Sunday, June 14th, 2009
The Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago – Part 2: The Nichols Bridgeway, Or Re-Imagining Monroe St.
UPDATE: Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin writes today (2009-06-17) about unsafe pedestrian crossings on Monroe St. This is the predictable result of ignoring Monroe St. in favor of the Nichols Bridgeway. However, something that can be addressed to some extent even in the short term and should definitely be included as part of my “Re-Imagine Monroe Street” idea.
AND: Local blogger Edward Lifson interviewed Piano in the Architect’s Newspaper. Piano talks a bit about the bridgeway and Monroe St. See more Edward Lifson writings on the Modern Wing, including great photos, in this roundup.
This is the second of a two-part series on the new Modern Wing. The first installment focuses on the wonderful exterior of the building. This one covers the interesting but problematic Nichols Bridgeway and the building’s street level engagement. I may follow-up with a third segment on the interior at a future date.
As I said in part one, I really, really like the Modern Wing. But there’s one major aspect I think is problematic, and that is the Nichols Bridgeway, a long ramp leading from the ground level in the center of Millennium Park near the Cloud Gate sculpture to the top level entrance of the Modern Wing. You can see it in this picture.
As you can, this is a rather elegant structure, like a super-cool water slide or ski jump. Its top end is supported gracefully by two brackets cantilevered off the side of the building, and there is a long clear span over Monroe St. Not only does the bridge itself offer great views to people on it, it delivers you to a terrace at the top of the Modern Wing offering spectacular views of Millennium Park and the city. Of course, being the era we are in, it is also the entrance to a restaurant. I think it’s a very pleasant stroll from the park to the Modern Wing and have made the journey myself a couple times just to visit the terrace.
There a number of problems with this bridge structure, however. I group them into three categories:
- Execution problems
- The visual obstruction the bridge itself creates
- The way the bridge supports the Modern Wing’s disengagement from Monroe St. and the draining of pedestrians from that street.
The last point made me think about the sad state of Monroe St. through Grant Park generally, the poor access to the Lakefront from the Loop, and what can be done about it.
This photo shows the awesome views of Lurie Garden, the Pritkzer Pavilion, and the Aqua building among many skycrapers to the north. I love how you get a totally different impression of the trellis from above than you from below. Sitting in the lawn you see it arch overhead, but it is almost flat in a way. Here you see it as much more of a dome structure, like the skeletal structure of a more gently curved Mormon Tabernacle or something. Note at the bottom of this photo how the promenade dead ends into a parking garage entryway and the path continues via a diagonal “slip ramp”. We’ll come back to that. A similar view to this one is available from the terrace.
Here is one looking south from the top of the bridge.
A view down Monroe St. west to Michigan Ave. and the skyline.
And one to the east towards the lake. You can also see how anemic pedestrian traffic becomes on Monroe past the bridge.
The views from the terrace are more or less identical to the bridge, so I won’t show a complete series here, but here’s one shot to give you a flavor of it.
Here’s a look up the ramp itself.
As you can see, it is basically just a straight shot. As with the Modern Wing and the Pritzker Pavilion, we are again treated to what I think is an interesting contrast between Gehry’s BP Bridge and this one. The Gehry bridge is a curvy, almost meandering bridge designed for a lazy stroll. It is fairly wide, and features a wooden deck with metal rails. The Piano bridge is straight, functional, a bit narrow, with a metal deck and wooden rails. Here’s the BP bridge for a quick contrast shot.
I happen to think Gehry got the best of this matchup. Though criticized as a bridge to nowhere, or as part of a nefarious plot to build the proposed children’s museum, the bridge serves a functional purpose of creating a protected pedestrian pathway across busy and wide Columbus Drive. It is also just a nice, pleasant path to walk.
The Piano bridge has a couple of problems. The first of these is that its metal decking is very uneven, with lumps and bumps, almost like it is a badly unrolled carpet. Contrasted with the smooth wooden decking of the BP Bridge, this one isn’t even very pleasant to physically walk on. It sways a bit too. Now that doesn’t bother me any – I actually think it’s kind of fun – and I’m sure the bridge is safe, but I’ve heard other people complain about it. Also, there’s an awkward terminus at the lower end. Here’s a picture:
When I saw this, I thought the blank railing at the end was a gate, and that when the bridge was opened you’d just go straight down. I did think it looked odd though and wondered how you would get down. My confusion was resolved when I saw that this was not the actual bridge entrance after all, but that the bridge was actually accessed via an awkward slip ramp at the end similar to the effect I showed above. Here’s how you really access it:
I just think this is very awkward. Moving on behind these execution quirks, we see that the bridge itself interrupts the view of the skyline.
This is a good pivot point into the main problem with the bridgeway, namely the way it and the Modern Wing design hurt the pedestrian experience on Monroe St. Here’s what you see from Monroe standing under it looking north.
Not very inviting to say the least. Turn it around and here’s one view of how the Modern Wing addresses the street:
Not nice. I assume this is some sort of emergency exit, but there have got to be better ways to handle it.
Here we see the view down Monroe St. The change in grade necessitates some compromises. While the landscaping is very nice and the view of the building behind it is quite nice in some ways, it’s never that appetizing to walk next to a concrete wall.
Similarly, the building level is a fairly barren concrete plaza. I think about how huge crowds hang out in front of the Art Institute on Michigan Ave. They aren’t likely to do that here, and it is no surprise to find this space nearly deserted.
And here we see another afterthought of an entryway:
Clearly, Piano made an explicit design decision for the Modern Wing to turn its back on Monroe St. Let’s face it, it’s not a very exciting corridor today. Rather than trying to turn it around and improve things, he decided to simply ignore it and bypass it with the bridge.
The Nichols Bridgeway is nothing more than an open-air gerbil tube. Like all such, it drains people from the street and is an implicit rejection of the value of the streets over which it passes. Also, given its point of departure, it drains people from the south end of Millennium Park as well. Michigan Ave. is packed with people. Crown Fountain, Cloud Gate, the Pritzker Pavilion and other pars of the park are packed with people and energy. Monroe St. isn’t totally devoid of life. These pictures do show people, after all. And a roadway through a park is never going to have the type of street life that a major commercial boulevard like Michigan Ave. would. But I think there was a major opportunity missed to improve Monroe St., add life too it, and generally better connect the Loop with the Lakefront.
The Sorry State of Monore St.
Most people probably haven’t walked along Monroe St. from Michigan Ave. to the lake except during festivals like Taste of Chicago, when the experience is radically altered. Imagine you are a tourist staying at a downtown hotel or are on Michigan Ave. Or you’re a Loop worker. Or a suburbanite who just came downtown on the train. Or live downtown or in the West Loop. Any of these people want to visit the lakefront for which Chicago is justly famous. Here is a sample of what confronts you walking east on Monroe St. from Michigan Ave. to the lake:
- There is a beautiful garden on the north side of the Art Institute, but no way to access it from Monroe St.
- The garden is buffered by a stone railing, necessary for the grade change, but it extends above eye level at points such that all you can see is a blank stone wall.
- A loading dock or service entrance for the Art Institute
- Train tracks
- The Nichols Bridgeway view to the north I showed above
- The concrete wall and barren plaza along the Modern Wing I showed above, plus a matching, even taller and worse concrete wall on the Millennium Park side of the street.
- A cross-walk at six lane, median divided Columbus Drive, with an unlabeled pedestrian underpass on the north side of the street you probably won’t use since it looks like a parking lot entrance. Plus, the underpass is pretty dreary to boot.
- Monroe St. is six lanes wide at this point.
- Past Columbus, there are 30′ wide walks of pure concrete, very badly cracked in many places.
- If you are on a bicycle, there are no bike lanes, though I suppose with a 30′ or so sidewalk, who needs them?
- The street lights are old and the paint is peeling off of them. Dittos for the stop light masts.
- There’s a sad looking cafe on the north side of the street, buffered by a bent over wrought iron fence and chicken wire.
- Then you are confronted with crossing Lake Shore Dr.
- Once on the far side, you are in at an access road and drop off lane for Monroe Harbor, asphalt all around.
- Directly in front of you is a poorly screened chain link fence, surrounding a surface parking lot, which is front of a building. There is no view of the lake/harbor or obvious path to get there.
- There’s a sad looking hot dog stand (closed every time I’ve been there) with a few Home Depot grade picnic tables next to it.
- Once you identify the path to the lake, it leads you between a fenced in dumpster and a public restroom that is disgusting beyond belief. I can’t believe the Chicago Yacht Club still has a plaque with their name on it there.
- Finally you are at the lake.
I’m not going to say this is the worst street ever. There are plenty of work places to be in this world. But this is the Chicago lakefront for goodness sake. This one of the primary corridors people would take to get to the lake from the Loop. Walk out there one afternoon and see a few hardy tourists – but not that many – standing out on that wide, cracked sidewalk with cars whizzing by on Monroe and LSD and it’s pretty pathetic.
(I’m already excessive in length here, but may come back and do a follow-on to this posting with a photo essay of the items I listed above).
Re-Imagining Monroe St.
The Modern Wing was a missed opportunity to start addressing the problems on Monroe St. But even if the Art Institute had taken that as its mission, it wouldn’t have done a lot to move the needle.
To really change the game, I’d propose that the city hold a design competition called “Re-Imagine Monroe St.” that would include the entire Monroe St. corridor between Halsted St. and the Lakefront. This would be intended to generate a concept design for the corridor that would:
- Significantly upgrade the pedestrian quality of experience across the entire route
- Improve connectivity between the Loop and the Lake
- Link commuter rail stations to the Lake
- Create a protected bicycle corridor to channel West Loop and West Side bicycle traffic safely through the congested Loop
- Create a new, more forward looking design standard for the city, bringing innovation to the design of public space in the 21st century.
This is almost fully consistent with the Chicago Central Area Action Plan. And where it is not, it represents a straightforward extension to the Plan, not a conflict with it.
Areas where this competition would be in direct support of the Plan:
- Quality of design and space. “Set the highest standards for urban design as an essential ingredient in ‘bonding people to a place.’”
- Streetscaping and signature corridors. “Identify and improve key pedestrian corridors using CDOT streetscape and lighting program, focus on signature east-west streets and linkage of key destinations.”
- Monroe Transitway. Monroe St. through much of the Loop would already be torn up to build this subway system linking the West Loop Transportation Center to the lakefront. This is a logical part of that project since Monroe St. will be disrupted anyway.
- Improved connections to the Lakefront. “Identify strategies to better connect the Lakefront to all neighborhoods and business districts within the Central Area.”
- West Loop Bicycle Station – This would be a Millennium Bike Station type facility in the West Loop. That’s nice, but how do you connect this to the Loop and the Lake?
- Enhanced east/west streets and corridors. “Balance Chicago’s rich heritage of signature north/south streets and corridors by improving a series of east/west streets and corridors.”
- Innovative green streets. “Utilize state-of-the-art techniques such as permeable pavement, rain gardens, and light-emitting diode (LED) lighting standards for green street and alley improvements.”
- Grant Park north improvements. “While the exact scope of this project has not yet been determined, the project will generally include reconstruction of the obsolete Monroe Street Garage and other public amenities associated with the garage structure. Open spaces and park facilities potentially effected by this project include Daley Bicentennial Plaza/Fieldhouse, Cancer Survivors Garden and Peanut Park.” The fact that the garage will be torn up opens some possibilities I’ll discuss below.
- Kennedy caps/ped crossings. These projects would enhance pedestrian crossings of the Kennedy Expressway by cantilevering wider sidewalks off the existing bridge piers and putting caps over the freeway between Monroe and Washington.
As you can see, all of this is right down the rails of a Monroe St. corridor project. There are two primary exceptions. The first is that the Plan calls for Randolph St. and Congress Parkway to be the signature E-W streets. It’s hard to argue with those, but Monroe St. is a perfect complement, located almost entirely between them, and possibly the most centrally located street in the Loop. It also balances the one way west Randolph corridor with the one-way east Monroe.
The other is that the Plan calls for bike lanes on Washington/Madison, not Monroe. However, I’m not convinced traditional bike lanes are the right answer in the Loop. When designing the Indy Cultural Trail in Indianapolis, Brian Payne and the team came to the conclusion that only experienced bike riders were willing to use bike lanes in the CBD. Certainly families with children wouldn’t. The high volume of traffic and pedestrians discourages use, even with lanes. Indeed, you see in the Loop today mostly bike messengers and other hardened cyclists, not casual riders. So I think a more aggressive approach might be needed.
Both of these would make well-fitting additions to the Central Area Action Plan.
I would envision a design that would address some of the following elements:
- A dedicated bikeway between Halsted and Lake Michigan. This would be fully barrier segregated using rain gardens or other landscaping from both traffic lanes and pedestrian sidewalks. It could either be a two-way bikeway, or utilize a one-way street pair. This would be the main protected corridor through the Loop for bicyclists. If you are in the West Loop today and want to get to the lakefront trail, how do you do it? There may be a straightforward way, but I don’t know an easy one that doesn’t involve on street riding on a major, busy thoroughfare. By taking a lane away from traffic and giving it to bicycles, you create a safe corridor that can be used to funnel bicyclists from the West Side and the commuter stations across the Loop safely. As to the idea that we can’t take a lane away from cars on Monroe St., I’d note that there is a parking lane on much of it today. If you’ve got room for on-street parked cars in the Loop, then I’d say be definition you’ve got room for people. One thing that did not jump out at me in the Central Area Action Plan was how to bridge the barrier that the Loop core creates to non-hardened bicyclists. I mentioned the Indianapolis example before. New York City and other cities are also creating fully separated bike lanes. Chicago’s bike lanes are great to be sure, but Chicago is no longer at the state of the art in bike accomodations.
- Narrow Monroe St. through Grant Park. I don’t believe closing the street makes sense. But there’s a big difference between having a street and having a six lane street. Monroe St. should be designed for average day peak volume, not super peak of the peak volume for events.
- Enhanced pedestrian comfort at the Michigan Ave. crossing.
- Decking over the Illinois Central tracks on the south side of Monroe up to the Art Institute bridge. This could be a sort of extention of Millennium Park, a type of public plaza, or other things. But I think it could be a super-cool space. Imagine some type of transparent flooring, for example, so that you could watch trains go by under your feet or something.
- Significant enhancement of the Monroe/Columbus intersection. I’ve got two possible approaches. One is to close the intersection and grade separate by depressing Columbus below Monroe. If the Monroe garage is getting torn up anyway, this is an option to look at. I’m sure there are water table issues, etc. but they are solvable. The best part of this option is that you can raise the grade of Monroe to reduce the “concrete corridor” of retaining walls that exist now, and use built up landscaping in Grant Park on the east side of Columbus to better integrate the grade transition. The other option is to conver this intersection to a grand, European style roundabout like the ones you find along the Paseo del Prado in Madrid.
- Improved pedestrian access across Lakeshore Drive.
- Slightly shifting the Monroe Harbor entrance, possibly converting to right in-right out, ripping out all the garbage there, and having a pedestrian promenade directly to the lakefront.
- Creating a new design language for Chicago. There’s a story that Mayor Daley took a trip to Paris and, after looking around said, “Why can’t Chicago look like this?” Upon returning, he really prioritized streetscape, park, and other improvements. Chicago is known for its “make no small plans” mantra, but the real secret sauce of the city isn’t a showplace like Millennium Park, wonderful as that is. Rather, it is the extremely high quality of space on the average street of the city. But putting median planters all over the place, new street lights, bike lanes, new sidewalks, traffic calming devices, etc. Chicago has dramatically upgraded the quality of space in a city where it was already high to begin with. Mayor Daley deserves huge credit for this and it is clearly one of the things bringing people back to the city. People want to live in a beautiful, inspiring environment.
However, I think perhaps the city has taken Paris a bit too literally. It has adopted a sort of cutesy, retro-Victorian design that, while it looks good, is generic, backwards looking, and not really befitting a city with Chicago’s heritage. The Modern Wing and Millennium Park are showing that Chicago can do contemporary design too. Chicago should update its design language to create a more modern, forwarding looking design, one that is rooted in the city and its essential character but repositioned for the 21st century not the industrial age, and which is truly unique to Chicago. With its incredible scale, Chicago can easily afford to do custom instead of going off the catalog, particularly if cost of fabrication is a parameter of the design. Again, New York City is ahead of the game here. They are experimenting with modern, slim line LED street lights, and the landscape architecture on the High Line is very forward looking and innovative. Chicago is staying with a far too conservative, play it safe design approach.
I have said that Chicago needs to start setting the agenda and defining what it means to be a successful city in the 21st century. To figure out how to do in this era what it did in previous ones with industrial innovation, the skyscraper, the futures exchange, etc. What are Chicago’s big ideas and how can it exploit them to create a form of urban innovation that will differentiate the city in this century? One of the key opportunities to do this is in the design of its public spaces and streets. And Monroe St. is the perfect place to start. One source of that innovation may be in the conversation between the old and the new. That architectural conversation is already played out along Monroe St. It is home to many historic buildings as well as modern and post-modern classics like the Inland Steel Building and the Xerox Building. It is the place where the contemporary Millennium Park meets the classicism of the City Beautiful era Grant Park south. That creates a tension that can be exploited and synthesized into the new. The city should seek a design for Monroe St. that a) plays of the relationship between old and new b) brings innovative, bold, forward looking new ideas about what street and public space should be in 21st century c) is uniquely Chicago d) is suitable to be deployed at scale, potentially a modified form, elsewhere in the city as a new design language and standard. I don’t really mention green design here because frankly that’s a transitional notion. There is no more green design, there’s just design. It’s all green or soon will be.
These are just some thoughts. I’d like to see what the city could potentially get if it unleashed the powers of the local and international design communities to make something like this happen.
I realize I went a bit far afield from the Modern Wing, so thanks for bearing with me as I talked about it a bit in the broader urban context.