Blaservations spent most of the past week driving through southeastern Iowa, traveling heavily on Interstate 80, looking for the Hartland’s best taquerias, and blasting the Marshall Tucker Band’s Greatest Hits. And looking at old buildings, of course.
In the nineteen-teens, Indiana entrepreneur (and perhaps the original “Car Guy”) Carl G. Fisher envisioned a highway that would carry Americans from Times Square to San Francisco. Fisher had made a fortune developing acetylene headlights, used on every make and model of automobile across brands for almost ten years, and would later go on to co-develop the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The wider use of the automobile brought the conditions of American roads to a contentious point, particularly in rural areas. While the Good Roads Movement had set the groundwork for private industry (bicycle manufacturers and enthusiasts’ groups) to invest in improving roads, the modern motorcar required a smooth, even traveling path or risk cracked axles or other damage to futuristic machinery. Using private funds from the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison and Teddy Roosevelt, Fisher seeded the first stretch of the “Lincoln Highway” in 1913 and developed the Lincoln Highway Association to promote it, headquartered in Detroit. The Lincoln Highway Association is still in existence, and now serves as a watchdog organization for the preservation of the highway’s historic character.
America’s first transcontinental highway for automobiles would eventually bumble through thirteen states east to west; New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, helping develop nearly every community along the roadway. By the time the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 was enacted and national roadway standards were established, roadways were marked and numbered. By the time state and national highways were designated in the 1920s, service stations and roadside respites had popped up everywhere along the Lincoln Highway, including the Reed Niland Corner in Colo, Iowa.
In the 1920s, travelers along the Lincoln Highway (or the Jefferson Highway, which bisects the Lincoln Highway in Colo, and travels roughly from Winnipeg to New Orleans) could gas up the Ford, grab an egg salad sandwich or stop for the night at a one stop Mom-and-Pop known as the Reed Niland Corner, after the owner of the service station, Charlie Reed, and the family that ran the restaurant and the motel, the Niland’s. The service station operated as such until 1967, and the restaurant and hotel closed in 1995. The site was sold to the City of Colo by a Niland family member and was restored and reopened in 2008.
The Reed Niland Corner, a grouping of simple wood framed structures located in rural Iowa, is an exceptional and rare example of a building typology that was literally everywhere prior to the development of the modern freeway system. Sites like this seem to further emphasize the shift between travel by automobile in the 1920s and 30s, where roadside culture was built upon stops that would serve as a place to relax and refuel, and today, where convenience and speed is king. Unfortunately, most of our built heritage capturing this time in America has been lost. Small privatized rural highways often became a part of a larger highway system, and historic roadways that ran parallel to super highways found a limited need for a two pump service station, or a roadside diner. These factors, along with the holistic re-use of the Reed Niland Corner’s cafe and motel as just that, a cafe and motel, make the site even more special, and worthy of listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
On April 17th 2014, The City of Chicago announced that it would create a task force to look into the best potential location in Chicago for The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, alighting rumors that after being rejected by the Presidio Trust in San Francisco, Filmmaker George Lucas had set his sights on Chicago as a potential location for what Lucas has referred to as “an anthropologocial museum of visual storytelling.”
At the Presidio, the creator of “Star Wars,” and “Indiana Jones” offered to build and self-endow a $700 million, 95,000 square foot museum to house his nearly $1 billion collection of artwork, ranging from paintings by Norman Rockwell, comics from Mad magazine, and digital stills from the movie Shrek. Lucas has loosely argued that the museum will draw young people to the area that would otherwise not be interested in the park, located just steps away from the Golden Gate Bridge. Lucas also offered this statement about the Bay Area on the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum website:
“The Bay Area has always been home to forward-thinkers and artistic innovators-people who push to do things that haven’t been done before. Men like Eadweard Muybridge, Philo Farnsworth and Steve Jobs. Companies like Pixar, Adobe, and Facebook. There’s a history of invention here that’s as exciting as it is infectious. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here, why I raised my family here, and why I chose to start my own business here. It’s also why I chose this remarkable region for a new museum.“
The Presidio was once the epicenter of military operations in the American West during World War II, but its history began as a military garrison in the 18th century. Many of the 800 some historic buildings, scenic vistas and wooded areas contribute to its’ status as a National Historic Landmark, a unique designation given to only 2,500 historic resources on the National Register of Historic Places. This idyllic location, bordering the shores of both San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, represents a unique partnership between the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust. The Presidio Trust Act calls for “preservation of the cultural and historic integrity of the Presidio for public use,” and since the park was spared from the auction block in 1996 many buildings have been restored, and brownfields sites cleared to make this a financially independent, desirable mixed use area with ample public space. The Presidio is also the home to Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic and Lucasfilm’s online offices. So why was Lucas’s plan rejected if he already has a presence there?
The seven member board of the Presidio Trust shot down Lucas’s proposal in February, claiming that it just wasn’t right for the site, an eight-acre parcel known as Chrissy Field, an open space with waterfront access now used as a public recreation area. Similar proposals were also shot down, echoing the commitment of the Trust in terms of the Presidio’s integrity and sensitive development. Lucas isn’t done working on his plan to build a museum in his beloved California. An alternate location has been suggested by the Presidio Trust, and his hometown of Modesto has also expressed interest.
So why does Chicago care about bringing the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum Here? It shouldn’t. But we are coming up with dumb ideas anyways. Let’s discuss two of the worst ideas.
In true Chicago form, no discussion about the significance of the museum is able to happen without establishing a connection between George Lucas, the creative empire that is Lucasfilm, and Chicago. George Lucas’ wife is a native of Chicago. That’s it. There is no other connection. A sketchy Mexican bar in Pilsen didn’t inspire the Mos Eisley Cantina. He didn’t see Ewoks in the trees in Lincoln Park. The campus of Wilber Wright College didn’t inspire the interior design of the Death Star. Sorry.
Some have suggested that Grant Park would make a good location. There are some major problems with this. In 1836, public officials overseeing construction of the Illinois and Michigan Shipping Canal parcelled out the lakefront property that would eventually become Grant Park, legally designating it as “Public Ground — A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings, or other Obstruction Whatever.” This ordinance is perhaps one of the most well-known in Chicago, and while it has served to protect Chicago’s lakefront in the face of decades’ worth of development challenges there have been some narrow misses, the most recent one being the controversy surrounding the Chicago Children’s Museum’s interest in relocating to Grant Park in 2007. Public outcry created a public relations nightmare for the museum, and the plan was scrapped in favor of a new site on Navy Pier. Grant Park’s proximity to the Loop, the Magnificent Mile and Navy Pier might make this site an attractive but poor option for a museum once again, and any museum with a $700 million dollar budget behind it has ample room to navigate the legal tangles of Grant Park. This is not outside the realm of possibility considering Richard J. Daley was a supporter of the Children’s Museum Plan, and it might already have been suggested by the task force. The price could very easily be right if Lucas was to offer additional philanthropic funds that the City of Chicago could capitalize on.
The Uptown Theater, located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, was designed by architects C.W and George Rapp for the Balaban and Katz theatre chain. The Uptown Theatre, built in 1925, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a notable Chicago Landmark. In what could possibly be one of the most unfortunate stories of long-term preservation by neglect, the Uptown has been dark since the J. Geils Band played a concert there in 1981. No immediate plans for demolition have ever faced the Uptown Theatre, but decades of deferred maintenance and its seemingly constant flux in ownership have kept the building under the radar of organizations like Landmarks Illinois. As recently as January, the Uptown Theatre had its heat turned off, and a 30-foot icicle had formed in the basement. This area of Uptown is a well-known TIF district, and with other smaller scale entertainment venues like the Rivera Theatre and the Green Mill located steps away, bringing the Uptown Theatre back as an entertainment venue similar or congruent to its original use seems like the ideal option. Mayor Emanuel himself even made comments after being elected regarding how he would like to see Uptown as Chicago’s newest entertainment district, but it never happened.
Friends of the Uptown have been lobbying hard via social media to bring the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum to the Uptown Theatre. Perhaps a former theatre housing a collection of artwork that has inspired and contributed to film culture is an alternate take on adaptive re-use, but that argument is a loose one. In Presidio, Lucas proposed a 95,000 square foot museum on what is essentially a raw land sight. How will the Uptown, at a paltry 46,000 square feet ever house that without extensive (and insensitive) renovations? Did we forget what we learned just a decade ago, when we turned Soldier Field into a spaceship? Uptown is a densely developed urban neighborhood, with little room for the infrastructural changes that will affect it once a $700 million, privately funded, nationally recognized museum comes to the area.
And what about parking? This museum will require acres of it, which means that the site chosen will haven an Atom bomb effect in terms of parking in the area. From a preservationist/planner/Urbanist standpoint, this means that buildings that may contribute to the scale or overall sense of place in an area, but aren’t technically or legally architecturally significant might be more financially viable as surface parking lots to their owners. This is a particular concern that should be put in sharp focus for those that believe the Uptown Theatre might make an ideal spot.
Despite already having Lucasfilm as their neighbor, the Presidio made the right choice in turning down Lucas’s plans for a museum in their backyard, and there are even fewer reasons for Chicago to say yes to a large-scale, high-traffic project that doesn’t relate to our existing culture here. The task force in Chicago will report to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in May on their ideal sites for the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum. Perhaps the “force will be with them” and the findings will conclude that the ideal site is somewhere on the planet Tattooine. Or California.
The City of Chicago has created a website where residents can submit ideas and recommend sites for the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum. You can access it here.
Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles
Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael
Its all expected, things are for the looking
If you got the money, Quest is for the booking
The beginning lines to “Excursions” by Tribe Called Quest are certainly one of the most awesome album openers in hip hop. Over an aggressive upright bass line ripped directly from Art Blakey, Q-Tip gives a micro and macro history of rap; it’s self-referential relationship with other music, and the observation from ‘pops’ that Bebop and hip hop have more in common than just being words that rhyme. As you get a sense that Q-Tip is standing on a precipice of sorts; looking back at the genre, observing the present, seeing that “things go in cycles (the) Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”, the beat drops. And the future is here!
Like hip hop, historic preservation is a famous plunderer of themes; two disciplines that are constantly referencing the olden days, but have managed to become their own entities by using historical content as a base of original thinking, communicating, and even arguing. Neither has any original notes, a hallmark of what makes both hip hop and preservation so distinctly Postmodern. Hip hop has its roots in existing forms of music, just like preservation has roots in existing architecture. Both are hard to dissect, but really easy to like. Both have low ends and high ends, and multiple access points. Remember wishing you were a “little bit taller, wish I was a baller” along with Skee-lo? How excited were you as a first grader to take the bus from your school to your hometown historic village on a field trip? Do you remember hearing 808’s & Heartbreak for the first time, and understanding that like it or not, hip hop had changed since you began listening to Skee-Lo? What about preservationist’s impassioned but miscarried struggle to convince the whole world that the curvy, cast concrete 1976 Prentice Women’s Hospital, the same age as Aesop Rock, was the future of architectural heritage? You don’t need to know every member of Wu-Tang Clan’s birthday to like rap, and you don’t need to be a member of your local historical society to be into old buildings.
Easy to like, hard to dissect. No opportunity to criticize the body politic of hip hop is ever refused, and like historic preservation, it hasn’t been able to shake some of the negative aspects of its image. Hip hop’s physical foundation is not one of comfort or stability. It may be easy to like, but it certainly doesn’t need you to like it. Part of hip hop’s authentic voice comes from communicating that there are parts of the world that are harsh and unfriendly-guns, drugs, poverty, social problems, gangs…these topics either make for compelling stories or an all-too identifiable reality. However, the perception that violence is the principle theme in hip hop is like saying Frank Lloyd Wright is the only architect that matters. Action Bronson’s raps might as well be an audio book of the Joy of Cooking. Stalley’s “Intelligent Trunk Music” provides a Midwest perspective of American car culture. Earl Sweatshirt’s music is chock full of moody double entendres and rhymes that place Earl high above emcees twice his age.
There is also the concept of the rapper as a blowhard braggadocio, claiming to be the illest/dopest/richest/hardest/realest/trillest when it comes to rhyming/women/partying/money (as far as being the trillest architect, the award goes to Denise Scott Brown.) But for each claim made for hip hops’ materialism, violence and self-referentialism, a claim can also be made for its style, power and individuality. On “Picasso Baby” Jay Z spits: “I just want a Picasso/in my Casa/no my Castle/I’m a Hassa/no I’m an Asshole/I’m never Satisfied/Can’t Knock the Hustle.” On a surface level, Jay’s talking about his reality; enjoying the trappings of being ridiculously, ridiculously rich and having great taste to match that enormous wealth. But the Picasso in question isn’t really a painting or a work of art at all; it’s ‘Marcy to Madison Square’ Hov, wanting more for himself. It’s Jay Z urging you to dream big, no wait-BIGGER! I just want a Picasso! What do you want? Perhaps it’s a promotion. Perhaps it’s running that last mile on the treadmill with gusto. Perhaps it’s saving up for a new car. Perhaps it’s being the Baddest Bitch, the Trina of Historic Preservation (@blaservations!) Hip hop is so good at getting the listener to dig deeply into what seems like simple, literal context. You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop.
Historic Preservation’s most notorious nuisance was best depicted in the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” In the shadow of the Hill Valley Clock Tower, Marty McFly leans in to kiss the beautiful young Jennifer, only to be cock-blocked by a canister full of change being shaken by a blowsy old biddy from the Hill Valley Preservation Society, screeching that the imperiled clock tower be preserved “Exactly as it is as a part of our history and heritage!” Marty drops a quarter in the canister to get the lady to beat it. Preservation has often been panned for cock-blocking progress in the exact same way that Marty got cock-blocked. Preservation has a tendency to come off as a desperate plea to preserve everything at all costs. Many have a ‘Save it All’ approach; tying ourselves to buildings, arguing for the preservation of non-economically viable architectural dinosaurs, preserving really hideous buildings that only have esoteric academic importance, disliking any notion of the future and perhaps the worst accusation of all, not caring about rights of ownership. This is not a fair depiction, but a misunderstanding; both in terms of how preservationists carry out the work of preserving buildings and how we communicate a historic buildings’ value. Preservationese is a language understood by a small percentage of people, but issues like scale, walkability, affordability and sustainability can be expressed in almost any language, and these things can happen through the good work of historic preservation. With the legal teeth and review process put in action because of federal laws, historic preservation can make a bonafide, card-carrying impact on communities, but without public approval and support, it becomes an elite club of academics with their priorities askew.
Preservation is valuable tool in making where we work, where we play and where we sleep able to satisfy our ever-changing social, economic and cultural needs. Keeping the old versus building new means fewer bricks, scraps of metal and wood end up filling landfills, and less energy is produced in preparing raw materials like trees into two-by-fours, or transporting these materials to the building site. Old buildings can be a treasure trove of tangible information on communities and how they develop, from how a building has changed over time to who has used it over its life. On an intangible level, preservation gives people a way to understand the past by developing their own personal connection to place. In order to survive, preservation needs to be constantly predicting the future, and most importantly; our concept of the past of the future, because the past changes daily.
Just prior to the Civil War, the home of the first President of the United States, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, found itself under threat of demolition. While the preservation of such an important American landmark seems like a no-brainer today, Mount Vernon in the 1850s was a dilapidated plantation crapshack, in the way of progress. An ambitious group of women, giving themselves the name the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, saw that a future without Mount Vernon was a future of missing pieces, and organized nationally to raise awareness and save the imperiled landmark. As architects and planners were throwing up buildings with cantilevers, ‘Space-Race’ and transportation-inspired aesthetics and all sorts of zigs and zags in the middle of the 20th century, buildings with decorative finials, ionic columns, or Mansard roofs were being demolished left and right. Taste is very tricky to legislate, and it’s changing constantly. So how do we make choices as far as what is worthy of sticking around? It’s never easy. Like the battles preservationists fought, won and lost in the 1960s when progress plowed through irreplaceable 18th and 19th century architectural treasures, there is a new struggle to keep the inertia of a midcentury modern preservation movement going, despite the enormous setbacks.
This constant review and re-review of what is ‘historic architecture’ is like hip hop’s constant revisiting of its past. 1983’s “Between the Sheets” by the Isley Brothers has been touched by almost every important emcee or producer in the last two decades. The Notorious B.I.G. rhymed over a seminal sample of it on “Big Poppa,” in 1994. By the time the sample got to Jay Z and Beanie Sigel in 2007 on “Ignorant Shit,” it had grown to something bigger than just an Isley Brothers sample, taking on all of the heavy residuals of Christopher Wallace’s life and death, like the use of the sample itself was making an unequevical comment on the state of hip hop for the lucky few that study it. 2012’s “Juke Juke” by Chance the Rapper couldn’t be more hyper-aware or self-referential.
Both preservation and hip hop are young and developing, and perhaps it’s the absence of critical thinking on the movements themselves, and not just what inspired them, that makes each so hungry and fresh for experimentation, new technology and healthy discourse. Who didn’t hate Brutalism ten years ago? With each look back, you find something new. Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael.
On September 10th, 2001, The World Trade Center was a seven building complex in New York Cities’ Financial District, anchored by two 110 foot square steel towers on a 16 acre urban Superblock. Designed by American architect Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1972, the Twin Towers made an immediate and almost unequivocal mark on the New York skyline.
Manhattan, like many skylines across America, hadn’t changed much since the 1920s. Factors like economic depression, World Wars, and the dramatic shift from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s had put a major hault on building in urban areas. As towers of steel and glass rose to take over the overall elevations of cities all accross the nation, skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building and the Empire State Building began to look like poorly-aged grandparents. This was the beginning of the era of the Supertall Building, where the race for the loftiest is sometimes determined only by one or two feet, or a radio tower. Things were changing in a big way, with really, really big buildings.
Great skylines are like logos for the cities that they serve. Desplayed as a silhouette, the skylines of New York, Seattle, and Chicago look more like great fonts than elevations of urban areas. We are excited by them, particularly when we come from places that lack architectural verticality. Visiting cities in person, there is nothing like heading Downtown and seeing a wall of tall buildings before you; first defined by only a few jagged shapes, and then becoming a busy puzzle of stone, brick, iron, glass and steel. A city skyline stirs the imagination. It represents hope, possibility, and success. It doesn’t matter if you’ve left your home swamp in Wisconsin for a vacation or perminantly. The thrill is the same. You’ve made it here! So you can make it anywhere! It’s up to you, New York, New York!
The World Trade Center was Modernism to a tee. An emphasis on straight lines, shining aluminum alloy on the facade and a nod to Gothic Architecture in the presence of the three pronged forms that rose from the street level, easing the hard lines above. To those that romanticized The Big Apple, the towers of the World Trade Center became the most salient representative of the lightning fast pace of city life, the powerful company and corporation, and the sheer dominance of something made by man being that impossibly tall. Buildings like this can easily command your attention, creating that slack-jawed, bug-eyed effect that Supertalls have on the person looking up at them.
A visit to the World Trade Center was a part of the standard tourist tour of New York. Visit the statue of Liberty and ponder the importance of our freedom (or perhaps just jam out on how Peter Venkman was a genius for thinking to use Lady Liberty to defeat Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters II.) Check out Rockefeller Center and marvel at how it looks bigger on TV. Bathe in the wattage of Times Square. Try and find the Central Perk. Perhaps dine at a Hard Rock Cafe? The World Trade Center became the most ubiquitous buildings in New York, and the image of the Twin Towers taking command over the skyline seemed to come to represent something greater within popular culture, more so than any other American Building during its lifetime.
The deplorable events of September 11th don't need to be rehashed here, but there was a sudden and viceral public reaction to each and every element that was contributing, or thought to be contributing. Islam was a threat. Airports were a threat. Tall buildings were a threat. And now the World Trade Center was gone, along with the lives of thousands of innocent people at the hands of a scary new household word: Terrorism.
Those Al-Qaeda jerks made their point. There was a sudden change to the most famous and important skyline in the world. The effect was visual and tangable. The World Trade Center immediately became a burdened American image. It was cut from movies and VHS covers. It represented our naivete in thinking that we were the center of the universe, and it had to be removed from existance. The Pre-September 11th skyline of New York became difficult to digest and shameful to view. Post-9/11, the absence of such a substantial piece of the dense fabric of place; both in New York and across the country, became a visual representation for the tangable emptyness that was felt everywhere. The World Trade Center had been reduced to a graveyard of rubble and twisted steel surrounded by dust and smoke. And then when the air cleared, this happened:
And then this:
The image of the Pre-September 11th World Trade Center became a potent symbol of Americana, screenprinted on t-shirts and floated over images of the American flag. The twin towers were no longer the object of Kermit the Frog’s gaze, or Carrie Bradshaw’s wanton urban optimism. They were like two muscled arms, with two clenched fists, poised defensively in front of America’s face, ready to fight.
No building that tall had ever failed before, let alone by human hands. A piece of architecture had been used as a weapon of mass destruction against American ideals. Well-designed buildings shelter us, they make us think, they inspire us. But immediately after 9/11, anything tall, significant, historic or influential in the United States was considered a potential target, leaving people all over the country looking up and thinking that every architectural landmark was a potential loaded gun. What if the US Bank Tower in Los Angeles was hijacked? What if the Sears Tower in Chicago was hijacked? The Rennissance Building in Detroit? The Bank of America Plaza in Dallas? The Palazzo in Las Vegas?
Security measures at observation decks and revolving restaurants were tightned. Architectural Engineers began planning Supertalls not to withstand changes in temperature or wind resistance, but to withstand the impact of a Boeing 747. Fireproofing standards within stairwells and elevators were thrown out and completely reworked to preserve human life against floor space. At the former site of the Twin Towers, this challenge was amplified by the need for any new structure to carry the tremendous weight of what happened through supurb, world-class design.
One World Trade Center, formerly the Freedom Tower, is slated to open sometime in 2014. Perhaps the message of building on the site where a horrible American tragedy took place will be best articulated in the symbolic 1,776 feet of the 104 story tower, or the mangled artifacts in the museum. Put simply, the clearest message is the fact that people will continue to do exactly what they did at this site on September 10th, 2001; work in an office in Lower Manhattan and be American as fuck.
We not only began to think about seeing tall buildings differently, we began to design them differently. But what do we do with the past? From architectural fragments to firetrucks, important physical artifacts have been preserved. Ideas as far as how to commemorate tragic events in history have been evolving and improving for decades, and the World Trade Center is histories’ newest and most important challenge.
World Trade Center souvenier coffee cups, pressed pennies with an embossed image of the Twin Towers, Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, Yamasaki renderings, Architectural Digest images of the gleaming lobby in 1973; they all tell a story of a past that was very real, and very abruptly interrupted by a heartbreaking event. This material, the pre 9-11 skyline view and all of the ephemera has a significant role in documenting September 11th in a way that is holistic, teachable and tangable. History is a conversation over time, and and twelve years later, this conversation is beginning. So what will we say?
Imagine my surprise in hearing that during Thanksgiving, out of all the outrageous topics that are typically covered and conjectured by the Blasius Family, the entirety of my dinky little blog was read aloud by my cousin Caroline. I’m sure I would have felt my ears burning from the other side of Metro Detroit if I hadn’t been eating myself to near death levels. So this post is dedicated to Blanche, Bob, Cheryl, Keith and Larry and all of their respective spouses and children. Thanks for reading guys.
“I have been a circus-horse rider between architecture and urbanism most of my life. But reigning together beasts that have been tugging apart over five decades has made for a bumpy ride.”- Denise Scott Brown, 2012
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing a living piece of architectural history. Denise Scott Brown is the principal collaborator of Robert Venturi, one of the most important architects of the 20th century. This husband and wife duo did something rare in architecture; they talked about it, wrote about it and built buildings that people actually want to use. In an act of Preservationly defiance, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi met on the pastoral campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1960 over the proposed demolition of Frank Furness’s library. They joined forces soon after, teaching at UPENN, visiting America’s best and worst, oldest and newest cities, and eventually falling in love.
Born in South Africa in 1931, Denise attended architecture school in London in the 1950s and traveled extensively throughout Europe with her first husband, Robert Scott Brown, who would die tragically in 1959. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Planning in 1958, Denise immediately began seeing America as a whole pie; a conglomeration of ideas from the old world and the vanguardist spirit of a former colony that had yet to hit two hundred. Denise recognized that America’s past, present and future were of equal importance to the success of cities here. Pop that pie in the oven with a couple of other ingredients, and you’ve got the makings of a great Urban Planner.
Cities are living, breathing systems, and architects, designers and planners have to deal with a stellar combination of old stuff that’s important, medium-old stuff that’s useful, and new stuff that’s obtrusive but vital. Few luck out and are able to start with a blank slate, and those that do end up with crap like Kapolei, Hawaii. Don’t think for a minute that because it’s in Hawaii it’s not a god-awful place.
During our conversation, Denise stated that the “movement of people equals a city” and that movement and land use are “inexplicably intertwingled” with each other. (‘Intertwingled’ isn’t a word to be found in Webster’s Dictionary, but she’s Denise Scott Brown. Denise Scott Brown can create words.) In this way, it’s easy to see how the good ol’ ant farm analogy applies. I also thought about Chicago’s wonderful underground Pedway System, and how it allows city dwellers to move with ease from one part of the Loop to another, a savior if you’re caught without an umbrella. Inhabitants of a city have limited power over what the built environment looks like, but infinite possibilities as far as how to use it through movement.
As much as I love run-on sentences full of big, wordy words; my favorite architectural concepts are quite simple. Like ‘Duck versus Decorated Shed,’ a Venturi Scott Brown Favorite.
The fact that the ‘duck’ is a duck is pretty inconsequential. The duck could be any number of buildings, say a coffee cup-shaped coffee house, or an engagement ring store shaped like an engagement ring. These buildings are what they are, and were designed to be what they are. You could even go the high-falutin’ route with this concept.
Frank Lloyd Wrong designed the Guggenheim Museum as an art museum. That is what it is. It’s construction, as well as the theory of design and use, explain to us why it is the way it is. Architects are pigheaded, and they often use their own writing and theories to justify the rigidity of their own work.
The ‘decorated shed’, on the other hand, uses signage to tell you what its use is. Think of any number of buildings that have an undefined shape that have words or ornament on them that tell you what you can find there. You know what the Golden Arches are, even if they are stuck on a high-rise in Tokyo. Seeing “Chase” emblazoned on the side of a building tells me that if I wanted to, I could overdraw my account and spend a couple of stacks on something Marc Jacobs-ey. Who’s to say the duck is better? Or the decorated shed? This is an easy game to play because you, as the user dictate how you use and see your environment. Try it sometime. It’s fun.
After speaking with Denise, I began to ‘reign together my own beasts’ and commit some of my own theories to paper. Why not, right? Some nerd might want to interview me someday.
Perhaps this is a rhetorical question. In search of an answer, I went to the hospital.
Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center is a doozy of a Brutal building. Located just east of Western Avenue on Division in Chicago, it’s easily the tallest structure in a half-mile radius, and quite out of scale with the rest of Ukrainian Village (and out of context if one considers its famous neighbors, like Louis Sullivan’s iconic Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral) With its vertical concrete bastions, tiny punched-out windows and huge hoods looming uneasily, this building is so austere and so brutal it almost makes you want to question the sanity of the architect. Was this person intent on building a structure for health and healing, or was the architect inspired by his laundry hamper turned over an air-conditioning unit?
Brutalism is a design language that came about by rejecting the straightforward glass boxes of Modernist architecture by using materials such as poured concrete and coarse aggregate to express a type of crudeness, or even vulgarity. Brutalism tells it like it is; buildings are a mess of materials and complex systems. Rather than tucking ventilation units in the basement or behind decorative elements, the building becomes a visual expression for the way it actually works. Some of your least favorite buildings are likely in the Brutal style. Take the pugnacious Troy Public Library in Troy, Michigan for example, which looks like it straight up hates itself. Wouldn’t you hate yourself if you looked like a Stair Stepper?
Or a pile of used air filters?
Or the blade of a Ped Egg?
Or a Satanic meat tenderizer throwing up gang signs?
Back to St. Elizabeth, the Brutal exterior gives way to a spectacularly similar interior, where the strong, solid lines and emphasis on material continue.
The Chapel inside was pleasant surprise, with vivid dalle de verre a dramatic contrast to the stark poured concrete, which seems to be the only concession of “pretty” here.
But is my knowledge of architecture clouding my judgment? Brutalism was never meant to compete with the Taj Mahal or your Grandpappy’s favorite old Queen Anne cottage, but it’s certainly distinctive, evenly if it’s distinctively disgusting. These buildings aren’t pretty, but then I couldn’t run speed intervals on the treadmill listening to Peggy Lee. That’s what Skrillex is for.
So the answer is yes, I suppose. I like Brutalism. I like that by serving materials and structure rather than a visually appealing aesthetic, Brutalism developed its own aesthetic that is true to the spirit of really great designs and designers. As Modern architectural heritage begins its journey into the realm of historic significance after years of falling victim to the wrecking ball because it wasn’t pretty or well-liked or Frank Lloyd Wright I can’t help but wonder; will I be the only spinster wacky enough to stand in front of the Chicago Landmarks Commission in 2030 in defense of St. Elizabeth?