Street Smart Chicago

The Chicago Architecture Biennial Issue

Architecture No Comments »
Cover by Fletcher Martin

Cover by Fletcher Martin

“We shall leave, for remembrance, one rusty iron heart.”
—Nelson Algren, “City on the Make”

What’s rattling around that rusty heart some fifty years hence Algren’s lovingly caustic sendoff? For some, a boomtown of glass-sheathed skyscraping ambition and beautifully manicured space. For others, a city on the brink, potholed with equal parts resilience and resilient decay.

Maybe not so much has changed. Maybe this bifurcated nature—what Algren called the “Janus-faced city” and what might today just be called a condition of “the Global City”—has always been an elemental part of the city’s framework. From the Gilded Age splendor of Prairie Avenue hulking over Jane Addams masses, to Operation Breadbasket pushing up against Gold Coast shores, it’s a city aggressively unsure of how sure a place it is.

These multitudes play out in the city’s streets everyday, where the design of the city’s buildings, parks, transportation networks and policies all inform the way we go about our daily lives. It’s design that makes Chicago, and Chicago, long home to the most transcendent of American design moments and movements, makes design.
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Checkerboard City: The Case of the Missing People Spots

Andersonville, Architecture, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
Brian Bonanno, in baseball cap, and contractors reinstall the Farragut People Spot. Photo: John Greenfield

Brian Bonanno, in ballcap, and contractors reinstall the Farragut People Spot./Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

As the Tribune’s Blair Kamin recently pointed out, it’s embarrassing that San Francisco will soon have more than eighty “parklets”—parking-lane space repurposed as picturesque seating areas—while our much-larger city only has a handful of them. Dubbed “People Spots” by the Chicago Department of Transportation, which runs the program, eight of these have been put in on business districts in Grand Boulevard, Kenwood, Lakeview and Andersonville.

The beauty of parklets is that they take asphalt that’s usually reserved for warehousing private automobiles and transform it into attractive, planter-enclosed public space where neighbors and shoppers can congregate. The People Spot nicknamed “The Wave” at Addison and Southport in Lakeview is practically public art—its undulating, freeform seating units are both comfy and reminiscent of whale skeletons.

A study by Metropolitan Planning Council found that, since People Spots encourage people to linger on Chicago’s retail strips, they’re a shot in the arm for local businesses. Eighty percent of merchants surveyed felt nearby parklets helped attract customers to their establishments. Seventy-three percent of parklet users said that, if they weren’t eating, chatting, texting or relaxing in the spaces, they’d probably be at home. Thirty-four percent of them said they made spontaneous food or beverage purchases as a result of the inviting hangout space. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: What Kind of Art Is Coming to Wilson?

Architecture, Checkerboard City, Green, Transit, Uptown No Comments »
Cecil Balmond and the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Photos: John Greenfield, Wikipedia

Cecil Balmond and the ArcelorMittal Orbit/Photos: John Greenfield, Wikipedia

By John Greenfield

“The essence of public sculpture is that, for a moment, it belongs to you,” says renowned Sri Lankan-British artist Cecil Balmond, speaking at a recent packed community meeting in the basement of an Uptown nursing home. Last July, the CTA hired Balmond to create artwork for the Wilson Red Line station, as part of a massive, $203 million reconstruction project. It’s notable that the Wilson stop—a notoriously grungy facility and three-time winner of RedEye’s “Crust Station” contest—will be getting a piece by a man whose website calls him “the world’s leading thinker on form and structure.”

Work to rebuild the station began last fall and, as of press deadline, crews were almost done using heavy equipment to demolish the westernmost set of tracks and concrete support pillars. In all, 2,200 feet of the one-hundred-year-old tracks will be replaced and relocated, and the station will be transformed into a new transfer point between the Red and Purple lines. As a result, you can expect an influx of Northwestern students and staff moving to Uptown by the end of the decade. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye of the Beholden: Finding Beauty On and Around Campus

Architecture, Hyde Park, Washington Park No Comments »
Photo: Tom Rossiter

Photo: Tom Rossiter

By Amanda Scotese

The brainy students of the University of Chicago often get so wrapped up in their grand ideas that they lose site of the beauty around them. I remember all the lectures and hours in the Reg blurring together during my time in U of C’s Master of Arts Program, but what I don’t remember blurring are the moments that I took to appreciate the beauty of the campus, especially since I’ve made a career out of loving architectural history through my tour company, Chicago Detours. Next time you want a little inspiration from your surroundings or simply a study break, think of this quick guide to the incredible architecture and artifacts of the U of C campus.

Let’s start with some history of U of C. The city of Chicago began to grow in prominence on the world stage in the late 1800s but lacked in the institution of higher education category. To rectify this problem, merchandising mogul Marshall Field—think “Field Museum”—donated land for a campus. John D. Rockefeller took the torch next and funded construction with the hope that Chicago’s new university would be the Baptist “Harvard” of the West. The University of Chicago was born.

Challenged with building a new university from the ground up to rival East Coast scholarship, primary architect Henry Ives Cobb chose the “Collegiate Gothic” architectural style to launch it into, at least, the aesthetic big leagues. All the stone, gargoyles and clay tile roofs mimic the architecture of historic European paragons like Oxford University. Ultimately, the style took to the medieval period in order to give itself a veneer that looked the part of those institutions that founded the classic roots of scholarship. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: The Northwest Passage

Architecture, Avondale, Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Chicago History, City Life, Green No Comments »
Rob Reid, Mike Filipinski and Elisa Addlesperger on the 2900 block of North Elston.

Rob Reid, Mike Filipski and Elisa Addlesperger on the 2900 block of North Elston.

By John Greenfield

I’ve walked the whole length of eleven Chicago streets in order to experience aspects of local geography, architecture and culture that I might have overlooked using faster modes. So when Rob Reid, who writes the history blog Avondale Time Machine, invited me to join him and friends to hike all 9.5 miles of Elston Avenue last month, I couldn’t refuse.

The street’s namesake was Daniel Elston, a London merchant who immigrated to Chicago in the early 1800s. By 1830 he’d bought a 160-acre parcel in River West, located along a crooked wagon road. The multitalented settler established several businesses—making soap, candles, bricks, beer and whiskey—he also served as a school inspector and alderman.

While Elston was first living by the thoroughfare that would later bear his name, it was a plank toll road owned by Amos Snell, who charged travelers two-and-a-half cents per mile to use it. Displeased with this, local farmers staged a Boston Tea Party of sorts—they dressed up like Indians, chopped down the toll gates and burned them. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: When State Street Wasn’t “That Great Street”

Architecture, Checkerboard City, Chicago History, Green, Loop No Comments »

State Street pedestrian mall in 1982/Photo: William C. Brubaker via UIC Digital Collections

By John Greenfield

When I was a bike messenger in the early nineties, the State Street pedestrian mall was the bane of my existence. In 1979 under Mayor Jane Byrne, the city closed the Loop’s main retail corridor to all forms of traffic except buses, taxis and delivery vehicles in an effort to bring back customers who had been drawn away to suburban shopping centers and the burgeoning Magnificent Mile. That meant I had to detour around State and access addresses along the strip via intersecting east-west streets.

Ultimately the pedestrian mall was judged a failure, and in 1996 under Mayor Richard M. Daley the wide sidewalks were jackhammered to make way for private automobiles again. That renovation, the $24.5 million State Street Revitalization Project, which included attractive Beaux Arts street lamps, ‘L’ entrances and other fixtures, is credited with turning the historically prosperous street back into a bustling retail district.

Laura Jones from the Chicago Loop Alliance provided background on the rationale behind creating the State Street mall. “When downtown started to empty out in the early seventies, business leaders from the Greater State Street Council went to the city with the idea of creating the pedestrian mall. They wanted to make State Street more like a suburban shopping mall, and also people were becoming more energy conscious, so they decided to try a transit mall.” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Where the Sidewalk Ends

Architecture, Avondale, Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Irving Park, Lakeview, News etc. 2 Comments »

The old sidewalk on the south side of Fullerton, now replaced by a car lane/Photo: Michelle Stenzel

By John Greenfield

Last week I attended events related to two different Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) bridge projects. One of these spans will be a terrific addition to the city’s sustainable transportation infrastructure. The other one, not so much.

First the good news. CDOT’s Addison Underbridge Connector project will link up existing snippets of bike path along the Chicago River to create a nearly two-mile, car-free route from Belmont Street to Montrose Avenue. This new path segment will be suspended some sixteen feet above the river on piers.

Starting from the north end of an existing trail in Clark Park, just west of Lane Tech High School, the elevated path will continue north under the Addison Street Bridge, hug the east riverbank and then cross to the west bank to meet up with an existing trail in California Park. Eventually the path will continue under the Irving Park Road Bridge to Horner Park, where trails lead north to Montrose. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Green Parking or Greenwashing?

Architecture, Checkerboard City, Green, River North, Technology 1 Comment »

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Every time I pedal downtown via the Kinzie Street protected bike lane I’m confronted by an oxymoron. At 60 West Kinzie stands an attractive, boxy structure covered with loosely arrayed rectangles of greenish glass, glittering in the sun. Piet Mondrian-inspired yellow panels accent the roofline and southwest corner, where they form a backdrop for twelve white corkscrew wind turbines arrayed in two columns. It’s the Greenway Self-Park, billed as “Chicago’s first earth friendly parking garage.” Its logo features a VW Bug with leaves blowing out of the tailpipes rather than noxious fumes.

Everyone agrees there are too many cars in downtown Chicago, so what could have possibly been sustainable about building this eleven-story garage, which accommodates 715 more of them? It opened in 2010, occupying valuable River North real estate, only a stone’s throw from several transit stations. There’s certainly nothing green about making it easy for, say, a guy from Naperville to drive solo to work every day in his Lexus, instead of taking Metra commuter rail. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Pavement to the People

Andersonville, Architecture, Avondale, Bicycling, Bronzeville, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Lakeview, News etc., Wicker Park 5 Comments »

People Spot and bike corral in Andersonville/Photo: Andersonville Development Corporation

By John Greenfield

Local pundits like ex-Sun-Times columnist Mark Konkol and the Tribune’s John McCarron and John Kass have trashed the city’s new protected bike lanes as a waste of space on the streets. But Chicagoans tend to overlook the massive amount of room on the public way given over to moving and parking private automobiles.

A new Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) initiative called Make Way for People is dreaming up more imaginative uses of the city’s asphalt and concrete, creating new public spaces that are energizing business strips. In partnership with local community leaders, the program is taking parking spots, roadways, alleys and under-used plazas and transforming them into People Spots, People Streets, People Alleys and People Plazas, respectively, lively neighborhood hangouts.

“It’s not a top-down program where we come in and say, ‘We think you need a People Spot or a People Street,’” says Janet Attarian, head of the department’s Streetscape and Sustainable Design section. “Instead we say, ‘We want to help you build community and culture and place and, look, we just created a whole set of tools that wasn’t available before.’” Read the rest of this entry »

Living Landmark: How Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson Became an Encyclopedia of Chicago

Architecture, Chicago History, Loop, Rogers Park 6 Comments »

Photo: Thomas Marlow

By Harrison Smith

To design buildings, says Tim Samuelson, you have to be able to see things as one great complicated whole, “to think as one creative act.” The great ones, architects like Chicago’s own Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, were able to “imbue part of themselves” in their work, to design buildings that functioned as both useful spaces, as homes or auditoriums, and as works of art, objects that could move a person as much as a line of poetry or a beautiful painting. Sullivan had a concise way of expressing this point, writing in 1896 that “form ever follows function,” a quote that has long been misinterpreted to mean that form is secondary to function.

“What it really means,” says Tim, “is that the two work harmoniously together.” From this idea, architecture is “like creating poetry. Form follows function, as Sullivan intended it, is pure, beautiful, creative poetry. All the parts harmoniously and beautifully relate together. They stir the emotions.”

Tim Samuelson, no architect, says he was never able to imagine buildings this way, to see a building in his mind’s eye before any foundation had been laid and construction had begun. When he sees a great building, however—the Auditorium Building on Michigan and Congress, or the old Federal Building on Dearborn and Jackson—he is struck; he is in rapture; he is in love.

Samuelson has been the city’s cultural historian for the past ten years, functioning as a one-man office of the Department of Cultural Affairs. His job is that of a spokesperson, consultant, historian and storyteller, a wide-ranging position that requires him “to tell the spirit and the history of Chicago” through exhibits, public programs, and collaboration with other cultural institutions, museums, and governmental agencies. Read the rest of this entry »