Friday, October 29, 2010

Terror and Tacos in Portage and Albany Parks, Respectively -- The Importance of Halloween and Other Events

My friend Marcos and I went in search of costumes for Halloween late last night. I had heard of a place in Chicago's Portage Park (see top photo of a neighborhood landmark, the Portage Theater) that is open, non-stop, for the week before this holiday. We went and were not disappointed. All manner of get-ups were available, from "sexy" (sexy nurse, sexy secretary, fireman, etc.), to wigs, to prosthetics and animals.

The best part of the excursion, of course, was the people (see photo, second from the top, of shoppers at Fantasy Costumes). Given the neighborhood and the draw of a wide selection of costumes, we found a mix of Latinos, gays (and, of course, gay Latinos), and anyone else one could imagine.
The environment was friendly and frenetic. It was a precursor to the best of Halloween.

Halloween can be a liberating time for us. It is a current version of the Roman Saturnalia, when the normal order of things was upended. At its best, we can indulge in some sort of fantasy that reveals a part of us. This year, I will be some sort of hybrid of Fantasy Costumes' departments (sexy cat?).

Leaving with various accessories, we had an insatiable hunger. Marcos and I came upon a taqueria, one that promised, with its c
olorful outside and lighting inside, at least a good environment for food. Like the costume shop, it was filled with visual delights: A small pepper-bull, a green taco truck (that apparently does not leave the lot), and a "rajas con queso" taco (cheese and strips of grilled pepper) with the rare, but tasty, onion and cilantro topping (see bottom three photos).

And there you have what you need for a good evening -- fantasy, beauty, conviviality.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Works of Harry Weese -- Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist, Hyde Park Townhouses, and Preserving the L

Last night I went to hear Professor Robert Bruegmann speak about the work of Harry Weese. Professor Bruegman has just completed what seems to be the most complete monograph on this, perhaps under-valued, twentieth century architect. The talk itself was in Weese's Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist, completed in 1968.

The auditorium, where the talk was held, is above street level. One reaches it by stairs behind the altar/podium. The procession up and into the auditorium is good. After entering an expansive and
glass-walled lobby, there is a compression of space at the beginning of the stairwell. With recessed lighting above, there is an impression that the ceiling is floating. The enclosure disappears altogether at the top of the stairs, when one arrives in the auditorium (see middle photo of the stairs seen from the auditorium level).

The auditorium itself is very pleasant a
nd intimate in feeling, despite having seating for approximately 700. Perhaps it is because of the semicircular arrangement or the extensive use of carpeting and velvet upholstery (see top photo). There is one odd element having to do with light.

While the ceiling rises in a complex and dramatic way, promising light, there are very few windows. There are very bright lights, perhaps there to make up for the small windows (see bottom photo).
It seemed that the auditorium would be quite dark during the day. This light and view problem reminds me of Edward Durell Stone's Two Columbus Circle in New York City. Prior to that building's alteration, Two Columbus Circle and the church shared a number of similarities: Relatively small white institutional buildings in prominent locations, with limited or no windows in their main public spaces. I imagine this would be frustrating to users on a lovely day.

Professor Bruegmann's talk was comprehensive. Of the many works he covered, there were two that particularly caught my attention. One was Weese's collaboration with I. M. Pei on townhouses in Hyde Park, where some of my high school friends lived. These buildings, worked into the existing fabric, were modest statements of confidence in urban living at a time of systematic disinvestment in cities nationwide. They have aged well.

The other project was a work of advocacy by Harry Weese. He worked to preserve the elevated train structure (the "L") downtown when others were arguing for its removal. The L is iconic, has shaped the city, given downtown its name (the "Loop"), and is the cheapest and best sightseeing venue in Chicago. Thank you, Mr. Weese.

Monday, October 25, 2010

New Apple Store, North/Clybourn Station, and the Plaza in Between -- Great and Not Urban Enough

Chicago has just gained a very wonderful, and not very urban, public space, formed by the newly opened Apple store and the refurbished Chicago Transit Authority train station at the intersection of North and Clybourn avenues (see site plan, to left). Just days old, the plaza appears quite popular with couples on this balmy October night (see top photo). With movable chairs, a fountain, and good connection to adjacent streets and two destinations (the station and the store), the plaza seems well-designed for success.

The Apple store is, of course, very handsome and alternatingly welcoming and harsh (see bottom photo of the store as seen from the corner of Halsted Street and North Avenue). This urban retail building is very unusual for having four facades. One of the long ones is windowless except for a small display case. The two short ends are much better. They are virtually all glass and invite a visual and physical flow through the store.

This shopping district has some of the split personality found in densifying areas of Los Angeles and Dallas. The businesses are close together and well-patronized, but the streets encourage driving and punish the pedestrian with a miserly environment. Apple is sited away from the lot-line to create an appropriately wide sidewalk, while the station still has a narrow one (see middle photo, with the wide sidewalk in the foreground, the narrow one in the background, and North Avenue to the right). The sidewalk should have been widened using some of North Avenue's unnecessary lanes. This street is unsafely wide at five lanes, which could have been reduced to three.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Robie House on Fire -- Luftwerk Interprets Frank Lloyd Wright's Iconic Prairie House with Light and Sound

Last night I went to an event at the Robie House in Hyde Park. There were two treats for attendees. The first was that virtually the entire house was open for casual viewing. Usually, one can only take a guided tour.

The second treat was "Projecting Modern", a one-time, site-specific installation developed by Petra Poul
Bachmaier and Sean Michael Gallero, jointly Luftwerk. A sound and light installation focused on the third floor, part of the exhibit could be seen from the street outside the Robie House (see bottom photo of the projection on the eave).

Luftwerk thoroughly researched the house and Mr. Wright and did something that would be very difficult to do in such a masterful work of architecture -- they added to it, in a respectful and thoughtful way. The installation included many beautiful and thought-provoking elements. The highlights were: Projections of images based on leaves (see top photo, blurred with exposure over time), geometric shapes changed through projection onto two planes, architectural details highlighted and projected onto adjacent walls, and a loop of Mr. Wright speaking about nature and the connection between the inside and outside of "whatever is". There were also boxes on the floor, through which cut-out quotations from Frank Lloyd Wright were illuminated.

Two of the quotations were "buildings, too, are children
of the Earth and Sun" and "the space within becomes the reality of the building". Mr. Wright tried to do the seemingly paradoxical and take advantage of the ephemeral in his buildings. Ms. Bachmaier and Mr. Gallero pushed this with their installation. They made us look more closely at the Robie House and they did so using the ephemeral, light, part of the house's strength.

Thank you, Luftwerk.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Cat House in Michigan City, Part 5 -- Jonathan Hale, Le Corbusier, a Human Scale

Move towards a human, not an abstract or awe-inspiring, scale. The proportions and sizes of the human body and its elements (the eye, hand, foot, arm, etc.) are beautiful (see photo, to left, of people on the beach in Rio de Janeiro). They are not universally beautiful -- an alien from the edges of existence may not agree -- but they are intrinsically beautiful to people. We are wired to think so (after all, we made God in our image).

I have been convinced as much by two readings, "The Old Way of Seeing", by Jonathan Hale, and "The Modulor", by Le Corbusier. I used to dismiss the idea of some things being beautiful to all people, but these two men make a powerful argument. All people are people and, as such, tend to have certain physical characteristics. If we did not find these things beautiful, how would we fall in love (or at least procreate)? Why would we take care of children if there weren't something calling to us (tiny eyes and feet)?

The home should take advantage of these proportions and sizes. Certain proportions should be used (i.e. one-to-one, one-to-two, two-to-three, the "golden section"), but not rigidly so -- Mr. Hale makes a compelling argument for variations on a theme. In my home in Michigan City, the rooms will be not much bigger than comfort requires.
Larger spaces should be reserved for places that are not to be comfortable, but awe-inspiring (why would someone want a "cathedral ceiling" in a domestic situation?). Unless you are addressing Parliament, keep rooms small at home.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cat House in Michigan City, Part 4 -- Context, Volume, and Siting

The volume and siting of my house will be determined by its context. These are the elements of context that are most important (not the materials or surface details, for example). My immediate neighbors are one and one and one-half story homes from the early twentieth century (see photos, below, of Donnelly Street denizens). The floorplans are roughly rectangular and, as is typical in older American cities, a narrow side faces the street.

The house occupies almost the same footprint as the neighbor to the south and will be set-back as far from the street (see drawing, left). My house will be smaller than the neighbor's. Part of the "footprint" will be negative space, areas defined through an imagined extension of the planes of the building to the lines where they intersect. The negative space facing the street will be part of a public "court" (formed with the neighbor's wall). A negative space towards the back will be walled and form an interior, open-air court for the bedroom.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Get Out of the Car for Your Social and Physical Wellbeing

Part of the reason we have embraced the car is out of fear of each other. Thankfully, over my lifetime, people seem to have become more comfortable with (perceived) differences (of race, national origin, sexuality). We need our behavior to catch up with this change. Lose the fear, get out of the car, live near each other!

The Kennedy Expressway, heading towards the Loop in Chicago (see photo above) presents a beautiful and disheartening view. Masses of buildings, which allow us to see each other face-to-face, which allow us to travel by foot, contrast with the atomization invited into the city with the highway.

Volumes have been written by people at least as smart as me about whether Americans like cities. It almost doesn't matter. If we want a healthy (fill in the blank -- body, environment, social life, etc.), we need easy to navigate, experientially-rich urban (at all scales) communities.

Cat House in Michigan City, Part 3 -- Gas Station Design Influence

Simple, engaging the street, and fun. These are the goals I want to achieve through the architecture of my new home. When I think of a perfect home, often a gas station comes to mind. Or some other sort of utilitarian shack that can be dolled-up. These are my most direct architectural references.

Bill's Body Shop (above left, at 501 Chicago Street, Michigan City), started life in the 1920s or 1930s as a gas station. It is perfect. The main portion of the building is two similarly-sized boxes, one open and one closed. Even the closed box has an all-glass facade for its main elevation. This openness appeals to me more than the traditional house, with its greater privacy.

The house will also have an element of humor. I realize there is a tension between my stated goals of simple and fun and I think a balance can be achieved. While I don't think I will be using text (see lower image of a carnival trailer in Michigan City's Washington Park), I expect to use color and light.

The John Hancock Center is My Friend

The John Hancock Center is my friend. I remember my parents taking me to see this new building, as a child, at night. We drove down Michigan Avenue, me in the back seat of the car, looking up through the window at a building that disappeared into a fog -- was there any end to it?

Bruce Graham, Fazlur Khan, the team at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and all the others that made this building possible created a great gift for us all. I am not an uncritical admirer. I know that the the ground floor, in general, is miserly towards the pedestrian. This doesn't ruin the Hancock. It is a building that appears simple -- what is it but some beams and glass -- but after forty years still surprises. For example, it took me until recently to realize that the cross-bracing did not meet at 90 degrees (that is probably how I would draw it "from memory").

The Hancock is one of those structures that, like the grain of sand that allows a pearl to grow, provides the city a physical object that shapes an identity. Sometimes I think of the city without this building and I would rather not -- it would be a different place.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lakeview Living Room -- Create a Social Space at the Intersection of Broadway and Clarendon Avenue

The intersection of Broadway and Clarendon Avenue in Chicago's Lakeview is like many in the United States -- excessively wide and unsafe. It is also an unused opportunity to create a social space, or at least a more pleasing looking one, in an urban environment.

In a "Y" intersection, such as this one, traffic engineers usually give motor vehicles as much space to maneuver as possible (see middle left photo of the truck and bicycle in a sea of asphalt). This does a disservice to everyone on the road -- motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists. It becomes unclear who is to go where and also encourages higher speeds, a dangerous combination.

Tighten it up! By narrowing the "Y" to a "T" intersection and bringing out the sidewalk to the vehicle (motor and foot-powered) travel lanes, everyone benefits (see my plan, bottom left). Paths are clearer, speeds are reduced, and pedestrians have less asphalt to cross.

Landscape it! Program it! Let it be! This newly found space (shown in red in the plan), in a fairly densely settled neighborhood, can now become an urban living room. Landscaped, it can be more visually appealing. Hardscaped, it could be used for farmers markets or impromptu shows and hula-hooping (see image, top left).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Squeeze Trigger for Pressure -- Have a Sexually Supportive Bedroom Environment

Bedrooms are, or should be, used for a fairly narrow range of activities, such as sleeping or recuperating from illness. An activity, seemingly unacknowledged in design discussions, is sex. While this may be embarrassing for clients, an architect, like a doctor, must make discussing these things comfortable when planning a home.

So, what should we not have in bedrooms? Televisions, computers, and other things that may detract our attention from the tasks at hand, so to speak, should not be in the bedroom. An alarming trend in American b
edroom design is to make it ever larger and more inclusive: The "master suite" is now so large and complex that it can be used to run a medium-sized business.

What should we have? I think it is fun to have some sort of visual "encouragement" in the bedroom. I like the sign (see upper photo) that must have been some sort of filling station (or ice cream parlor?) direction, "squeeze trigger for pressure". I also like a set of hand-painted wood signs I found at the curb in New York, "amateur", "all male", and "bondage" (lower photo). Given their color, they must have been painted in the mid 1980s. These must have described the films found at an adult bookstore, which were under attack during the Giuliani administration. You can rearrange them as you wish!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cat House in Michigan City, Part 2 -- Rhoda as Muse

Yes, a house for cats. Also, one that looks a bit like a cat. The roofline and spatial organization of the house I am planning for Michigan City is influenced by the shape of a cat's eyes and, more generally, face (see Ms. Rhoda Groveland, to left).

In the schematic rendering (below), the "left eye" is the public room (kitchen/dining/living). The "right eye" is the bedroom. The "nose" is the hallway between the two, which also passes by the bathroom. More to follow.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cat House in Michigan City, Indiana -- An Easy to Get to Second Home

I have had a fantasy, for years, of a second home to which I could take a train. I like Lake Michigan and I also like a little decay and low prices (they often go together). This gave me a few options -- points north of Chicago, like Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin, or east/southeast, like Gary and Michigan City, Indiana. Indiana won me over, however, because I could bring my cats on the train (whereas, northbound, the trains are cats non grata). Michigan City also has other essentials: Fudge, a Chinese restaurant, and a not exclusively white population.

A few months ago I bought a vacant lot in Michigan City for $1,100. In addition to being within walking distance of the commuter stop, I can also see the train from the stop (see lower photo for a view from the lot). It is also on the west side of town which, while being between the state prison for men and the coal-fired power plant (both overly yang (i.e. lively), according to feng shui -- we'll have to deal with this later), is closest to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

The next step is to build a home on the lot. I have started designing it. More postings on the cat house will follow.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lesbianism, Male Nudes, and Other "Difficult" Subjects -- The Art Institute of Chicago as a Teaching Tool

As I have mentioned previously, I volunteer at the Art Institute of Chicago. This past weekend, a patron spoke with me. She brings her kids to the museum and discusses subjects to which they may not normally be exposed or, if exposed, only negatively. She recently brought to the museum a neighbor's nine-year-old boy, in addition to her own children.

The woman said they were looking at a painting she described as portraying two nude women on a bed, one pregnant. They were warm towards each other. The woman asked, referring to the full-bellied one, "what's going on here?" One of her children said, "she's pregnant", to which the boy replied, "gross!" The woman said to him, "that's not gross, it's beautiful!" Then she asked the children, "what kind of relationship do (the two women) have?" One of her kids said, "they're lesbians", to which the boy said, "gross!". And so on....

The Marsden Hartley painting "Madawaska -- Acadian Light-Heavy" (1940) (see photo above), was originally a nude. A male nude at that time was virtually unacceptable and is still rare. Mr. Hartley added a "posing strap" to make the painting more palatable. (By doing so, he anticipated similar treatment of male models in men's "fitness" magazines by a decade.) Even with the strap, Mr. Hartley challenges the viewer to look at a man in an admiring way, similar to that reserved for female subjects.

A purpose of art museums is to give us different perspectives on common experiences. Sexuality, for example, is often portrayed in ambivalent ways in our daily lives. Nursing women are tolerated, sexy ladies are lusted after and condemned in the same breath, and homosexuality is debated. Not all artists are progressive (i.e. Thomas Hart Benton, who did not like what he perceived as pervasive left wing/gayness in the New York art scene), but even "reactionary" works are thoughtful and thought provoking.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Vita Brevis, Longa Ars -- Multiply Detroit's Cultural Energy

In April I made my first trip to Detroit. I had the good fortune to meet with Dan Pitera, director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy. We discussed some of his many projects, including a plan for a portion of the East Side, one of the more depopulated neighborhoods in the city. The plan, developed with residents and Self-Help Addiction Rehabilitation, Inc. (SHAR), is shaped by Dan's belief that "what is seen as void of culture may actually be culturally rich". The plan takes advantage of the existing energy and commitment in that community (instead of the more usual "demolish and redevelop" approach that has been popular for decades in the United States).

Energy begets energy. I visited the East Side and adjacent Midtown. A mile and one half apart, a thirty minute walk, there are two cultural institutions that could enrich each other: The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), one of the largest museums of its type in the country, and the Raven Lounge & Restaurant (see image, bottom left), a small venue for live music.

The most lively place I saw in Detroit during my brief visit was the Rivera Court at DIA (middle left). The room is well-proportioned, with murals by Diego Rivera that are aesthetically and historically rich. What was most important is, given the buses outside from the University of Michigan and elsewhere, that non-Detroiters were enjoying (a sliver) of Detroit.

My hunch is that the group of DIA and the Raven patrons do not overlap. Take advantage of their common interest in the arts and build on it. DIA hosts
music and other live performances. What if, for example, that energy were transferred beyond its grounds and into a community-building event, a musical procession between DIA and the Raven Lounge (top left)? The DIA patrons would hear live music in an different setting and those of the Raven Lounge, see Rivera's powerful "Detroit Industry" murals.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Devon Avenue -- The Whole World (or a Lot of it) in Merchantile Harmony

Devon Avenue in Chicago's West Ridge exemplifies some of what's best about the United States. It is a place where everyone has something to contribute, and where people from sometimes hostile backgrounds (at least seem to) get along.

The initial draw of this commercial strip was food. I love South Asian food, which is well-represented here. I also seek out rose hip jam at a grocery store that seems to be a refuge from civil wars: Products from the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and other (hopefully past) scenes of hostility live together, in mercantile peace.
Perhaps the market, the dollar, binds us in good ways: Pakistanis, Arabs, Indians, Jews, as well as the aforementioned Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, and others, tend business here.

I return to Devon for inspiration. This is America's low-bar-to-entry at its best. We don't ask much, except the desire to participate in a community. You don't have to look or sound or pray a particular way to join.

(Top photo -- North side of Devon, east of Western Avenue. Bottom photo -- New development, northeast corner of Devon and Rockwell Street.)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Leaky Flush Horizontal Wood Siding -- A Case for Vernacular Building Methods

I am a fan of things that work. I am also a fan of the creative. If a building can be both functional and "fresh", this is good news. If not, I choose what works.

In recent years, some buildings have been clad with flush horizontal wood siding. There is no overlap between the boards. As soon as I saw this type of facade, I felt nervous.

There is a reason for shingles and other types of overlapping wood siding, which is the ability to shed water. Unless one is in a location without any precipitation, wood siding that does not overlap invites water into the building envelop. What ensues, you can see in the images to the left, and this in a building only a few years old.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Montrose Avenue's Vernacular Food Shacks

Chicago has its share of "roadside" restaurants. The two in the images to the left (Susie's and Murph's, at 4126 and 3930 W. Montrose Avenue, respectively) are typical. Fairly simple buildings, they are visually interesting chiefly because of their bright colors and advertising. They have "camp" value, a kind of humor.

While they look like auto-oriented businesses and, indeed, provide parking, Susie's and Murph's are pedestrian-friendly. They are small, close to the sidewalk, and provide outdoor seating. These are all features that make these shacks assets to their neighborhoods. I love these buildings.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hirshhorn Museum's Abram Lerner Room -- A Restful Perch in the Eye of the Cyclops

The Abram Lerner Room (see image to the left) of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, has long been a favorite place of mine in the capitol. As a child, visiting my sister, I stumbled upon this room and found refuge from the unrelenting sun of the National Mall, outside.

The Hirshhorn Museum (designed by Gordon Bunshaft, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and completed in 1974) is one of my favorites. I love Modern Art and it has an excellent collection. Like the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1966), the building is a kind of cyclops, a monster with one eye staring out (see image above).

In this case, the cyclops is friendly, providing an unexpectedly reviving gallery in its eye. The Abram Lerner Room, as it is called, has a comfortable curved couch facing a curved window from which one can view the National Mall. It is an unusually brilliant place, combining quiet, beauty, and the activity and grand scale of the mall.

Milwaukee Avenue Bicycle Commute -- Changing Attitudes

If you want to count on seeing bicyclists in Chicago, regardless of the weather, I recommend Milwaukee Avenue, anywhere between Logan Square and the Loop. During one one-mile ride, I counted more than one hundred cyclists heading in the opposite direction. On warm summer days, you would be sure to see more on the lakefront path, but on Milwaukee, you will see dedicated, life-altered commuters.

How does one encourage bicycling? Of course, through design -- of roads, signage, lighting, and land use. The environment, at every scale, can discourage or encourage cycling. A second factor, which is more difficult to quantify or control, is through changing cultural attitudes. Attitude may be why Milwaukee Avenue is such a cycling thoroughfare. It connects neighborhoods with large young populations, usually more open to trying new or "forbidden" things.