Viewing entries tagged

State and Wacker

State and Wacker.jpg

There are many things I remember fondly from my time on the banks of Lake Michigan. Sitting on a train for an hour every day was certainly – if somewhat surprisingly - one of them. I’ve often described how one of the best things about living in Chicago was the commute. It was about a half-hour train ride between my apartment and my office and that time gave me an opportunity to read for pleasure in away I never had before (and, sadly, never have since).

But it wasn’t all about the journey  - the destination was pretty great, too. When I’d arrive at the State and Lake Station on the "L" I’d descend the stairs and head north on State Street. Once I reached Wacker Street the buildings on either side of me would fall away and I’d be treated to a panoramic view of the broad canyon of buildings that lined the Chicago River. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and there for a while I was able to see it every day.

Apparently I’m not the only one to appreciate the beauty of this urban space. Hollywood producers find it particularly cinematic as well. That’s why it has appeared in (and been destroyed in) a number of movies in the past several decades. I recently came across a short video that illustrated this phenomenon quite well and thought it was worth sharing.

For what it’s worth I worked in the IBM Building and so had a great view of the Marina City. The office where I worked used to have a great view east down the river towards lake Michigan but a large building built by a notoriously shady developer has since been built that blocks that once  amazing view.

Still a loser...


A little over a month ago I reported about how I lost a competition to design an accessible route to San Antonio's City Hall. Today I'm proud to report I've successfully lost another competition: this one to imagine a reuse for an abandoned church on Chicago's South Side.

Every year or so the Chicago Architectural Club sponsors a design competition to address some existing design issue in the city. The challenges are usually pretty compelling and I've submitted entries into past competitions. For this year's Burnham Price Competition I proposed converting the old Saint Stephen's Church into a new National Cemetery for the city of Chicago.

The rapid growth of Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in a dense urban landscape that was unable to accommodate the traditional “garden cemeteries” favored by the National Cemetery Administration. But just as it pioneered the concept of the skyscraper by building up to contain the living, it seemed natural that Chicago would embrace the idea of building down to house the dead. The church's main worship space would be restored and a fabric “reflector cone” would be suspended inside to evenly distribute daylight onto the inside surface of the existing dome. A circle of lilies would be planted around a large hole cut into the floor to allows light to filter down to the twelve levels of crypts below. 

Like most competitions of this sort there's no chance than even the winning entries will be built, but it was still fun to imagine what could be. As an architect, that's something I get to do almost every day.

At any rate, you can download a PDF of our entry boards here.

Regarding Competitions

this is not a winning entry because it was never actually entered

As a practicing architect, I am deeply ambivalent about design competitions.

On the one hand they are clearly exploitative. Hundreds of architects and their teams spend weeks if not months developing designs where there is only a small chance of receiving any type of compensation for their efforts. 

On the other hand, competitions do allow smaller firms the opportunity to work on projects of greater scale and importance. They allow architects to stretch their design muscles by exploring ideas that their "real" projects rarely allow. For younger designers working in firms where they aren't doing much design work, it provides them with a chance to gain design experience and expand their portfolios. And every once in a while, they actually win something.

When I was fresh out of school I entered a number of competitions. I never won any of them, but I came in second several times. What I came to realize was the value of these efforts came not from the potential recognition or prize money that might result, but from the actual experience gained by producing the deign. Every time you design something, you get a little better at doing it and you learn how to better communicate your ideas.

Whatever skill I may have as a designer today is a result of the six-and-a-half years I spent in architecture school, the ten years I spent working at various architecture firms, and yes, the sum total of all the time I spent working on competitions I did not win. It's a hard habit to break and I still myself drawn agains my better judgement to enter competitions today. Only now I've learned I don't actually have to enter them.

Earlier this summer I learned of a competition sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation that was for a new center focused on architecture, design and education. I was intrigued by the challenge and paid my $100 registration fee. I spent the next month-and-a-half developing a design that would not be housed in a tower in Chicago's loop as the competition brief suggested but rather in a long, horizontal structure that ran alongside the Chicago River. The exhibition galleries and presentation theater would actually float on a barge and so have the capability to travel to other cities, expanding the cultural reach of the institution. Formally the design related to both the curve of the river and the broad-shouldered structure of the bridges that span over it.

I was really excited with where the design was heading, but I was running out of time. Unlike when I was younger, I couldn't stay up for three days straight to get it done. I couldn't sequester myself in front of my iMac to knock out the final renderings, print out the requisite presentation boards, box them up and FedEx them to Chicago to be there by today. As much as I may have wanted to do that, I had birthday parties to take the kids to and real jobs with real clients who needed attention. As the Labor Day weekend approached I made the difficult decision to abandon the project and not spend all weekend rushing to finish it but rather go outside and play catch with the girls.

Part of me is disappointed that I didn't see this effort all the way through. Part of me wonders about the possibility - however small - of what would have happened if I completed the submission.

But at the end of the day someone will win. There are no doubt scores of architects willing to enter this and countless other competitions. Many of them are capable of winning, but I alone am capable of being the father of my daughters. I am only given one Labor Day to spend with Sammy when she is 5 and Darcy when she is 2 and so I decided to spend it with them.

Maybe that's hurting my career in the short-term but I'd like to think it's making me a better person, which in the long run makes me a better architect.

Why I love Frank

Like many great men in history, Frank Lloyd Wright was a complete and total jerk. Lucky for him he was also a genius which allowed him to get away with behavior most of us mortals never could. Although I don't see Mr. Wright as a role model demonstrating how to live a good life, I do see his architecture as illustrating how to design a good building.

And here I make an important distinction between "good" and "great".

There are plenty of "great" buildings in the world that while influential and important, are actually quite miserable to places to inhabit as a person. Wright designed more than a few of these himself, but may of his projects - especially his houses - are detailed so as to make them humane in ways you might not expect from a person who, as mentioned before, was a jerk.

For me, one of the most compelling examples is at the Robie House in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago. I gave tours there back in the early 2000s when I lived there and I recently had the opportunity to revisit it while I was working on episode 5 of the podcast. It's a great building on many levels, but one of the details I find so compelling occurs not on it's street facade or at its main entrance, but next to the garage near the stair used by servants to reach their quarters. It's a narrow opening in the roof of the building that allows natural light to illuminate this stair that was used not by the wealthy family who commissioned the house, but by the much less affluent workers who attended to them. Wright apparently felt everyone should inhabit a well-designed world.

I credit this detail as the one that inspired the "mission statement" of HiWorks - the one about "good design" being accessible to everyone. In other words, here at HiWorks we do not seek to be great, but we do aim to be good.

James Riely Gordon wants you to listen to this podcast

image courtesy Chris Meister's James Riely Gordon: His Courthouses and Other Public Buildings

At this point you may be sick of me talking about Texas courthouses. Believe me I'm pretty sick of talking about them as well. That said, for this month's episode of The Works I talk about a building that one of the state's predominant courthouse architects (James Riely Gordon) designed in a place far away from Texas (Chicago) for an event that changed the course architectural history (The World's Columbian Exposition).

As always, you can listen to the podcast here or subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.