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Architecture Tue May 20 2008

Preservation and/or Prosperity

As Merger David Schalliol listed yesterday, the Michigan Avenue Street wall has been added to the National Trust for Historic Presevation’s 11 Most Endangered Places.

On the Trust’s website they have a brief article summarizing some of the threats to various buildings along the street wall. Two projects of note were the new 71 story condominium building (The Legacy at Millennium Park, currently under construction) and the Chicago Athletic Association Building, where a proposal to add additional stories above has been met with obvious resistance. Preservationists are mostly concerned with the precedent that would be set if developers are allow to peel away a building while maintaining only the façade. As Richard Moe, president of the Trust, states, “The threat to the Chicago Athletic Club particularly and the Michigan Avenue Streetwall more broadly represents the problems such intense development pressures pose on our architectural heritage.”

However, the preservation game is much more difficult than that…

Moe continues to point out, “If approved, this project, and others like it, will destroy the very sense of place that attracts such development." It is at this point that the discussion of preservation versus prosperity begins. Juxtaposing Moe’s comments it can also be stated that not approving additions or façade reconstructions would rob the area of the vitality that keeps these buildings relevant. History, unfortunately, has proven this to be the more accurate statement than Moe’s. The one strength of the lack of real enforcement of Chicago’s preservation ordinance is that it does allow for today’s world to envelop and involve historic structures, even if the fidelity to the original is somewhat lacking.

The article continues, not surprisingly, to encourage greater intervention on the cities behalf. The trust targets not only, the street wall itself, but buildings that may soar above the cornice line, perhaps undermining the massing of the aged buildings. However, certain questions start to poke large holes the argument for preservation.

The Sears Tower soars above the skyline, should it not have been built to avoid over-shadowing other buildings?
What about the Spertus Institute? Do new landmarks have less of a right to exist that older ones?
Who determines which buildings are worth saving? Certainly the Essex Inn can go, but what about the Ebony Jet building?
I don’t think I could imagine the skyline without the CNA building and its lights celebrating significant city events. Yet, it certainly stands in contrast to the street wall.
Some buildings were built in two phases, years apart from each other, which phase is the correct one to save, both?
What if we don’t have uses for these buildings, should they sit there vacant? One city can only have so many boutique hotels. (i.e. Hotel Burnahm in the Reliance Building)

In my gut, I know that these buildings should probably be saved in some fashion. But they must be able to live their lives either in triumph or tragedy and preservationists need to come up with more sophisticated and pragmatic arguments for saving these buildings.

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David SchalliolAuthor Profile Page / May 20, 2008 12:46 PM

I love seeing these topics discussed, although, to be fair, good preservationists have answers to all of the questions you pose.

Since I don't have a lot of time, the quickest answer is to point out what the Trust has done: recognize the value of and express concern for the Michigan Ave. streetwall. In so doing, it recognizes the particular contribution of a particular group of buildings. It is not making a statement about preserving all buildings in all contexts nor arguing that all of the buildings in the wall are tremendous. Other Trust materials explain specific criteria for valuing other buildings and groups of buildings.

As for the new Spertus building, most preservationists I know are pretty happy with the building, particularly as an example of a contemporary building that worked within the context of the existing streetwall -- as such, it maintained the scale/lines of the wall while expressing contemporary design.

There are certainly tensions between development and preservation, but in many cases, the solutions are pretty straightforward. In your words: preservation and prosperity.

Carl GiomettiAuthor Profile Page / May 20, 2008 2:13 PM

Thanks David, I try to keep my posts about half reporting, half me on my soap box.

I'm sure there is a good argument out there that I've not yet been exposed to, but as of yet, I haven't heard a clear stance as to why we should save specific buildings. I think that too often feelings borderline on nostalgia which becomes prohibitive to progress. Instead of trying to save specific buildings, we might benefit from putting more trust in architects and planners. I would point to Haussmann's work in Paris. I'm sure that when he tore through the city to put in boulevards, historic buildings were destroyed. But, if it weren't for that, the fragmented Parisian plan would have proven ill equiped for modern life, much like historic Rome.

Certainly a fun and complicated topic to discuss, we'll have to meet up at the GB anniversary party!

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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