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.


  1. I have read, and I accept.

    It was a good lecture! The work of Mr. Weese is far more interesting than I had originally surmised. I think Oak Park has a really fine example of his work in their village hall. Softer on the inside than most of his work.

  2. We have a lot of Harry Weese architecture in Colimbus, IN. Nice to see his name being discussed again. He has been very underrated for his many projects.

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