Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Notes from a week in the "stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders"—

Last evening I returned from a weeklong architecture seminar organized by the national chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. This particular study tour (Summer Seminar on Chicago Architecture, June 27-July3) focused on the history and development of architecture in Chicago, Illinois. Each day participants heard specialists speak about topics ranging from the great Chicago fire of 1871, a catalyst for change in the city's architectural landscape, to the development and flowering of what we call "Prairie-style" architecture under the discriminating design aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright.

On the second day, Bob Bruegman, Head of the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, delivered an illuminating lecture. Bruegman explored patterns of growth in the city after the Chicago fire all the way to present growth into the sprawling "exurbs" and the surprising shared characteristics of the city and its surrounding areas. Bruegman is preparing a book on the subject of urban sprawl and it was fascinating to hear him articulate ideas that we will read about in greater depth when his book is published.

Sidney K. Robinson, another professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke about Japonisme in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Interestingly, one of the most compelling points Robinson made was not related directly to his discussion of Wright. It did, however, provide insight into Robinson's philosophy on architecture. It also revealed a genuine sensitivity to preservation thought. Robinson lives in Aurora, Illinois in a residence designed by self-taught architect Bruce Goff for Ruth Ford. It is one of Goff's most famous house designs. Based on the program for a Quonset hut, the structure looks as though it arrived in the Aurora landscape from another planet. It is composed of various kinds of glass, steel, and coal. Robinson has lived in the house for more than 15 years. He was asked by somebody what, after having become acquainted with the house's system, he would change to make it more comfortable. "The question is not what I would change about the house, but how I can more fully adapt to its program," was his basic response. In an era where our comfort and convenience take precedence over nearly every other aspect of our shared lives on this planet, his was an especially generous and deferential response. I must say it was one of the most meaningful insights I gained all week.

Later in the week, Sidney invited us to visit the Goff house. Apart from some critically important structural improvements, primarily the replacement of skylights over each of the two bedrooms, Robinson's impact on the house has been minimal. His relationship with it is more like an animated dialogue. He treats the place with respect. He also knows that his is an ephemeral existence while the house will, we hope, live long after him. In fact, I learned from our organizer that Sidney has created a fund to keep the house in good repair.

Daniel Burnham's design plan for Chicago is sometimes dismissed as being purely aesthetic with little regard for the practical day-to-day functions of the urban citizen. In her excellent seminar presentation, Kristin Schaffer, a professor at North Carolina State University, argued that the vast scope of Burnham's plan was informed by more than just an incisive eye for spectacular design. Burnham's personal beliefs and values infused every component of his plan for the city. By imposing a sense of order on the city and its inevitable growth he hoped to empower the citizens, inspire imagination, and elevate the collective spirit. Schaffer's lecture revealed that regard for both the beauty of our shared physical spaces and the way in which the public benefits spiritually from order in the environment are at the core of Daniel Burnham's monumental city plan.

Julia Bachrach, the Chicago Park District historian, offered a lively presentation on the development, and conservation, of Chicago's vast park system. Among other things, she discussed some of Frederick Law Olmstead's enduring designs, the ways the parks were intended for use, and how Olmstead might be pleasantly surprised by their continued uses today. Julia's keen grasp and understanding of her topic were typical of the seminar's speakers. Each one demonstrated a great sense of stewardship for their particular piece of our cultural landscape.

In addition to auditorium lectures, participants were led on foot through upscale residential neighborhoods along the Gold Coast, the commercial and financial corridors of LaSalle and State Streets, and the working-class town of Pullman. In temperatures above ninety degrees and under a canopy of dense humidity, Dennis McClendon of Chicago Cartographics, led us on a tour through the skyscrapers that create a man-made canyon of LaSalle Street. Despite the heat, we all agreed it was a fascinating sojourn. McClendon, as was the case with the other guides and lecturers, articulated a very sensible and thoughtful interpretation of changes in the city's architectural landscape. Later, he and I spent time together on our own talking about new construction in the city. The Spertus Foundation has commissioned the architectural firm Kreuck & Sexton to design a glass-encased mid-rise tower along Michigan Avenue. It's a breathtaking design. McClendon notes, however, that it is not sympathetic to the wall of distinguished buildings that comprise the great avenue. While I like the design very much, I agree with him that it would be suitable most anywhere in the city with the exception of Michigan Avenue along Grant Park, where it will one day rise.

The grand finale of the study tour was a daytrip to Aurora where we spent an hour at the Goff house and, later, an hour or so at Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House located in Plano, Illinois. Many of us took the study tour just to see the house Mies designed and built for Edith Farnsworth from 1946 to 1951.

The elegant program of Mies's minimalist glass box could not be more different from Bruce Goff's expressionistic "happy" house, as Sidney Robinson referred to it. ("One year I tried to be depressed," he said, "but it's such a happy house. Every morning I'd wake up and the house seemed to say brightly, 'Hi!' How can you do anything but respond in the same happy manner?") Floating in a wooded landscape, the Farnsworth house is an essay on serenity. In fact, once settled on the travertine stairs to the house, none of us really wanted to tear away from it.

Bought at auction from its owner Lord Peter Palumbo in 2003 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation with support from the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and the Friends of the Farnsworth House, the house is now a protected piece of our cultural and architectural heritage. The sale generated a great deal of concern among preservationists. Some thought it would be purchased, dismantled, and removed from its site. Others wondered if that was a bad thing. These questions cannot be comprehended until you see how fully integrated the house is with its site. The hundreds of photographs of the house, even those by noted photographer Ezra Stoller, can only partially convey the mood of the house, its essential character. The house, in fact any three-dimensional object, can only be appreciated by seeing it in person or, in the case of the Farnsworth house, in situ.

Many people argue that modernist architecture is cold and uninviting. This would be a peculiar and inaccurate argument to level against Mies's Farnsworth House. To make such a statement rejects all the good one's soul derives from nature. The steel and glass house is essentially one with its wooded surroundings. Every component of its design—from a continuous travertine floor that passes seamlessly from the terrace into the living spaces, to the floor-to-ceiling glazing that makes up the walls on all four sides—acknowledges and embraces nature.

Others suggest that they would feel uncomfortable living amidst such a severe design aesthetic. Lord Palumbo, however, raised three children in the house. Considering the building seems to float magically in the landscape, I'm guessing the children never felt the need for a tree house. While standing beside one of Mies's famous Barcelona chaises, I could easily imagine a stack of newspapers and a few of my favorite books piled by the fireplace's hearth.

The rigor and minimalism of modernist architecture eliminate a great deal of superfluity from our lives. Modernist environments, however, don't necessarily demand monasticism from their admirers. Modernist spaces allow us unique opportunities to explore and express elements of our distinct personalities. At least that is how I choose to view it. And, given the opportunity, I could, without hesitation, embrace Mies's spare aesthetic while imposing a few of my own personal preferences for design, albeit with a certain restraint, on one of his buildings.

If you're thinking about taking a study tour with the Society of Architectural Historians, I recommend it without qualification. You will leave a better-informed student of the places where we live, work, and find recreation.