fullerton Hall, next to the stairs. (I am a volunteer at the museum and routinely people ask how to find the plaque commemorating this event).

This installation is superb. It is insightful and critical without being condescending. The colorful lights draw you in, then terrify you with their intended meaning. The words are sweet and also seem to be lost on the most powerful players in the current "war on terror".

A point of the original speech was that there are many paths, equally good, that can lead us to positive spiritual development. The installation is on a staircase that can be approached in two ways from the ground floor and exited in four locations on the second floor. The text can be read no matter which way one travels up the stairs. Stupendous.

Flowers Curbed/Curbs Alive

In the last two decades in San Francisco and Chicago, flowers have come to the street. Our greatest public space, in terms of quantity and accessibility, is the street in front of our house. Instead of being mere car conduits, they should serve multiple purposes. To be beautiful and, literally, alive, are two of them.

(Above, roses at the intersection of Wood Street and Augusta Boulevard, Chicago)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Sidewalks of Copacabana -- A Design that Enriches Rio de Janeiro

Roberto Burle Marx made many beautiful things for Brazil. His sidewalk for the beach side of Avenida Atlantica in the Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro is perhaps his greatest design. Burle Marx's repeated strips of black and white stones have become a symbol for Rio.

This type of stone sidewalk, called pedra portuguesa, has been built for many years in Rio. Burle Marx did not invent it. Neither did he use unusual colors (black and white are standard), nor did he pioneer abstract geometric patterns.

What Burle Marx did was combine, in abstract form, some of the most powerful imagery in Rio de Janeiro. His curves complement those of the waves and sand next to the sidewalk, as well as of the mountains. The black and white stone may also refer to the African and European populations in Rio, in a sensual dance.

Symbolism, though, is not enough for a good design. It must engage the eye. Burle Marx's lines are dynamic, constantly moving away from, or towards, each other as the eye crosses the pattern. They are only momentarily parallel, never static.

(Early morning exercisers, above).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Eckhart Park's Ida Crown Natatorium: Modern and Fun

The Ida Crown Natatorium, in Eckhart Park in Chicago's West Town, caught my eye when I returned to the city in 2006. Modernist? Yes, structure and glass is all we can see from the outside. But this is a special kind of Modernism, one that is, skillfully, both spare and fun.

Colored windows (shown in the photo to the right, and brighter from the inside, which I was prohibited from photographing), an arched structure that is both roof and the whole building (below), and the blue sign announcing it (above), give the pool an appropriately light and toungue-in-cheek look. It is a kind of Modernism rarely presented in the United States as an example of this style, even though we see it in the work of Eero Saarinen (for example, the David S. Ingalls hockey rink in New Haven), Oscar Niemeyer (Brazil), and Carlos Raúl Villanueva (Venezuela).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Grandmother's Armchairs: Dreamsicles for My Home

Two armchairs have been living in a storage locker since my siblings and I cleared-out my mother's apartment last year. They are identical and were last new probably in the 1950s, when my parents immigrated to Canada from what was then Yugoslavia. The chairs followed my parents to Chicago in 1959 or 1960.

My maternal grandmother, Milosava Petković (née Milić) lived with my parents and my siblings. She was a lifelong needlepointer. Probably after we visited Florence in the mid-1970s, my grandmother began needlepointing Bargello-style patterns, usually pillows. I don't know what made her take on such a large project, but she needlepointed enough to re-cover both armchairs (except the backs). The cushions are a little worn (see the rip, in the photo above, probably caused by one of my poorly-behaved nieces or nephew). They are to be refurbished next week at a local upholsterer.

These chairs synthesize memories and values important to me: The possibility of a new life, both for my family (in its escape from Yugoslavia) and for the chairs (with reupholstery); childhood; my grandmother; and the exhuberance and joyfulness of a jolt of color. They will be a powerful force for good in my new home.

The armchairs will also guide the color palette for the apartment ("dreamsicle" (orange and white) and blue). The palette is based on a theory I have about color. There are studies that have found that exposure to various colors can, slightly, change one's perception of temperature. As a result, I believe that in warm weather, to feel more comfortable, one should be exposed to cool colors (blues and greens). In cool weather, warm colors (reds, yellows, and orange). To cover the hot and cold weather in Chicago over the course of the year, I plan to have curtains and certain major pieces of furniture be orange, white, and/or blue. I have two dreamsicles already in place.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Vita Brevis, Longa Ars, Detroit

I visited Detroit for the first time in April. The problems I expected to see were familiar, if possibly more extreme: Abandonment of the physical structure of the city and stresses associated with poverty. The photo to the left may represent the condition and potential in Detroit: Impulses to create beauty, combined with isolation and fear.

I had the good fortune to meet with Dan Pitera, director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), at the University of Detroit Mercy. Among other projects, we spoke of DCDC's plan for a portion of the East
Side, an area of particularly great population loss. To paraphrase Dan, one of his goals is to take advantage of existing energy in the city, including in those areas where the usual impulse would be to condemn and clear. I agree.

Energy breeds energy. I visited both the East Side and Midtown. A mile and one half apart, or a thirty minute walk, there are two cultural centers that could benefit each other and, perhaps, create more: The Detroit Institute of
Arts, one of the country's largest museums of its type, and Raven Lounge & Restaurant, a small venue for live music.

During my visit, I saw no place as lively
as the Rivera Court at DIA. The room is beautifully proportioned and the murals, by Diego Rivera, are aesthetically and historically rich. Most important, given the buses from the University of Michigan and elsewhere parked at DIA, the Rivera Court was filled with people from outside Detroit enjoying (a slice of) Detroit.

My guess is that the patrons of each institution do not overlap much. DIA, like many museums, has music programs. Why not have a walk, a scheduled event, between Raven Lounge and DIA? How about reduced admission to the museum for patrons at Raven Lounge? Get them outside!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Graceland Cemetery -- A Great Place to Die

For the first time in my life I visited Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Sometimes I avoid doing things that I would like to do -- classic delayed gratification. Sometimes I think I do this so that I have to return to a place ("I forgot to ride the metro... "). Graceland is one of those special places that I have put off visiting, until today.

I have never been more excited about the prospect of being dead. It was a strange sensation, but the idea of being buried in the middle of the city, with the elevated train for background, seemed very comforting. The cemetery is also very beautiful, filled with the works, and remains of, some of Chicago's most prominent architects. "Eternal Silence" (above, by Lorado Taft, 1909) is an example of the high quality of the work. I wouldn't want to mess with Death (he looks serious).

Illinois: The Beauty of Restraint

Illinois, despite Chicago having the reputation of being boastful (the "windy city"), is quiet about its gifts. Perhaps that is why I love my home. Other places may have as much to offer, but present it in an off-putting, self-aggrandizing way.

There is beauty in restraint. The sign and entrance at left (the offices of Illinois Engraving and Manufacturing Company, 4530 N. Ravenswood Avenue in Chicago) are an example. Metal, brick, stone, in a pleasing composition.

"Chicago's Undiscovered Places", Metropolitan Planning Council Competition

The Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicagoland policy advocate, has just concluded a competition for relatively unknown, high-quality places in the region (I happen to be on the jury). You can see a brief news report from WGN TV on the winners through the link, below.

What was common among the winners (the Millennium Carillon in Naperville and Glenwood Avenue, the Experimental Station, and Jackson Park's Japanese Garden in Chicago) was an almost ineffable sense of specialness. Otherwise, the four locations are quite different. Two (the carillon and the garden) are highly designed, while Glenwood Avenue is a combination of small-scale commerce and street life. The Experimental Station a highly successful, multi-faceted non profit community "catalyst".

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why to Love Residential Hotels

We need small, low-cost housing (like (but hopefully better-managed) the Hotel Chateau, pictured left, on Broadway in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood). It helps ensure that a broad range of people and businesses can remain in all communities. It's equitable and enriches the lives of everyone.

Residential hotels probably pre-date the 1920s, but many were built in that decade. At that time, they were promoted as a kind of glamorous living (every secretary, an actress! Every accountant, a playboy!). It is no surprise that, in Chicago, they can be found in high numbers in Uptown, a neighborhood named to evoke the nightlife of Harlem. They soon fell out of favor with urban middle classes and came to serve as low cost housing for those on fixed incomes. These remaining hotels are an asset for both their residents and their neighborhoods.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

SoapBoxLA: Lessons from New York - LA Needs a Quitter!

SoapBoxLA: Lessons from New York - LA Needs a Quitter!: "Desperate times call for desperate measures and when New York City's Bicycle Program Director found himself alone, without support from his..."

Reuse the Built Environment -- The Last of Cabrini Green

Out of deference for our past and for a better understanding of our history, cities should be allowed to become layered with what precedes us. Buildings are repositories for memories, good, bad, and, mostly, complex. More effort should have been made to reuse Chicago's Cabrini Green.

The American impulse is often to conflate behavior with objects and, in an attempt to change the former, destroy the latter. One of the last buildings in the Cabrini Green public housing complex (1230 N. Larrabee Street, shown at left and, in detail, below) is in the process of being demolished. This is a waste.

Was 1230 N. Larrabee beautiful? No, but what replaces it will likely not be much better. Was it horrible? Yes, and no. This was people's home, filled with hope, disillusionment, and joy.

Beautiful Things Make Memories Richer

I wish that every small park and playground might have its fit sculptural adornment -- a kindly genius of the spot, as it were. Such an image would stand in memory for the place and pleasure that it has given. One's affections gradually entwine these gracious symbols and they serve to make happy memories more vivid.

Lorado Taft, sculptor, 1913

Whatever you may think of Mr. Taft's work ("Pastoral", at Garfield Park in Chicago, is in the image to the left), his argument is compelling. The broader point is that beautiful details in our environment enrich our experiences.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Place for my Ancestors

I've recently moved to a new home in Chicago. Like most American's, I have so much stuff that those things with most meaning are lost. I wanted to create a space where I could contemplate/thank/tease those that came before me, notably my parents.

I chose a small spot near the entrance, under a skylight, where I could highlight a small number of objects. In the image (to left) we see a painting of my mother as a young girl, a bust of my father, his oboe, and one of my mom's Nora Roberts novels. I will rotate these objects, but the idea will remain.