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Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

The Great Chicago Fire started October 8, 1871 and left 100,000 of the 300,000 inhabitants homeless.  Being Chicagoans, they rolled up their sleeves, cleaned up and started rebuilding.

What to do with the rubble from all those destroyed buildings?  Why, dump it into the lake.  This was the beginning of the landfill east of the railroad tracks that became Grant Park.  The city’s politicians and merchants had to come up with an ordinance about how that land was to be used.  Aaron Montgomery Ward, the department store and catalog tycoon, insisted that the land east of Michigan Avenue, from Randolph to Roosevelt, should remain free of buildings and be used for parks only—for the enjoyment and recreation of all the people of Chicago.  In 1911, after 20 years of court battles against the city, he won.  The only exception he agreed to is the Art Institute, which was part of the Colombian Exposition of 1893.

The Colombian Exposition and Jackson Park were laid out by the pre-eminent landscape architect in 19th Century America, Fredrick Law Olmstead (1822-1903). His successors, the Olmsted Brothers, consulted Daniel Burnham in planning Grant Park.

Olmsted also planned Central Park in New York and advised the planners for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  He was a nature lover. He believed that parks were vital to city dwellers for relaxation and rejuvenation. I remember reading, though not where exactly, that Olmsted hated sculptures in parks.

This bit of Chicago history and Olmsted’s part in it went through my head when I walked down Michigan Avenue recently.  There, past Jackson, is a little rectangular park with benches. It’s a spot to sit a spell and reflect, to get away from man-made structures and institutions, to be surrounded by nature for a short breather, just the thing Olmsted designed parks for.

IMG_1489But, alas, now this little park, called Solti Gardens, is cluttered with humanoid metal objects.  There are twenty-six of them, all insipid male-ish figures, with the same bland face, standing, sitting and kneeling pointlessly. If they were heroic and Rodin-y they would be just as much of a nuisance. The sculptor, no doubt, thought she would add a note of poignancy by making her bland figures on one side of the park out of dark metal and those on the other side of light metal.  No, Ms. Thórarinsdóttir and your financiers, you’re not helping us think about race in America with these lifeless figures. Olmsted would throw this junk out.

Presiding over the clutter is a monstrous head on a pedestal, supposedly commemorating George Solti.  It’s an insult to music lovers and Solti-admirers and Olmsted would not approve.

13ParkOlmsted1A woman in a red coat was walking her two little dogs over the gravel and the grass.   A young couple took a brisk detour through the park to get to the intersection at Congress.  An artist was sneaking photos of the scene and reflecting on the history of Chicago and on what parks are for.  Our great designer of parks would be happy to see how these people related to a city park.

Thank you, Mr. Olmsted.  Sorry for the sculpture clutter.

For more timid reviews:

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-08-07/entertainment/ct-ent-0808-borders-sculpture-20130808_1_art-institute-sculptures-exhibition

http://artdaily.com/news/64247/Icelandic-artist-Steinunn-Th-rarinsd-ttir-brings-26-life-sized-sculptures-to-Chicago#.UrDZJPup2UY

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13LindaGlobePhThe picturesque Harley Clarke Mansion, home of the Evanston Art Center, is a bit of an architectural sampler in the sense that it features turrets, balconies, gables, dormers and stone carvings. One of my plein air students has fallen in love with the entrance to the greenhouse, which combines a Palladian reference and a carved wooden door frame with overgrown vines.  In previous sessions she drew the door itself and the view towards the Clarke’s ornamented main entrance.  This week she turned to draw one of the cement globes that announce the fern-and-lily lined 13LindaGlobeDrawingStraightpassage to the greenhouse.

When Linda’s drawing was finished, we considered cropping possibilities.  The fence in the distance behind the globe forms a sturdy horizontal line.  Perhaps too sturdy.  When the drawing is cropped conventionally with the fence horizontal, the image is, well, too conventional.  Notice what happens when we tilt the drawing and chop off the top of the globe.  More tension, more movement.

13LindaGlobeDrawingTilt1While we were playing with these cropping choices, a photographer from the Chicago Tribune came by and, with our permission, documented the little tutorial scene. The next day, the Trib ran an article about the plight of the Clarke Mansion , not with the tutorial scene by the greenhouse, but with a wide-angle shot of the whole building, which was, after all the focus of the piece. The piece summarizes the debate over the fate of the mansion:

 http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/suburbs/evanston_skokie_morton_grove/ct-met-evanston-lighthouse-beach-hotel-20130714,0,849034.story

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130328DraperyArchMeg

It’s never JUST drapery. Drapery is uncanny stuff.  It has a way of looking like something else.  Its round, merging 130328DraperyArchMeg1shapes are reminiscent of the human body, so that if you practice drawing drapery you’ll find it easier to draw from the figure. When this drawing was almost done, the artist/student Meg, said, “it looks like muscles.”  So it does, like an arm and a shoulder.  We talked about the option of drawing more of the drapery in the still life and filling up more of the page, but the shape of what she already had looked complete in itself.

The shape is an arch.  Is the arch archetypal or symbolic?  We’ve had it in our architecture for about five-thousand years.  The Egyptians used it, the Etruscans developed it further and the Romans celebrated its grandeur and exploited its 13RomanArchunassailable transfer of stresses.  In western architecture, to the end of the 19th century, it remained the sturdiest and loveliest form for a portal, an entrance, a gate.  With the glass skyscraper, we abolished the distinction between outside and inside and, so, who cares about portals, it’s all the same, whatever.  I do love glass and steel, but give me a Roman Arch…and to get back to the question about archetypal and symbolic, I don’t know, but I can see and feel that it’s round.Life forms are round, all of them.  Round is where we live.

When this sliver of an arch appeared on Meg’s paper, it had enough life in it to stand alone.

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PicassoSketchesDailyPl

Picasso didn’t like to travel.  When he was in his twenties he would go back to his native Spain every now and then, but always with his painting materials.   Later, when he was absurdly rich and able to go anywhere in the world, he preferred to stay close to his studio.  He worked.  He worked every day.  He died April 8, 1973 shortly after getting up at 11 a.m. after having worked til four in the morning.

PicassoDaleyPlazaJacques Brownson was the architect who designed the heroic, modernist Daley Center with the firm Loebl Schlossman and Bennett.  Richard Bennett, a partner in the firm, asked Picasso to create a sculpture for the plaza, to be its “spirit.”  Good choice: go to the co-inventer (with Georges Braque, let’s not forget) of cubism.  Picasso, knowing that he would not accept any commission because he intended this to be a gift to the city of Chicago (he never visited), set to work.  I don’t know how many sketches he made, but the visitor guide at the Art Institute features six of them on its cover.  I love the fact that we honor the work in progress.

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When you Google something today, you’ll see a line drawing of Crown Hall.  Bravo, Google!

Crown Hall is the Architecture building at the Illinois Institute of Technology, designed in the mid 1950’s by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was born on this day in 1886.  The building often houses architecture exhibits and art events.  It’s well worth the trip to just be in this building.

Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, replied “I think it would be a great idea.”  He died a few years before Crown Hall went up.  Too bad.  He might have had an aha-moment in this exhilarating, optimistic space.  He would have noticed the clarity of its thought.

The Main Building of what was then the Armory Institute of Technology was built by Patton & Fisher in 1893, the year of the Columbian Exposition.  You see it every time you drive down the Dan Ryan.  It’s Romanesque Revival and was cut from the same fearful cloth as all the gloppy grandeur down at the Midway Plaisance that year.  The powers-that-were apparently trembled at the changes– social, political, cultural, technological, spiritual, the works– that were in the air and exploded in the early decades of the 20th century.  Louis Sullivan was part of that change and his Transportation Building at the Fair was the only progressive structure there.  Poor Louis, came to a tragic end.

The 20th century turned a corner, any way you think of corner, metaphorically or technologically.  No wonder, “how to turn a corner”  became a major topic of discussion among architects.

Mies turned a profound corner.

Gandhi might have been drawn to sit in meditation in Mies’s chapel, which looks inconspicuous, without grandeur, affectation or cowardly historical revivalism.  The chapel at IIT looks more like a factory, a little workshop, a cubicle even, a place where you go to work on your stuff.

(Above, my caricature of Mies, 1986, when I was a docent with the Chicago Architecture Foundation and gave the Loop tours and the Boat Tour with great passion and the occasional quip about the powers-that-be, but you already guessed that.  )

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In his biography of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Franz Schulze says that the reason Mies said “Less is more” is that he didn’t speak English very well.  That sounds like a joke.  It’s true, Mies learned English in middle age.  But Schulze may have come up with the quip out of irritation at how the saying is being bandied about. He may have been tired of its extreme pithiness and then its subsequent casual overuse. You can hear “Less-Is-More”  from people who have no idea where it comes from, in what context it was used or who originally said it.

In 1937 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, at the age of fifty-one, was invited to teach architecture at IIT in Chicago, after heading the architecture department at the Bauhaus in Germany. The Bauhaus innovators had grown up with Victorian clutter, sentimentality, devotion to antiquity, deceptive uses of materials, and social stratification. The Bauhaus, founded in 1919, was a school of design dedicated to finding a new visual vocabulary for all artifacts, from teapots to theater costumes to buildings.   The way to achieve these ends was through technology.

It’s easy to see what Mies meant by “less.”  What did he mean by “more?”  More what?  Well, more integrity, more honesty, more awareness, more equality, more thoughtfulness, more compassion.  The Bauhaus people, like all modern artists, thought that by cleaning up the decorative affectations in our visual world, we would become more truthful.  More moral.

Can’t say we’ve arrived at that ideal.

But Mies’s  wonderfully quotable “Less-Is-More” has certainly gotten twisted and satirized.

In 1966 architect Robert Venturi  published “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,”  both of which he said were just fine. Main Street was fine, Las Vegas was fine.  “Less,” he said, “is a bore.”

Since the 70’s the optimism at the heart of Less-Is-More has been replaced by irony and self-referencing.

While we now live with irony and self-conscious despair in our art and artifacts—oh, and tattoos– “Less-Is-More” keeps surfacing to consciousness and slipping off the tongue.  Ignorant of its derivation, people will say “Less-Is-More” when they’ve just moved into a new apartment but can’t afford the Crate-and-Barrel couch yet.  Mies’s monkish mystery is now constantly trivialized.  Unlike Schulze, however,  I don’t mind because when I hear it used, even by the ignorant, I’m reminded of what he meant.

Passing a hair salon not long ago, I read “Mess is More” in the window.  This turns out to be a slogan promoting a hair product that makes your hair look excessive, in a sort of seedy, cluttered, Victorian way.  Precisely the stuff Mies was revolted by.  So I walked on and reviewed his buildings in my mind and thought of his courage and that made my day.

Top: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, design for Berlin Hochhaus, 1919. Iron & steel skeleton and glass curtain wall.  Couldn’t be built in the Germany of the 1920’s for economic and political reasons.  Lake Point Tower (just West of Navy Pier), 1960’s,  was designed by two of his students, George Schipporeit and John Heinrich as an homage to Mies’s 1919 vision.

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