Read my recent commentary published in the Chicago Tribune below:
Read my recent commentary published in the Chicago Tribune below:
Last year, I had the pleasure of serving as Midwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. Here is a selection of pieces I wrote for the publication:
Perma-Stone, Formstone, faux stone, Rostone. John Waters once called this ubiquitous simulated masonry the “polyester of brick.” From the 1930s through the 1950s, companies all over the United States were pitching faux stone siding to homeowners as a modern update to the exteriors of late 19th century buildings. Made of shale, lime and water, the unbaked permastone slurry would be pressed into stone shaped molds and heated, creating a stone-like “cracker” that could be applied to the exterior of a building. Permastone came in an array of colors, textures and stone types, and sometimes mica would be added for extra sparkle. Widely toted as maintainance free, permastone could be easily adhered anywhere on your building by anchoring it with chicken wire lath, or simply adhering the permastone panels with cement directly to the façade.
The 3400 and 3500 blocks of Le Moyne Street, between Homan and Central Park Avenue in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, have some superior examples of permastone in nearly every color and texture, from taupe roman bricks to rusticated course stone so red it resembles raw meat. Here is a windshield survey of permastone types seen within these two blocks:
For a few hours each weekday morning, Ronan cracks open the padlock on his forest green wooden newsstand on Division Street between Milwaukee and Ashland, maintaining an urban tradition that has almost completely disappeared. Hailing from a family that made their living off of newsstands, Ronan now operates the newsstand for pleasure, as he makes the argument that “what else is an old blind Polack to do?” Ronan is in fact, blind. He has lost his central vision, but is still able to see people and objects peripherally. This handicap is completely undetectable, as Ronan maintains eye contact as he speaks. His eyes are a shocking neon blue. He’s been operating the newsstand for twenty years, but the newsstand itself has been around for fifty, if not longer. Ronan sells the New York Times, Crain’s, and Barron’s Investment News, but not much else. A rack of Chicago Readers and New York Times Magazines hang off the door of the newsstand, all free items meticulously organized beside a broom and a cart. Every aspect of the newsstand has a reactionary feel. The reflective strips on the door seem to suggest that at some point during the newsstand’s existence, a driver veered too close to the newsstand, knocking the door off. An analog clock, a long ago freebee from USA Today, hangs above an air conditioning unit covered in reflective orange tape. Locks in various conditions suggest multiple lifetimes of securing. Observing the newsstand closed, it resembles a ramshackle stronghold.
The interior of the newsstand is full of Ronan’s personal effects, Beanie Babies, a nest of tangled electrical cords and packages of Rice Crispy Treats. The Rice Crispy Treats are not for Ronan to eat, but to feed the pigeons that come up to window when Ronan is alone in the newsstand. They hold court vigilantly atop the tarred roof when customers approach. There are so few things to buy that the concept of customer seems odd here, as every bus driver, construction worker and Busha seem to know Ronan, but no one is buying anything. They ask how he is. They bring him Makowiec and Perogi. They chat about the weather. These casual relationships at the newsstand are small, but critical. This is why Ronan is here.
It is estimated that the City of Chicago Department of Transportation regulates fewer than 40 independent free standing newsstands like Ronan’s. They have disappeared without advocates, being of a pale vernacular that modern life has hushed, like a lost language.
I’ve drawn all of the places I’ve lived. These drawings, all done informally in ball point pen and within a small Moleskine notebook, were partially inspired by the small-scale architectural models placed in tombs of the Incas, Aztecs and their predicessors in ancient Mexico. Their materials, just like the buildings they portray, are simple. Buried alongside jewelry and ritual objects, these models are vital in their telling of the ordinary, everyday lives of these ancient civilizations.
This exercise also came out of a need for me to see the raw architectural data of each place that I’ve lived, and compare the design, age and typology of each. All of the places I drew I lived for three months or longer. These are the buildings of my ordinary life, all through the filter of my brain and hand.
I have lived in a total mixed bag of buildings, from a contemporary ranch in suburban Detroit, to a modernist highrise in Honolulu, to the ultra vernacular Chicago graystone. These structures range greatly in age. Many are older with a scatterbrained sense of integrity. They have missing cornices, or cheap new windows. Many have design features specific to their location, like the tall concrete wall surrounding the house I lived in when I worked in New Delhi, India, or the attached garage on the house in Troy.
What (and where) we call home inevitably shapes us, but architectural significance has no role in making these structures iconic. I have borrowed time in many buildings but have possessed none of them, and my occupation of each is only a sliver of a story that spans across decades.
The most surprising revelation is poignant and timely. These buildings display an element of undeniable privelidge, as I have always had the means to live where I have wanted. Millions of people are not in a position to ever make that choice for themselves.
On October 13, 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner held a news conference in Chicago, presenting an aggressive, but perhaps not surprising plan to sell the Helmut Jahn-designed James R. Thompson Center, constructed in 1985. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, it is proposed that the building be sold for cash at a public auction, the over 2,000 state workers moved elsewhere, and demolished, making way for the same-old same-old high-density, mixed use, regrettable architecture.
Rauner had this to say:
“This building is ineffective. For the people who work here, all of whom are eager to move somewhere else, it’s noisy. It’s hard to meet with your colleagues. It’s hard to move through the building, very ineffective, noise from downstairs, smells from the food court all get into the offices”
A lot of people hate this building, but not for its architecture. Taxpayers in Illinois famously hissed over its $172 million dollar price tag, nearly twice its original budget, and a part of history that rings in the ears of people across the state as Springfield continues its own budget deadlock. Helmut Jahn, irresponsible Starchitect and GQ cover subject was so obsessed with the building’s aesthetics that he neglected to develop a way to cool the interior properly, leaving state employees sweating it out for years.
Historic architecture in Chicago’s Loop has been serving the same non-offensive menu year after year, expertly taste-tested by historians, tourists and Chicagoans. Daniel Burnham is clearly the meat course, with Louis Sullivan and his curvilinear forms the vegetables. The starch course is the Rookery, the Railway Exchange Building, and the Reliance Building, with Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe acting as dessert, which many pass on for the swags and acanthus patterns that remain snug and safe along with everything else we have spoiled our appetite with. It’s an outdated bill of fare. It comes as no surprise that the Thompson Center as great architecture was a hard sell as new architecture in 1985, and a hard sell thirty years later as we look forward.
Visit the Thompson Center at noon, and it’s easy to find another reason to hate it. It’s the food smell capital of the Loop. Pizza, Dunkaccinos, Chinese food and Popeye’s all hotboxing inside the steel and glass rotunda. It’s filled with the anxious energy of coworkers in khakis with key cards, camping out at tables downstairs and chewing on the last cubes of ice from their fountain drinks before heading back to their cubicles. Businesses like GNC and the curiously placed Amerinka’s Native Arts & Craft feel as if they are just loitering, and there is certainly a lot of that. People are everywhere, and they are their own system within the building. It’s a frenzy of modern urban life. Chicago is filing for licenses, paying fees, and getting off the train. Then there is the fatal attraction of the building’s spiraling marble floor, a target for nearly a half a dozen jumpers since the building opened thirty years ago.
There is no way to deny the psychological effect of having to go to the DMV, which is another reason the Thompson Center is lauded. Put people in a building where it is expected they will have to wait, experience terrible customer service and inevitably not have the correct form or piece of documentation and it’s impossible to get them to even notice the muted Post-modern color palate as anything more than “puke pink and ugly blue.” It’s like hating U2 because Bono is a pompous ass, and not because every album they’ve put out since 2000 has been crappy.
With a reported $100 million in deferred maintenance, the building has seen better days. The granite panels that served to provide drama to the pedestrian arcade surrounding the building, and as a corral for Jean Dubuffet’s striking Monument with Standing Beast (aka “Snoopy in a Blender”) have been removed. Interior surfaces are rusty, HVAC grates have been kicked in, and there are multiple areas of water damage and spall. But perhaps nothing is as blatantly obvious as the dinginess of the building’s exterior glass panels. It looks dirty from across the street, from above, and from the sky. It’s embarrassing.
This neglect, along with the sub-par tenants and failed driving tests, has given the building a messy reputation, and serves to toxify discussions about the building’s architectural merit. But the new school of cultural heritage preservationists are undaunted, and encouraged by the opportunity to sit on a precipice of sorts, both with the opportunity to preserve postmodern heritage, some of which is just as old as the people in the movement; and aligning that with new ways to talk about how to preserve the architecture of the places that matter. As we move towards a future of cultural resources management where we look at time as more fluid in determining significance, and reject a traditional attitude towards what we consider historic, the sooner we will realize we can serve buildings better, be better stewards and most importantly; serve people by saving beautiful places. And the James R. Thompson Center is a beautiful place.
It’s that magic formula of brains, beauty and fun that makes the Thompson Center a stone cold stunner. Its overstated rotunda is a winking reference to nearly every state capital or county building constructed in the 19th century. Encompassing an entire city block, the primary entrance is set back and tilted towards Chicago City Hall and the Richard J. Daley Center, indicating that the building’s relationship with its surrounding area is a public one.
The colonnade hugging the buildings rounded primary façade is supersized Ancient Rome, and made a conscious decision to ignore all of the architecture afterword until Jahn hit the drawing board in the early 1980s.
Inside, the ceiling soars and the materials are glossy and reflective, while the buildings’ expressed structure focuses and projects.
Light standards are not on the sidewalk outside, but within. And the stairways and escalators have been pulled out from the center core of the building, and placed on the walls of the soaring cavity of the atrium, like fully functioning organs pulled outside of the body. It’s a living organism, a human sized, breathing ant farm. The movement is constant.
The dusty cobalt and creamy tomato soup color palate is America Lite, a political statement that lives comfortably with the Thompson Center as a governmental building. The basic pleasure of the colors and their placement in strong geometric fields appeal to the LEGO builder in you. This is not your father’s Modernism. This is a world where we were imagining the future of buildings, the future of government, and the future of us. On Hoverboards. Even the idealized future is an authentic part of our past, and helps us determine what we build.
Like a song made better as a cover, perhaps the Thompson Center could be improved upon and reimagined using the same care applied to the restoration of other significant; but more mainline, historic Chicago buildings. The cost of repairing the building’s originally failed systems would pale in comparison to the millions of dollars spent to repair Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that were built without downspouts, because Wright didn’t like the way they looked on his vertical line-challenged designs. While each restoration project is unique, Wright’s buildings are a dime a dozen, and Jahn’s is truly one of a kind. Buildings with great stewards like the ones responsible for the brilliant restoration of the Chicago Athletic Association into the Loop’s most creative new/old hangout should be inspiration enough that the nearly impossible is possible (and profitable, too!) Giving the James R. Thompson Center a more creative second life would have a substantial halo effect, both in terms of the preservation of Postmodern buildings, and in Chicago. A significant building worthy of a future we curate and create.
May is National Historic Preservation Month. Preservation organizations at the neighborhood on up to the state level proclaimed “This Place Matters” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by holding up a printable sign emblazoned with the phrase and a train of hashtags after it. For many in the field here in Chicago and elsewhere, Preservation Month was business as usual. National Register nominations were drafted, letters to legislators were sent, buildings were researched and photographed, conferences were held and lectures were given. A whole month of work and public reflection that concluded on May 31st, the birthday of Chicago preservationist and photographer Richard Nickel. He would have been 87.
A cake was baked and decorated. Candles were lit. Happy Birthday was sung.
As a student at the Institute of Design in 1954, Richard Nickel was given an assignment in a photography class taught by Aaron Siskind to document works by Chicago School Architect Louis Sullivan. Nickel’s interest in Sullivan’s work metastasized to the point of obsession after the class concluded. Growing up in Logan Square, Nickel was smart but solitary, and had served as a paratrooper and photographer in the US Army but had no defined direction. As Richard J. Daley’s plans for slum clearance surged, demolishing over 6,000 buildings between 1957 and 1960, Richard Nickel was finding purpose in the overlooked work of Sullivan. Documenting and identifying extant buildings designed by Louis Sullivan became Richard Nickel’s life’s work. As wrecking crews approached and a building prepared to meet its fate, Nickel would intervene on behalf of Sullivan’s busy and organic ornament, salvaging what he could and using his parent’s garage in Park Ridge, Illinois to store bits of elaborate stonework and column capitals. Before the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, before the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Action, before Heartbombs, rightsizing and blexting, Richard Nickel was the only person in Chicago “doing” preservation. He had no language for it. He had no architectural history courses under his belt. He had a Chevrolet, a camera, and a whole lot of fucking soul.
This year, as Chicago’s snow melted and gave way to spring a surge of change began. Demolition permits were filed, and approved. Bulldozers lined up at the ready. Demolition Season has begun, and is surging forward in a way that seems to want to make up for lost time. Good and even great buildings long-mothballed and unoccupied; seemingly waiting for their next chapter since before the financial crisis have been knocked down flat, a blank canvas for new developments with names like “West Town Crossing,” “South Loop Station” or “The Lofts at Roosevelt Village.” Just as often, buildings are demolished without any plan. Coming Soon: Nothing! Chicago’s Landmark Ordinance and demolition delay process is showing its age, seemingly meant for historic architecture with a capital “H” and a capital “A”, and unable to forecast a future where cast iron storefronts had gone from being ubiquitous to rare.
May was also pocked with terror on the regulatory front in Chicagoland, as Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner pushed to dramatically restructure the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, jeopardizing programs such as the admistration of federal historic tax credits and regulatory compliance review. Promoting economic development while preserving the past is a slippery slope, and while the Illinois house approved a measure creating two state agencies for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, alleviating some pressure on the issue and allowing the IHPA to remain, it’s still pretty bad news. State Historic Preservation Offices across the country are struggling to maintain functionality under cuts and while this measure is a compromise (the Illinois Legislature will still have to vote) it leaves our SHPO vulnerable, and allows Governor Rauner to appoint a new historic preservation director with senate approval. The state of Illinois’s top job in preservation could be offered up to the gods of cronyism. Bozo the Clown could be the next head of the Illinois SHPO.
Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital is now a sodded lot in Streeterville. The vernacular fabric of our neighborhoods are under attack, and the demand for newer, glassier, taller and denser jeopardizes what’s existing. Historic Preservation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but a lot of practitioners seem to want to keep it in the hands of the gray-haired, bow-tied and time-tested academic, the public sector employee that clocks out of work and out of preservation at 3:30 p.m., or the historian that insists that architectural history stopped after Art Moderne. And we are all still kind of shaking our coffee cans, emblazoned with SAVE THE CLOCK TOWER in front of all those necking teenagers and wondering why no one drops a quarter in. In 2015, there seems to be a breach in connection between historic preservation, determination, appreciation of the works of art that great buildings are and most importantly, inclusion.
It shatters me that we tear down these obvious works of art. I’ll fight the goddamn system till the bitter end, like Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gently Into The Night”-Richard Nickel
It was not enough for Richard Nickel to take photographs. On June 8th, 1960, Nickel turned from salvager to activist, leading the charge on Randolph Street to save the 1892 Garrick Theatre from demolition. The outcome was a sadly familiar one in the 1960s as well as today, the Garrick was ultimately demolished for a parking garage.
Documenting a building and salvaging its ornament is always a sad sort of consolation prize, but, like Richard Nickel, we cannot let the bitterness over demolition affect our idealism. Like the rebar, wires and other types of building guts revealed as a building is dismantled, letting our determination falter exposes us to the elements and weakens us.
As Richard Nickel understood it, visiting and revisiting Sullivan buildings; watching as they went from being full of life, to becoming unoccupied, documentation was often the last line of defense, and the last chance for a building to ever be known.
Nickel’s work is eyes-straight ahead documentary photography. People are used for scale, and the presence of objects such as light standards and automobiles seem to have been framed so as to purposefully establish time. Architectural photography in Chicago carries the immense weight of this body of work within it. Natural curiousity and thoughtfulness governs each of Richard Nickel’s images. Like piece of double exposed film, almost every photo of an old building takes on a bit of this life.
Great Architecture has only two natural enemies, water and stupid men.- Richard Nickel
Ten years after the loss of the Garrick in a move that seems exponentially stupider then it did at the time, Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building was slated for demolition. Advocacy efforts to save the 1894 Stock Exchange proved ineffective, but would ultimately lead to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, now Landmarks Illinois. The City of Chicago recognized the importance of the building’s ornament, and paid to have much of it salvaged. The Art Institute of Chicago was to dismantle and recreate the entire Trading Room within one of the museum’s wings. All the while, Richard Nickel photographed the building’s deconstruction, and continued to pull ornament from the site. The Stock Exchange Building was so heavily salvaged and documented that the sum of its exalted existing pieces not so subtly negates the need for it to be demolished in the first place. And for what? Not a parking garage, but the building that replaced it has all the character of one.
When demolition to a building is eminent, it’s popular to state that “Preservationists have lost the battle.” In truth, when a great building is demolished, it’s a battle that we have lost collectively.
On Thursday, April 13th, 1972, Richard Nickel had left home early to salvage inside the Stock Exchange. He was working alone amidst the active demolition around him. It had been unseasonably warm in Chicago that month. Perhaps it was sunny, and the sunshine lit up the dust particles and debris in the air, making it sparkle. That old building smell; damp and warm and made of wood and metal and stone and carpet and everything else, filled the dismantled spaces. Polyester double-knit jacquard shorts were on sale at Carson Pirie Scott & Company, only blocks away. The Stanley Cup-bound Chicago Blackhawks were threatening to strike. US forces were still committed in South Vietnam. Nickel was in love, and recently engaged. It was Richard’s last day on earth.
Demolition halted after Richard Nickel didn’t return home, and friends and family searched frantically for him for a week. Almost a month after his briefcase and hardhat were found in the rubble and demolition resumed, a worker spotted what looked like a human shoulder, two floors beneath the Trading Room, in the Stock Exchange’s sub-basement. Richard Nickel had been crushed to death, but his body had remained intact. Debris and rubble, along with cold water seeping into the building had kept decomposition at bay. An autopsy later revealed that Richard Nickel had suffered from pulmonary emphysema and chronic bronchitis, a result of breathing in 20 years of dust and airborne debris from salvage sites and old buildings.
Demolition has a strange way of preserving a building forever, but in time only. The Chicago Stock Exchange never got the opportunity to work through the shift in technology of the 1980s. It never had its mortar joints filled inappropriately, and then lovingly corrected as the culture to physically restore a building continued to mature. It never had the opportunity for its coffee shop to turn into a Currency Exchange, and then to be re-imagined as an Intelligentsia. It will never be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or be given the opportunity for someone to stealth cellular antennas on the roof.
Richard Nickel is often called a martyr for historic preservation, his death somehow akin to the tragic fate of the source of his obsession, Louis Sullivan. But perhaps canonization throws the bar too far out for us to grasp back onto. Richard was determined and driven by an impetuous passion, remained intellectually curious, and understood the rapid pace of change. These are important characteristics for anyone that practices preservation. Nickel lived for old buildings, and he died for them; but the most important thing to remember is that he really lived, and for something he loved.
At 87, Richard Nickel would have had a wide view of what architectural heritage is today, and it’s doubtful after advocating for the work of Louis Sullivan 50 years after Sullivan’s time it wouldn’t be difficult for Nickel to understand that butterfly roofs are as radical as some of the Chicago School Architecture he was trying to save in the 1960s. He would have championed the shift in ideas of slum clearance and urban renewal to the assets of neighborhoods and Chicago’s vernacular architecture. Perhaps his most recent project would have been documenting the insensitive changes made to C.F. Murphy and Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Center, built in 1985.
Not gently into the night, but loudly expressing his convictions.
Happy Birthday, Richard!