Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From the would-be whimsical to the grating: A few comments on architecture

A few years ago, when architectural feats like the Chicago Spire (Santiago Calatrava) and Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP) were announced, a local citizen was quoted to the effect that brick was ugly and that real beauty lay in these new structures of steel and glass.

To me, steel and glass are cold flat, uniform, and lifeless—unappealing in their sameness for life, work, or play.

They are also reflective. We can see ourselves in them, and perhaps some of us, like our quoted citizen, have been reduced to finding beauty only in man and in man-made things.

Usually, I don't focus much on architecture other than to glance at it and form a quick "I like" or "I don't like" opinion. I do like the Beaux-Arts building in which I live, The Flamingo, and the quirky neo-Gothic main quadrangle at the University of Chicago. I do not like Mies von der Rohe's flat international style, which drains the building, neighborhood, and skyline of personality and character. Often, I'm too absorbed to notice many wonderful details, unless someone like J. with me and points them out.

That is how I have managed to pass the Max Palevsky Residential Commons numerous ties on my way to the Brutalist Regenstein Library with only a vague sense that "I don't like it."

Palevsky, designed by Ricardo Legoretta, is brick, which I prefer to the reflective office park mishmash kitsch of Rafael Viñoly's Graduate School of Business building on 57th and Woodlawn, a couple of blocks away on the University of Chicago campus. This painfully out-of-place blight "pays homage to/complements the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House," at least according to article writers who are adept at parroting the university's official press releases.

Palevsky is brick, so you might think that, for me, that is a point in its favor. Yet it is an odd-colored brick, not dark red but an earth tone rust orange that seems more institutional than residential. The brick is very even and flat in tone and texture, which gives the building a vague air of prefabricated cheapness.

To break up Palevsky's orange-red bulk, upright rectangular sections are painted in colors that are neither primary nor pastel, but muted yet bright earth tones, also very flat. I recall reading that Legoretta wanted to add some playful whimsy to the design through these colors.

Playful colors are not a bad idea, in moderation, but the brick and the colors are belong more to the southwestern desert than to the University of Chicago campus, making the complex discordant and out of place between Brutalist Regenstein and neo-Gothic Bartlett. In addition, the swaths of color are too large and broad, making them garish strokes rather than attractive accents. The effect is not of a unified campus, but of a neighborhood where the residents have lost control of zoning and where buildings of any style, material, or color can be plopped down, adding to an already cluttered look.

Even so, the bulk, the brick, and the colors do not achieve the apex of awfulness of so much contemporary architecture, and until recently I have not paid any more attention to Palevsky than I do to Regenstein. It is my friend J. who pays attention to architectural details, not me.

One day, though, it was somewhat warmer than usual, and I found myself in front of a wall that is part of the Palevsky design. There is nothing on either side of this wall, which is full of glass-less square windows individually bordered by the same Palevsky color. My turn of mind that day was such that I began to see the little windows as square versions of arrow slits. Suddenly, the wall loomed in a foreboding way against the dull January sky.

I looked back at Palevsky, where the same square windows are mirrored at the the ends of the hallways with the elevators and stairwells. Despite the large room windows and the playful colors, the building's brick bulk, the small square windows, and the sentry wall combined to make me think first of a fortress, then of a prison. I didn't like the effect, heightened by the gloom of Chicago's leaden gray winter skies and the sense of hopelessness that can seize even the most optimistic spirit here in winter, let alone an inward-turned soul like mine.

I doubt the students who live at Palevsky see it in the same way that I do; their tastes are those of a different generation that has been shaped by different ideas, cultures, and events, and they may appreciate the building's intended whimsy and playfulness. They may care mainly that the inside is comfortable and has the amenities that they want.

As for me, for a moment, I felt surrounded, trapped, watched by the eyes that I could imagine behind all those windows in that two-dimensional wall.

If Palevsky inspires me with weird feelings and sensations, you can guess how I feel about the renderings of Cheese Grater, er, Solstice on the Park. Like Palevsky, Solstice on the Park fits in with nothing around it , especially the section of Jackson Park it will dominate.

There is neighborhood opposition to Solstice on the Park, primarily due to its size, location, and proximity to a school, combined with concerns about parking. None of these bothers me because it seems inevitable that a high-rise will be built on such a prime piece of real estate.

But must it be such a repulsive one? When I first saw the renderings, I thought they were a joke and that someone would pull them and post the real drawings. No one with people, life, and aesthetics in mind could have conceived anything so dreadful and so out of place. It's cold. It's sterile. It's monstrous. And it resembles a giant cheese grater.

Solstice on the Park is one of those buildings that makes me wonder how contemporary architects think. What about the adjacent Windemere House, the nearby Museum of Science and Industry, and the park across the street made Studio Gang Architects think of a large, shiny, glass-and-steel cheese grater? Is it meant to be art for art's sake? I thought it was supposed to be a residence. Is it supposed to be so ugly and horrible that you can never forget the architects? Or forgive them?

"Form follows function," attributed to Louis Sullivan, seems to me an architectural approach that is rarely attempted, much less achieved. Solstice on the Park will be a residence overlooking a park. It should look like a residence overlooking a park, scaled to humans, full of life and the potential for dreams and love, stately to reflect its tree-lined setting.

Instead, it resembles a cheesy kitchen gadget.

Suddenly I feel a craving for something covered with shredded cheddar.

1 comment:

  1. Fortunately, you are not an architecture critic. You have a fondness for neoclassical garbage, which is fine, but that does not detract from the beauty of this building.