Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Chicago: Pecha Kucha – Urban Design Disasters

I participated in Pecha Kucha Indy Vol. 5 in February. Taking advantage of my time split between Chicago and Indy, I decided to let the crowd of napteños have some fun at the Windy City’s expense. So please keep in mind this presentation was created in the spirit of good-natured mockery, so shouldn’t be taken too literally. Having said that, there are some pretty good points in here. And I decided not to just kick Chicago when it was down, but to punch it in the face in some areas of which is it most proud. For those of you who don’t know, Pecha Kucha is a presentation format with 20 slides shown for 20 second each, with open bar going in the background while you present.

  • How many of you are old enough to remember that cheesy 80’s sci-fi mini-series “V”? You know, the one where these reptilian aliens came down to earth in gigantic flying saucers and were going to haul humanity back to their home world for food?
  • Well, I think they’re back – and they landed on Soldier Field. Either that, or it’s the set of the remake.
  • Known locally as the “UFO that ate Soldier Field”, a recent project plopped a huge, modernistic steel and glass bowl down on top of the classical colonnades.
  • This makes our Central Library expansion look positively tasteful by comparison [See Central Library review part one, part two, part three].
  • Soldier Field was a National Historic Landmark. That’s the highest designation of historic site given by the federal government.
  • After this renovation, it was stripped of that designation. Sad.

  • This is one of about a dozen new L stops done in an “homage to prison yard” theme.
  • No canopies, no paint, no passenger amenities of any kind except a homeless-proof bench.
  • Hey, what do you expect for $550 million?

  • Here’s another building that is reminiscent of a jail.
  • Does anyone know what this is? It’s a branch of the Chicago Public Library – not that you can tell – one of several using this design.
  • I should tell Sheriff Anderson about this place – he might want sublease some space.

  • Did any of you see the renderings of that Santiago Calatrava Chicago Spire? You know, the 2000-foot twisting building on the lake front that would be the tallest in the United States?
  • Well, they ran out of money, and this is all that’s left of it.
  • It’s literally a smoking hole in the ground.

  • Anybody recognize this dapper gent? He’s Mies van der Rohe, a very famous architect to be sure, spent many years in Chicago, designed a lot of buildings there.
  • But you know, I’ve got to confess something. I hope I don’t sound prejudiced or anything, but – I can’t tell any of his buildings apart. They all look alike to me.
  • Can you tell the difference between any of these buildings? Because I can’t.
  • One of them isn’t even in Chicago – not that you can tell.
  • I think Mies ran out of ideas circa 1950.
  • [The building on the bottom left is the Seagram Building in New York. In fairness, 860-880 Lake Shore Dr. is pretty distinctive.]

  • What do you think they would have said about us in Chicago if we had put a $23 million shiny metal bean in White River State Park?
  • Did Chicago go get it because it was cool, or do we think it is cool because it is in Chicago? Think about it.
  • [In fairness, as this picture illustrates, Cloud Gate plays well with the skyline. However, like with many attractions, the perception of its coolness is driven as much the presence of large numbers of people as anything. Without the people, this would not be viewed nearly as positively. While there is no doubt there is some draw from the park itself, Chicago benefits enormously from its huge local population base, the massive employment and student base in the Loop, and gigantic numbers of tourists.]

  • On the left, a streetlight in Chicago
  • On the right, a streetlight in Carmel
  • I rest my case
  • You can have 10 seconds back.
  • [Carmel is the Naperville of Indianapolis. For more, see my posting on “The Streetlights of Chicago“]

  • This is the lobby of the brand new Harris Theater in Millennium Park.
  • It’s done in a style I like to call “That 70’s High School” – all white painted concrete blocks and pastel fluorescents.
  • And tell me, does anybody look good in that color light?

  • This one is a little difficult to see, but it shows how IDOT is lining Chicago’s freeways with hundreds of these high mast lighting towers.
  • Drive in on the Dan Ryan and it is like going through a forest of cell phone towers
  • Thank goodness INDOT is too cheap to do that here, though they tried on Super-70.

  • This is 21 floors of the 90 story Shangri-La Hotel building [Waterview Tower]
  • These guys ran out of money too.
  • The difference is, these guys ran out of money a long time ago. There hasn’t been any construction on this building in a year, and no prospect of any starting back up soon.

  • Now you might be thinking, “Aaron, you’re not going to diss the Frank Gehry band shell, are you?”
  • No – I actually think this is a great structure. You should check it out or see a show there next time you’re up north.
  • But gosh, it just seems so familiar somehow. Haven’t I seen this building somewhere before?
  • Oh, yeah – I’ve seen it lots of places before.
  • How many times is Frank Gehry going to get away with recycling the same basic concept over and over again for millions of dollars to gullible cities around the globe?
  • Hey, Chicago – You’re a fashion victim!

  • This is my “ode de façade blanche”
  • I could do an entire of presentation of nothing but blank facades in Chicago.
  • And you thought we were the only ones stupid enough to do this. No, Chicago’s pretty stupid too as it turns out.

  • Here’s my absolute favorite. This is a Marshalls, DSW Shoe Warehouse, and a Linens N Things.
  • Lest you think I went to obscure corner of the city to track this down, I should tell you this is right in the Wrigleyville/Boystown area, so a very hip and happening part of town.

  • Got strip malls?
  • Boy does Chicago got strip malls – lot of them – and they keep building more all the time.
  • But what gets me is that they don’t even build very good strip malls.
  • Craig McCormick designed way better strip malls than that in Noblesville. [Craig’s Pecha Kucha presentation on strip malls from last year is a must see – click the link above]

  • This is a prime specimen of that species known as the “Chicago Facadectomy”.
  • That’s where they whack a historic building, then tack the remains of the facade onto the outside of the new building.
  • Here you see four stories of a historic facade with a blue-green skyscraper sprouting out of the top of it like some sort of bizarre cancerous growth.
  • Crazy

  • I can’t resist wrapping up with one more huge blank wall.
  • This one kills me because it is a brand new skyscraper on the Gold Coast.
  • The most elite gallery district in the city is directly behind this building.
  • It makes you want to ask, “What were they thinking?”
  • Of course, the answer is obvious – they weren’t.
  • Thanks a lot.

More Chicago:

Chicago: A Declaration of Independence
Chicago: Corporate Headquarters and the Global City
The Streetlights of Chicago

Topics: Architecture and Design, Public Policy
Cities: Chicago

14 Responses to “Chicago: Pecha Kucha – Urban Design Disasters”

  1. Rebecca says:

    I remember gasping when I first saw the changes to Soldier Field. I can’t imagine what they were thinking.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Soldier Field is just sad.
    It was very beautiful, like something out of Greece.
    I wouldn’t mind the new structure so much if it was somewhere else.
    Frank Gehry band shell isn’t that great.
    It is twisted sheets of metal, like something out of a factory and doesn’t have a place in civic architecture.
    I saw that and asked myself ‘is this a joke?’.

  3. JG says:

    Nice presentation. I must object to the “Chicago Facaectomy” though as being a design disaster. Preservation designs of this type I imagine are challenging, but I don’t find this one to be unappealing. I like to find continuity between the “old” and “new”, which they could have improved upon, but it does maintain an old city street level experience, while adding value to building, and complementing the skyline. The Marion county public library, in a different way, attempted to mix “old” with “new” and I think they missed the mark by not including some elements of architectual continuity into the new addition’s exterior.

    The Hearst building in Manhattan (just south of Columbus Circle) was a similar attempt at preserving old and including new that I find to be a real disaster.

    What was your objection to this particluar building in Chicago?

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    JG, the biggest problem with the facadectomy is that it has become the default mechanism for historic preservation in Chicago’s central core. That is, rather than trying to preserve entire buildings intact, facadectomies allow people to demolish them, then use the fig leaf of facade preservation to act as if no harm is done. I think the facadectomy approach can be useful in some cases (almost all cities have done it somewhere), but is not a substitute for genuine preservation.

    As for your opinion on the building in question, to each his own.

  5. Lord Peter says:

    The Gehry bandshell (and his friends) also kind of look like a project that ran out of money before it could be completed.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I know the Harris has gotten a lot of criticism for being subterranean, but as far as the lighting goes, Im a Dan Flavin fan so I guess I kind of like the minimalist florescent scheme.

  7. D says:

    You should totally do an Indy Urban Design disasters post. Or would that take way too long?

  8. mheidelberger says:

    I was lucky enough to see Aaron give this presentation live a few weeks ago, it was great!

  9. fleur de gris says:

    i love soldier field. the old one wasn’t working for them anymore. since it was a landmark i guess it could have been saved as a sort of surplus anybody’s-use kind of place, an albatross for someone to maintain. but, instead, they kept it functioning in the way it was meant to function! there is some value to keeping historic elements from our past relevant to current life. this is a good example of acknowledging/integrating the history of the place into a 21stC public amenity.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I believe there were some facadectomies used on Circle Centre Mall, facing Meridian St.
    I think it worked.

  11. JG says:

    I would like to weigh in on historical preservation issues one last time. It seems to be an issue where people fall easily on one side or ther other with valid arguments “for” and “against.” Essentially I think few are wrong.

    Examples brought up in the posting from Chicago included Soldier Field and the downtown facadectomy; with additional examples including Circle Center Mall (INDY), Marion County Library, and the Hearst building (NYC). How do you preserve an older building, but make it useful for modern purposes? Each of these examples have attempted that in different ways. What are the design elements critical for making these projects attractive while functional for modern uses? I would like to hear from someone who works in architecture or design – I think it’s an interesting issue. Possbily it would be a good topic for future blog post.

  12. Craig says:

    Nice work, Aaron.

    For the record… none of the built strip malls in my PK presentation were my design work. That allowed me to speak of them objectively as examples of the methods and principles of current strip mall design in Indiana (which I attempt to employ in more tasteful and creative ways). The strip malls I’ve designed are by no means my best work due to ordinance requirements and client preconceptions which often remove the opportunity to execute good design work. That said, my malls can be viewed at

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks, Craig – and thanks for the correction. By the way, I got the grand tour of Kyle’s house on Pleasant St. this week and love it.

  14. printersrowpoet says:

    Yes, we’ve done some shockingly bad things in Chicago with our buildings. But have you walked up to the bean and stood underneath it? I thought it was a boondoggle, too, until I went and stood under it. You can’t help but smile. And anything that makes people smile these days is good.

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