Skyline Timeline: Using Image to Explain the Historical Impact of the World Trade Center Tragedy

On September 10th, 2001, The World Trade Center was a seven building complex in New York Cities’ Financial District, anchored by two 110 foot square steel towers on a 16 acre urban Superblock.  Designed by American architect Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1972, the Twin Towers made an immediate and almost unequivocal mark on the New York skyline.

Manhattan, like many skylines across America, hadn’t changed much since the 1920s. Factors like economic depression, World Wars, and the dramatic shift from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s had put a major hault on building in urban areas. As towers of steel and glass rose to take over the overall elevations of cities all accross the nation, skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building and the Empire State Building began to look like poorly-aged grandparents. This was the beginning of the era of the Supertall Building, where the race for the loftiest is sometimes determined only by one or two feet, or a radio tower. Things were changing in a big way, with really, really big buildings.

1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center, Circa 1973.  Image via Feedreader.
1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center, Circa 1973. Image via Feedreader.

Great skylines are like logos for the cities that they serve. Desplayed as a silhouette, the skylines of New York, Seattle, and Chicago look more like great fonts than elevations of urban areas. We are excited by them, particularly when we come from places that lack architectural verticality. Visiting cities in person, there is nothing like heading Downtown and seeing a wall of tall buildings before you; first defined by only a few jagged shapes, and then becoming a busy puzzle of stone, brick, iron, glass and steel. A city skyline stirs the imagination. It represents hope, possibility, and success. It doesn’t matter if you’ve left your home swamp in Wisconsin for a vacation or perminantly. The thrill is the same. You’ve made it here! So you can make it anywhere! It’s up to you, New York, New York!

The World Trade Center was Modernism to a tee. An emphasis on straight lines, shining aluminum alloy on the facade and a nod to Gothic Architecture in the presence of the three pronged forms that rose from the street level, easing the hard lines above. To those that romanticized The Big Apple, the towers of the World Trade Center became the most salient representative of the lightning fast pace of city life, the powerful company and corporation, and the sheer dominance of something made by man being that impossibly tall. Buildings like this can easily command your attention, creating that slack-jawed, bug-eyed effect that Supertalls have on the person looking up at them.

Kermit the Frog, looking up at the World Trade Center Towers in the 'Muppets Take Manhattan'
Kermit the Frog, experiencing architecture in ‘Muppets Take Manhattan’

A visit to the World Trade Center was a part of the standard tourist tour of New York. Visit the statue of Liberty and ponder the importance of our freedom (or perhaps just jam out on how Peter Venkman was a genius for thinking to use Lady Liberty to defeat Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters II.) Check out Rockefeller Center and marvel at how it looks bigger on TV. Bathe in the wattage of Times Square. Try and find the Central Perk. Perhaps dine at a Hard Rock Cafe? The World Trade Center became the most ubiquitous buildings in New York, and the image of the Twin Towers taking command over the skyline seemed to come to represent something greater within popular culture, more so than any other American Building during its lifetime.

Buildings make a great garnish.
Buildings make a great garnish.

The deplorable events of September 11th don't need to be rehashed here, but there was a sudden and viceral public reaction to each and every element that was contributing, or thought to be contributing. Islam was a threat. Airports were a threat. Tall buildings were a threat. And now the World Trade Center was gone, along with the lives of thousands of innocent people at the hands of a scary new household word: Terrorism.

Those Al-Qaeda jerks made their point. There was a sudden change to the most famous and important skyline in the world. The effect was visual and tangable. The World Trade Center immediately became a burdened American image. It was cut from movies and VHS covers. It represented our naivete in thinking that we were the center of the universe, and it had to be removed from existance. The Pre-September 11th skyline of New York became difficult to digest and shameful to view. Post-9/11, the absence of such a substantial piece of the dense fabric of place; both in New York and across the country, became a visual representation for the tangable emptyness that was felt everywhere. The World Trade Center had been reduced to a graveyard of rubble and twisted steel surrounded by dust and smoke. And then when the air cleared, this happened:

And this:

And then this:

The image of the Pre-September 11th World Trade Center became a potent symbol of Americana, screenprinted on t-shirts and floated over images of the American flag. The twin towers were no longer the object of Kermit the Frog’s gaze, or Carrie Bradshaw’s wanton urban optimism. They were like two muscled arms, with two clenched fists, poised defensively in front of America’s face, ready to fight.

No building that tall had ever failed before, let alone by human hands. A piece of architecture had been used as a weapon of mass destruction against American ideals. Well-designed buildings shelter us, they make us think, they inspire us. But immediately after 9/11, anything tall, significant, historic or influential in the United States was considered a potential target, leaving people all over the country looking up and thinking that every architectural landmark was a potential loaded gun. What if the US Bank Tower in Los Angeles was hijacked? What if the Sears Tower in Chicago was hijacked? The Rennissance Building in Detroit? The Bank of America Plaza in Dallas? The Palazzo in Las Vegas?

Security measures at observation decks and revolving restaurants were tightned. Architectural Engineers began planning Supertalls not to withstand changes in temperature or wind resistance, but to withstand the impact of a Boeing 747. Fireproofing standards within stairwells and elevators were thrown out and completely reworked to preserve human life against floor space. At the former site of the Twin Towers, this challenge was amplified by the need for any new structure to carry the tremendous weight of what happened through supurb, world-class design.

One World Trade Center, formerly the Freedom Tower, is slated to open sometime in 2014. Perhaps the message of building on the site where a horrible American tragedy took place will be best articulated in the symbolic 1,776 feet of the 104 story tower, or the mangled artifacts in the museum. Put simply, the clearest message is the fact that people will continue to do exactly what they did at this site on September 10th, 2001; work in an office in Lower Manhattan and be American as fuck.

We not only began to think about seeing tall buildings differently, we began to design them differently. But what do we do with the past? From architectural fragments to firetrucks, important physical artifacts have been preserved. Ideas as far as how to commemorate tragic events in history have been evolving and improving for decades, and the World Trade Center is histories’ newest and most important challenge.

World Trade Center souvenier coffee cups, pressed pennies with an embossed image of the Twin Towers, Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, Yamasaki renderings, Architectural Digest images of the gleaming lobby in 1973; they all tell a story of a past that was very real, and very abruptly interrupted by a heartbreaking event. This material, the pre 9-11 skyline view and all of the ephemera has a significant role in documenting September 11th in a way that is holistic, teachable and tangable. History is a conversation over time, and and twelve years later, this conversation is beginning. So what will we say?


The Inexplicable Intertwinglement of Architectural Theory

Imagine my surprise in hearing that during Thanksgiving, out of all the outrageous topics that are typically covered and conjectured by the Blasius Family, the entirety of my dinky little blog was read aloud by my cousin Caroline. I’m sure I would have felt my ears burning from the other side of Metro Detroit if I hadn’t been eating myself to near death levels. So this post is dedicated to Blanche, Bob, Cheryl, Keith and Larry and all of their respective spouses and children. Thanks for reading guys.

“I have been a circus-horse rider between architecture and urbanism most of my life. But reigning together beasts that have been tugging apart over five decades has made for a bumpy ride.”- Denise Scott Brown, 2012

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing a living piece of architectural history. Denise Scott Brown is the principal collaborator of Robert Venturi, one of the most important architects of the 20th century. This husband and wife duo did something rare in architecture; they talked about it, wrote about it and built buildings that people actually want to use. In an act of Preservationly defiance, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi met on the pastoral campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1960 over the proposed demolition of Frank Furness’s library. They joined forces soon after, teaching at UPENN, visiting America’s best and worst, oldest and newest cities, and eventually falling in love.

Denise Scott Brown, Las Vegas, 1972. Image courtesy of The Graham Foundation.

Born in South Africa in 1931, Denise attended architecture school in London in the 1950s and traveled extensively throughout Europe with her first husband, Robert Scott Brown, who would die tragically in 1959. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Planning in 1958, Denise immediately began seeing America as a whole pie; a conglomeration of ideas from the old world and the vanguardist spirit of a former colony that had yet to hit two hundred. Denise recognized that America’s past, present and future were of equal importance to the success of cities here. Pop that pie in the oven with a couple of other ingredients, and you’ve got the makings of a great Urban Planner.

Cities are living, breathing systems, and architects, designers and planners have to deal with a stellar combination of old stuff that’s important, medium-old stuff that’s useful, and new stuff that’s obtrusive but vital. Few luck out and are able to start with a blank slate, and those that do end up with crap like Kapolei, Hawaii. Don’t think for a minute that because it’s in Hawaii it’s not a god-awful place.

During our conversation, Denise stated that the “movement of people equals a city” and that movement and land use are “inexplicably intertwingled” with each other. (‘Intertwingled’ isn’t a word to be found in Webster’s Dictionary, but she’s Denise Scott Brown. Denise Scott Brown can create words.) In this way, it’s easy to see how the good ol’ ant farm analogy applies. I also thought about Chicago’s wonderful underground Pedway System, and how it allows city dwellers to move with ease from one part of the Loop to another, a savior if you’re caught without an umbrella. Inhabitants of a city have limited power over what the built environment looks like, but infinite possibilities as far as how to use it through movement.

As much as I love run-on sentences full of big, wordy words; my favorite architectural concepts are quite simple. Like ‘Duck versus Decorated Shed,’ a Venturi Scott Brown Favorite.

Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.
Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.

The fact that the ‘duck’ is a duck is pretty inconsequential. The duck could be any number of buildings, say a coffee cup-shaped coffee house, or an engagement ring store shaped like an engagement ring. These buildings are what they are, and were designed to be what they are. You could even go the high-falutin’ route with this concept.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959.  Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959. Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.

Frank Lloyd Wrong designed the Guggenheim Museum as an art museum. That is what it is. It’s construction, as well as the theory of design and use, explain to us why it is the way it is. Architects are pigheaded, and they often use their own writing and theories to justify the rigidity of their own work.

The ‘decorated shed’, on the other hand, uses signage to tell you what its use is. Think of any number of buildings that have an undefined shape that have words or ornament on them that tell you what you can find there. You know what the Golden Arches are, even if they are stuck on a high-rise in Tokyo. Seeing “Chase” emblazoned on the side of a building tells me that if I wanted to, I could overdraw my account and spend a couple of stacks on something Marc Jacobs-ey. Who’s to say the duck is better? Or the decorated shed? This is an easy game to play because you, as the user dictate how you use and see your environment. Try it sometime. It’s fun.

The most delicious decorated shed ever.  Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.
The most delicious decorated shed ever. Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.

After speaking with Denise, I began to ‘reign together my own beasts’ and commit some of my own theories to paper. Why not, right? Some nerd might want to interview me someday.

Preservation and Neglect

Poor Blaservations!  I’ve neglected you horribly in the last few months, even after vowing to keep a regular schedule of updating you.

But here’s the honest truth; I’ve been too busy working in preservation to update in a timely manner.  Here is a brief summary of ‘Blaservations 2012’ thus far:

-Generating original research on the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition for use in a 3D animated Bollywood musical about Swami Vivekananda.

-Launching into historical research of Highland Park, Michigan for eventual publication.

-Working with a writer to develop a narrative around the history of 999 Lake Shore Drive, designed by Benjamin Marshall in 1911.

-Managing a survey of over 1,300 Postwar houses in East Oahu for the Hawaii State Historic Preservation Division.

-Researching and writing a National Register Nomination for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Franklin Court Complex for the National Park Service in Philadelphia.

Woa dude.  That’s a whole lot, and I’m not even counting the little week long projects I’ve done between the larger ones.  And the year isn’t even over yet.

St. Elizabeth the Brutal

Do you like Brutalism?

Perhaps this is a rhetorical question. In search of an answer, I went to the hospital.

Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center is a doozy of a Brutal building. Located just east of Western Avenue on Division in Chicago, it’s easily the tallest structure in a half-mile radius, and quite out of scale with the rest of Ukrainian Village (and out of context if one considers its famous neighbors, like Louis Sullivan’s iconic Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral) With its vertical concrete bastions, tiny punched-out windows and huge hoods looming uneasily, this building is so austere and so brutal it almost makes you want to question the sanity of the architect. Was this person intent on building a structure for health and healing, or was the architect inspired by his laundry hamper turned over an air-conditioning unit?

Brutalism is a design language that came about by rejecting the straightforward glass boxes of Modernist architecture by using materials such as poured concrete and coarse aggregate to express a type of crudeness, or even vulgarity. Brutalism tells it like it is; buildings are a mess of materials and complex systems. Rather than tucking ventilation units in the basement or behind decorative elements, the building becomes a visual expression for the way it actually works. Some of your least favorite buildings are likely in the Brutal style. Take the pugnacious Troy Public Library in Troy, Michigan for example, which looks like it straight up hates itself. Wouldn’t you hate yourself if you looked like a Stair Stepper?

Or a pile of used air filters?

University Hall, Chicago, Il. Designed by Walter Nesch, 1963-1968

Or the blade of a Ped Egg?

Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium, Kagawa, Japan, 1962-64

Or a Satanic meat tenderizer throwing up gang signs?

The Former Cathedral of Christ the King, Kalamazoo, Mi. Designed by Irving W. Colburn, 1966.

Back to St. Elizabeth, the Brutal exterior gives way to a spectacularly similar interior, where the strong, solid lines and emphasis on material continue.

The Chapel inside was pleasant surprise, with vivid dalle de verre a dramatic contrast to the stark poured concrete, which seems to be the only concession of “pretty” here.

But is my knowledge of architecture clouding my judgment? Brutalism was never meant to compete with the Taj Mahal or your Grandpappy’s favorite old Queen Anne cottage, but it’s certainly distinctive, evenly if it’s distinctively disgusting. These buildings aren’t pretty, but then I couldn’t run speed intervals on the treadmill listening to Peggy Lee. That’s what Skrillex is for.

So the answer is yes, I suppose. I like Brutalism. I like that by serving materials and structure rather than a visually appealing aesthetic, Brutalism developed its own aesthetic that is true to the spirit of really great designs and designers. As Modern architectural heritage begins its journey into the realm of historic significance after years of falling victim to the wrecking ball because it wasn’t pretty or well-liked or Frank Lloyd Wright I can’t help but wonder; will I be the only spinster wacky enough to stand in front of the Chicago Landmarks Commission in 2030 in defense of St. Elizabeth?

The Good Old Daze

Sometime in the mid 90s, I gave my Dad, Keith Blasius, a pair of fuzzy dice to hang from the rear view mirror of his 1968 Ford Fairlane 500. In an act of kind, fatherly appreciation, he hung them up for a short time, then took them down. When I asked him why he had removed the fuzzy dice, he told me that they didn’t quite ‘fit with the period’ of the Fairlane. I didn’t understand. An old car is an old car, right?

On a late 60s muscle machine like the Fairlane, fluffy plush dice make about as much sense as a bunch of deceased celebrities loitering in front of a pretend diner, in front of a pretend turn of the century main street. So many things from the past seem to be helplessly lumped into a stew of information, and those of us that choose to blow the whistle are ruining the fun.

HABS IL-1029

Take for example, my beloved Reliance Building, a sumptuous terra cotta layer cake of a skyscraper that buzzed with public and academic interest even before construction was completed in 1896. The Reliance Building inspired Chicago photographer Richard Nickel in the 1960s and landmark architect Gunny Harboe in the 90s. Now, the Reliance Building’s greater purpose is as an adaptive re-use project that works, functioning seamlessly in 2011. I’m sure Daniel Burnham and Charles Atwood are looking down from that great drafting table in the sky right now, smiling as guests in the lavish Hotel Burnham use the free wi-fi to download Devil in the White City on their Kindles.

History sure is attractive, but I’ve heard quite a few tall tales regarding the Reliance Building recited as gospel. Here are a few from the cock-and-bull department:

-Al Capone had an office in the building.
-Al Capone killed someone on the roof.
-The first two floors were salvaged from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
-Everything in the interior is original.
-George Washington washed his hands in the sink of room 309.

As a historian, it is unethical for me to allow false information to be passed on to innocent fans of the past. But as the polite person I generally am, calling out trivial inaccuracies just reinforces the elitism of those that choose to study the past from an academic perspective; and history is for everyone. Is the devil really in the details, or are those pressed to always represent a completely accurate picture just getting too caught up in names, dates, and fuzzy dice?


Step right up, Folks!

Your local urban epicenter proudly presents a disgusting spectacle of unmarvled specticality. She’s big, bad, scary and oh boy, she’s been mad since White Flight! Drool at her blown out openings, her overgrown lawns, her burnt out ceilings. Gape and goggle at her missing pediments and copper piping. She’s the Nasty Queen of Newark, the Detroit Dead, the Chicago Crumbler, She is…

An abandoned, blighted building. And you can see her almost everywhere.

There is something oh-so-sexy about a derelict structure. Perhaps its’ inherent expressiveness makes you want to explore your art school kid side, taking brilliantly lit pictures using the rule of thirds. Perhaps it cries out to you to urgently document every aspect of it’s raw skeletal form, because it may not be there tomorrow. You can’t deny the visual merits of an abandoned building; the image is striking and powerful on film, and allows the photographer an easy way to make a statement that is almost always up to the viewer to interpret.

Or perhaps you don’t want to take pictures, but instead get all pronoun slaphappy; “They should restore that”. Who is this illusive “They” that seems to have so much power? Is there a Mr. They, international philanthropist able and willing to pump millions of dollars into “that”? Or a Republic of They? City of They? Theyville? How about National Trust of They? Why aren’t “they” taking responsibility? This unfocused blame leads absolutely nowhere.

Buildings cease to be used for a variety of reasons. A structure may have become physically obsolete, gone into foreclosure, or experienced fire or water damage. Building owners can die, be sued for virtually any reason, or be fined for permit violations, and all of these factors can cause a structure to be stuck in limbo for months or even years. Most municipalities have laws dictating that a building be reported by the property owner as vacant, and citizens can obtain information on abandoned properties via the Freedom of Information Act. Here in Chicago, information can be obtained primarily at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

Perennial recessions such as the one we are currently experiencing do have a bright side to Preservationists, though. Securing a building is expensive, but demolition is even more costly. This gives direlict structures the priceless opportunity to be reviewed for rehabilitation by building owners and developers once resources are more secure. Some may argue that this itself is a type of ‘preservation’. So snap away, with both your judgments as well as your D90s.

But is the exploitation of abandoned buildings bad for their future? In the case of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, a 1913 Beaux Arts dinosaur that wouldn’t give in to the virtual eradication of passenger rail, adaptive re-use plans have ranged from the nonfunctional to completely wacky. Michigan Central has cast a bleak shadow on the City of Detroit since the last Amtrak train pulled out of the station in 1988. There is seemingly no end in sight, and like many abandoned buildings big and small, Michigan Central poses a substantial safety risk and physically manifests the worst qualities in a community.

The moral ground seems to be at the median of education, advocacy and realistic solutions for abandoned buildings of historic and architectural merit, because recognition and documentation are just a start. A fat lady can’t be a ‘fat lady’ forever. Sooner or later she’s going to want to make something of her life, like get a Masters of Science in Historic Preservation of Architecture.

Logan Square-off

In the spring of 2010, the Chicago City Council unveiled an ambitious $15.4 million plan for the 1930 Morris B. Sachs building, a Logan Square icon and the architectural anchor of the six-corner intersection of Milwaukee, Diversey and Kimball. With the assistance of Brinshore Development L.L.C. as well as the Chicago Department of Community Development the Sachs building (also known as the Hump building or ‘that other flatiron building on Milwaukee’) will be transformed into the Logan Square Community Arts Center, complete with affordable housing for artists as well as performance space.

The building, located at 2800 North Milwaukee was built in 1930 by Leichenko & Esser for entrepreneur Sol Goldberg, who redesigned the ubiquitous hairpin to include a ‘hump’ and a third arm in the center to better secure strands of hair. Goldberg’s invention is celebrated almost everywhere on the exterior of the building by way of a curious camel in low relief, surrounded in a deco-esque emanation of rays and waves. The building housed a variety of retail stores, and after the Morris B. Sachs department store opened in 1947 the name stuck for good.

Work on the Sachs building-ahem, the ‘Hairpin Lofts’ is well underway. The building has new double-hung windows, a reconstructed cornice and the whimsical camel reliefs have been given the proper treatment, too. All of this happening after two decades of vacancy, except for a Payless Shoe Source on the first floor.
This is all good and lovely in a “Save the Hill Valley Clocktower” sort of way. I like a good art deco structure for sure, but I can’t help but wonder how this radical transformation will affect the surrounding area, for better or for worse.
The Sachs Building is a contributing structure within the Milwaukee-Diversey-Kimball Landmark District, designated by the City of Chicago on February 9th, 2005. History aficionados can breathe a sign of relief; many of the architecturally outstanding gems residing from roughly Spaulding Avenue just past Diversey are relatively safe from the bulldozing effects of redevelopment.
All seven of the contributing buildings in the district are characteristic of commercial thoroughfares within a neighborhood setting. Built between the 1920’s and 1930s, these structures currently house shoe stores, clothing boutiques and discount outlets, with larger chain stores anchoring the smaller ones to the south.

2778 North Milwaukee (Gap Outlet)

3401 West Diversey (Foot Locker)

2800 North Milwaukee (Payless Shoe Source)

During the 1930s and 1940s, these three structures housed some of Chicago’s most important and well-known chain stores. The expansive windows and classical ornamentation of the Gap Outlet once housed a Goldblatt’s. The clean Deco lines of what is currently a Foot Locker once housed a F.W. Woolworth. And there is also the districts’ main attraction: The former Morris B. Sachs building.
In the past as well as today, this area is a lively commercial strip of shops, supermarkets and other businesses that fulfill the needs of those in the community.

There have always been lots of reasons to move to Logan Square. The picturesque boulevards are a welcome visual and recreational respite. The mixed-bag of cultural heritage is represented everywhere in Logan Square, from its’ Cuban cafeterias and Mexican taquerias to the elegant turn of the century greystones, inspired by the architectural styles of Germany, Poland and Scandanavia. Signs read in English, Spanish and in Polish, and in 2011 one can still go see a recently run film at the Logan Theatre for three dollars. There is also Johnny’s Grill on Kedzie, a neighborhood diner with counter service straight out of a Norman Rockwell pipe dream.

But put this in your pipe and smoke it: What is attractive to new residents of Logan Square is the non-existence of American Apparel stores, ALDO outlets and Forever Yogurts. Are we looking at images of the structures that in ten years will house American Apparels, ALDO outlets and Forever Yogurts? Will the Payless still remain relevant sitting beneath a community arts center?

So what’s the right thing to do? There isn’t a clear-cut answer. Should developers stop looking into changing the cultural architecture of a community? Should cool kids and artists simply stay put where they are? Should those that live in historic, older neighborhoods simply not expect to have clean, pleasant streetscapes and city services? Community development always seems to be at odds with itself, and ultimately someone’s going to get their feelings hurt. Put your gloves up, Logan Square. You are facing some fierce competition.

Old buildings, New tricks