2011 Burnham Prize Competition: "McCormick Place REDUX"

Added on by Timothy Brown.

The Chicago Architectural Club is pleased to announce the 2011 Burnham Prize Competition: “McCormick Place REDUX”. This year’s competition is co-sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects and Landmarks Illinois and is intended to examine the controversial origins and questionable future of the McCormick Place East Building, the 1971 modernist convention hall designed by Gene Summers of C.F. Murphy Associates and sited along the lakefront in Burnham Park.

Built on parkland meant to be “forever open, clear, and free”, considered an eyesore by open space advocates, and suffering from benign neglect at the hand of its owners, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, Gene Summer’s design for McCormick Place East is nevertheless a powerfully elegant exploration of some of modernism’s deepest concerns. The current building’s predecessor generated withering criticism from civic groups so when it burned in 1967 its critics mobilized. The raw economic power of the convention business served to hasten rebuilding atop the ruins. But while Shaw’s previous building lacked any architectural merit, Gene Summers brought to the new project his years of experience at Mies van der Rohe’s side. The resulting building is a tour de force that succinctly caps the modernist dream of vast heroic column-free interior spaces.

The competition charge

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority claims the building needs $150 million in improvements and that the building is functionally obsolete, too small to remain viable as an exhibition hall. While the facility appears frayed, the building is in fundamentally sound condition. Connected to the larger McCormick Place exhibition complex by a covered bridge over Lake Shore Drive, the stronger connections are to the lakefront, the museum campus and nearby Soldier Field. Surrounded by an over-abundance of parking, served by CTA buses, and bordering the immensely popular lakefront walking/running/biking path, the possibilities for the building and the site would seem boundless. But so far, the only visions for its future to be expressed publicly been total erasure or reuse as a casino.

The “McCormick Place REDUX” competition seeks to launch a debate about the future of this significant piece of architecture, this lakefront site that was effectively removed from the public realm, and the powerful pull of a collective and public claim on the lakefront. This iconic building is caught in the crossfire of a strong, principled, and stirring debate. So the question posed by the competition is quite simple: what would you do with this massive facility? What alternate role might the building play in Chicago should it be decommissioned as a convention hall? And if the building were to go away, how might the site be utilized? What might you do with a million square feet of space on Chicago’s lakefront (along with 4,200 seat Arie Crown theatre)?

Clearly outmoded for its original use, sited on a spectacular stretch of lake-front, and undoubtedly of very significant architectural quality - what visions are there for a resolution?

Link to competition website is here

Reynolds Price

Added on by Timothy Brown.

A fellow North Carolinian, the writer Reynolds Price, died today at the age of 77. According to the news reports he died of complications from a heart attack he suffered Sunday. 

He said once, of Macon North Carolina, “I’m the world’s authority on this place. It’s the place about which I have perfect pitch.”

I can't think of a higher calling for an architect than to be the world authority on some place. I love the idea of having the perfect pitch of a place. I asked Stanley Tigerman for some advice as I was about to finish grad school and he said that to be an architect you had to go someplace and stay put there for 50 years - then you maybe could figure it out. I think I've finally come to understand what he meant by that.

Chicago Architectural Club and MAS Studio Network Reset Competition

Added on by Timothy Brown.

MAS Studio and the Chicago Architectural Club are pleased to announce the competition: NETWORK RESET, a single-stage international competition that seeks to provide ideas and actions that can reactivate the Boulevard System of Chicago and rethink its potential role in the city.

Participants are asked to look at the urban scale and propose a framework for the entire boulevard system as well as provide answers and visualize the interventions at a smaller scale that can directly impact its potential users. Through images, diagrams and drawings we want to know what are those soft or hard, big or small, temporary or permanent interventions that can reactivate and reset the Boulevard System of Chicago.

NETWORK RESET is made possible in part by the generous support of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture LLP

competition link

news from the front

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Yesterday we met at IIT about our graduate admissions targets for the upcoming admissions cycle (I'm the Director of Graduate Admissions at the College Architecture) and one question was how the economy will impact the number of applications. Last year we saw a big spike in applications to the two-year Master of Architecture program. With the number of unemployed architects at a high, many grads of the first 4 of the 4+2 sequence opt to go ahead and do the 2 while "off". My thinking was that as some offices start hiring we might see a drop. The open question is how the devastation will impact applicants to the three-year master of Architecture program. These people are mostly embarking on a new career path and are surely eyeing downstream job prospects. Which leads me to an article on this morning's Morning Edition:

Few professions have been hit harder in this economy than architects. In Seattle alone, thousands of them are out of work. "I know everything there is to know about building a building from a garage in your backyard to a high-rise in downtown Seattle," says Gary Barber, a practicing architect for 30 years. "I have that experience and skill set." Barber exudes passion for his work. But as an architect, skill and passion are no longer enough. There's not much demand for new houses or commercial buildings, and that means not much demand for architects, crane operators or escrow officers.

Not the news I was hoping to hear this morning, but maybe the crunch will allow small, smart, and/or nimble firms to adapt to a rapidly changing professional environment. And students who accurately assess the long-term prospects for practice will be the best people to keep practice more closely aligned with expectations on the part of the people who grant us a monopoly on huge portions of the building design sector.

Chicago Architectural Club Event

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Two announcements: first is that I will be serving as the President of the Chicago Architectural Club this year. We have a full slate of events scheduled along with an international design competition and a Club project. We'll also be organizing the Emerging Visions portfolio competition for young architects.

Second announcement is that the November CAC event will be a talk by Ben Nicholson of the SAIC on "aliens, ghosts, and spirits". Since Ben hired me at IIT and taught me virtually all I know about teaching, this is a chance to re-pay an old debt. And Ben always gives a great lecture.

Talk will be given at Archeworks (corner of Kingsbury and Ontario) at 7:00 pm this Wednesday evening.

Hawthorne Garden

Added on by Timothy Brown.

If there's a better public space in Chicago than the Hawthorne Garden at the Art Institute I've not come across it in my twenty years here. And if there's a more beautiful place to be on a perfect spring morning I hope someone will tell me so that I can go directly there from here - now. Here being the Hawthorne Garden...

Yancey County North Carolina

Added on by Timothy Brown.
Yancey County North Carolina
Yancey County North Carolina

What fifty-four tons of gravel look like just after the truck dumps them. Thirty-five tons of road bond in the top photo spread deep at the bottom end of the road, and another 18 tons or so of washed gravel in the bottom photo dumped off to the side. Cost a thousand dollars for three loads driven up NC 80 from Marion. As soon as we get it spread we'll have good access to the upper end of the site. 


Added on by Timothy Brown.

I'm traveling this week so am a little tardy in commenting on this year's Pritzker Prize. For anyone living in a cave or under a rock (or simply lost in the mountains of western North Carolina) Kazuyo Sejima, and Ryue Nishizawa won it.

SANAA has been on my radar since their subtle but sophisticated competition entry for the MTCC competition at IIT. I'd seen a few of their projects before their work for us at IIT but hadn't managed to get my head around the work - the pachinko parlors were my favorites by far. But their design for the student center struck me as the best of the bunch in that it was extraordinarily quiet and presented a type of emptiness that seemed perfect for the forefront activity of a building capturing streams of activity throughout the day. Materials and close ordering all fit neatly into a re-working of some of Mies' strongest ideas.

Having recently been to NYC where I saw the New Museum, then in Tokyo to see the Dior project on Omotesando, I'm doubly impressed by their handling of surface. I will be joining others, no doubt, in making a tardy visit to Toledo (we've been talking about driving over for a year or so anyway). I regret not seeing the Ishigawa museum while in Japan - also missed the Ito project in Sendai...

I particularly enjoy thinking about the slight adjustments and reconfigurations of the field provoked by a Zumthor-SANAA Pritzker sequence.

Kengo Kuma at IIT

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Serving as a nice cap to our Japan trip, Kengo Kuma was here yesterday to give a lecture on his recent work (during an eight-hour Chicago layover). The lecture was sponsored by the Consulate General and the Japan Foundation so we were fortunate to be able to host the talk here at IIT. I have to admit to only a glancing knowledge of his work until just recently. But that seems to be surprisingly common amongst my friends and colleagues. In fact, it was a group of my students who kept going on and on about him that prompted me to wake up. It's embarassing when your students are out ahead of you, when you are presumably well-informed about the larger world of architecture. Regardless, I owe them.

Dr. Kuma showed two particularly interesting projects: one was a recently completed bamboo house (not the Great Wall project) that seemed to be a complete reconsideration of the surfaces of a house, and another project planned for Napoli using tufo and allowing its porosity to support an overgrowth of plants. He also spoke a bit about the Nezu Museum in Tokyo which we saw but were unfortunately too early for the re-opening (picture above).

We'll be exploring the possibility of some collaborations between IIT and his students at the University of Tokyo. Seems perfectly natural for us to be more active in Japan. Really, how is it that our trip a couple of weeks ago was the College of Architecture's first ever contact with Japan? Too much time in Italy and France.

Link to a funny article at CNN Talk Asia. The "sushi" architect ??????


Added on by Timothy Brown.

I'm still trying to process the past week's flood of impressions, and to get over jetlag. The trip was quick, dense, and incredibly interesting. First impressions of Tokyo were unexpected; there wasn't a strong sense of disorientation as I'd expected. In fact, the city seemed deeply familiar. Less surprising than Seoul. Intense, crowded, but navigating was simple. Language was never an issue since most every key bit of information is presented in either romaji or English. Tokyo subway station announcements are made in English even. The super low density of the outer reaches of Tokyo was odd. Food was amazing, as expected. And the cost of the trip was remarkably low, much less than the cost of ten days in Paris.

Four days in Tokyo allowed us to get a general sense of the city and see a decent selection of first-order sites. Two days in Kyoto also was enough to get a glimpse of the traditional architecture and, more importantly, a few of the remarkable gardens. Undoubtedly, the highlight was the trip down to see the shrines at Ise. I had been hoping to see them for many years so that day was a pilgrimmage for me.

I'll be posting images to my Flickr stream as I get time in the next few days. And I'll add a few more posts as I get my arms around the experience.

Japan bound

Added on by Timothy Brown.

While I have spent a good portion of my life traveling, I do have several gaping holes in my experience. One of the most embarrassing is never having been to Japan. Embarrassing both because Japanese architecture, both traditional and contemporary are so important but also because Japan occupies such huge sections of our collective sense of the world. So a few months ago I decided to organize a student trip there over spring break. It may seem an odd approach to take students on my first, but my many years traveling with architecture students taught me that seeing new things along with a group of highly attuned and perceptive kids will pull you into a place deeply and thrillingly.

Our itinerary is limited to Tokyo and Kyoto, with a daytrip out to Ise Shrine (anyone who has gone through IIT’s second year studio has seen the amazing film on the shrine’s twenty year re-building cycle). We leave tomorrow but would welcome any don’t miss suggestions…

Rosenwald schools

Added on by Timothy Brown.

NYT has an article on the restoration of Rosenwald schools scattered around the south. We are working with one of the original Rosenwald schools at Penn Center as part of our masterplan project. It's currently used as the pre-school facility, but the desire is to expand the Center's early childhood education capacity. So our idea was to either import and restore other at-risk Rosenwald building,s or look for ways to extend the idea into a collection of new buildings.

Daniel Buren's columns in the Palais-Royal

Added on by Timothy Brown.

LeMonde has an article on the renovation of Buren's columns called les deux plateaux. They have just been re-inaugurated after a little over a year's worth of restoration work. Maybe it's just an everyday curse visited on very public art in France, but the cour had been allowed to deteriorate into a real mess. I can't recall when I last saw the water on. I was never much of a fan of the project but the gardens and the cour are, to me at least, one of the ultimate urban ensembles and to see one part in such disrepair was a disappointment.

Penn Center Masterplan

Added on by Timothy Brown.

I'm at Penn Center on St. Helena Island this week with five students from my fall semester design studio at IIT. We've been working on a master-plan for the Penn Center campus this semester and we've been invited down to present the first round of schemes at today's meeting of the Board of Directors. We did a preliminary presentation to the staff yesterday afternoon upon arrival, and will go before the full Board this morning.


The studio was a comprehensive building design studio so each student also developed a full building project as well as developing the campus plan in large groups. Once finished with the project for the National Park Service's planned Gullah Cultural Center, the two planning teams re-formed and crunched out the final iterations of the overall campus schemes. The central part of this extraordinarily beautiful site is a National Historic Landmark so the planning context is rich and challenging.

While we are working on an island that is well-known for its isolation and cultural distinctness, it's interesting to note how we were working over the past few days. As we started preparing the presentations, since the students had already started to disperse for the break, we had drawings coming in from Bangladesh, from Hong Kong, from San Francisco, from Texas, from the Chicago suburbs, and, via email, even from across the studio space. Last evening we were even downloading renderings from Chicago to a mobile phone. (But we were downloading to an i-phone because internet access here on St. Helena is spotty. Even mobile phone service is thin. Our ability to transfer drawings around the globe without a thought puts the lack of basic high-speed internet access in places like this into high relief.)

The weather is a gift for us, having left Chicago winter only to find a lovely warm, blessedly humid, 77 degrees. In the place of slush we have live oaks, palmetto trees, fresh shrimp galore, she-crab soup, and the ever-present smells of the marsh and tidal creeks.

Skin problems at IM Pei's National Gallery East Wing

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Catesby Leigh has an excellent article in the WSJ today about the recent forensics work on Pei's deteriorating marble cladding at the East Wing. It seems the extraordinary craftsmanship achieved in this building - who doesn't know the story of the handprints on the famous corner - is a contributing factor to the situation. The 1/8" joint between the 3" thick marble panels hasn't been sufficient to accommodate the concrete's plastic creep and the long-term thermal cycling induced hysteresis. The forensics teams are likely to find a few other contributing factors as well.

The first studio project I taught at IIT was a re-design of the enclosure system for the Standard Oil Building (now the Aon Center) here in Chicago, which was completely re-clad in NC granite after its Carrara marble thin-cut veneer started failing in 1989. A few pieces of marble got loose, proving that large slabs of marble could indeed fly, and the resultant studies determined that thin-cut Carrara marble was particularly vulnerable to hysteresis. Our third-year design studio project set out to capitalize on the consequent "blistering" of the skin by inserting new, mostly public cross-programming within the zones opened up by the cladding's slippages. It was huge fun since working on the then-Amoco building's cosmetic probelms while the first Gulf War was being waged offered rich territory for thinking about the relationships between energy, national security, the oil industry, and architecture.

For me, Pei's building, along with Nouvel's IMA, has always represented an approach to a neo-modernism that was effectively de-railed as Koolhaas's smug and snarky take played out. Too bad. It's a great building. It's very funny to see it described as an ultra-modern building in the print article headline.

How to Walk to School

Added on by Timothy Brown.

WBEZ's morning program, 848, has a long interview with Dr. Susan Kurland who virtually remade Nettelhorst School from one of the weakest in the Chicago Public School system into one of the best. Nettelhorst is our neighborhood school, so one of our kids finished there and went on to the IB program at Lincoln Park High, another started kindergarten there last year, and yet another will start kindergarten there next year. Obviously, since we're vested, we're pleased to see the radical improvements. Public schools are one of a society's most important institutions and having a strong public school (within the CPS system, no less) in the neighborhood allows a community to develop into something very different than an enclave of wealthy urbanites where all the kids get shipped off to private schools.

Having a viable public school has utterly transformed this neighborhood - when I lived here twenty years ago there were no kids. Parents fled for the suburbs, unless they were wealthy enough for Parker or Latin. And in that case they had no ties to the community or real interest. Now it's possible to live here on a normal economic footing without having to revert to private schools.

For anyone thinking and talking about sustainable communities the first and most basic challenge is to develop excellent, or maybe just really solid public schools.

Link to the interview here

MOSE again

Added on by Timothy Brown.

We've nearly finished the text for the IUAV WS09 publication. Thanks to Luca Mezzalira and Vittorio de Battisti Besi for helping smooth the piece into a much better Italian than I could manage alone.

La Sfida del MOSE

Il programma proposto per il workshop si fondava su due principali idee: la prima è quella di considerare un workshop estivo di tre settimane simile ad un’avventura in cui direzione, energie necessarie e risultati sono totalmente imprevedibili; la seconda consiste nella volontà di considerare le più complesse questioni in architettura le quali, all’interno dell’esplosivo potenziale di un workshop estivo, possono divenire un mezzo ideale per un’indagine approfondita.

Il mio lavoro si sviluppa tendenzialmente in due direzioni: progetti su vasta scala e progetti di dimensioni molto contenute. Abbiamo recentemente proposto un parco lineare di 4,5 km di lunghezza nell’area nord-ovest di Chicago e un centro civico di 2.500.000 metri quadrati in prossimità del Midway Airport. La stessa modalità di lavoro vale per i progetti che ho sviluppato negli ultimi anni attraverso il mio insegnamento all’IIT. Progetti molto grandi o molto piccoli. Venendo a Venezia eravamo preparati a pensare in grande. E nel centenario del progetto di Burnham per il piano di Chicago, potremmo dire che the pump was primed.

A Chicago abbiamo visto recentemente completato un enorme progetto denominato Deep Tunnel. Si tratta di una riserva sotterranea per la raccolta delle acque meteoriche che si estende per 175 chilometri e può raccogliere fino a 60 miliardi i litri d’acqua. Il tutto è praticamente invisibile. L’unica cosa che si vede è quello che non accade quando cadono le consuete piogge torrenziali di fine estate: la presenza del Deep Tunnel ha portato ad avere cantine asciutte e un immenso buco nel bilancio pubblico. Il Progetto si è concretizzato nell’eliminazione delle inondazioni e nell’evaporazione di montagne di soldi.

Il nostro interesse per il MOSE dovrebbe essere evidente. Faraonico nella scala, sconcertante per la quantità di materiale necessario, terribilmente oneroso. Il MOSE è all’apice nella lista dei progetti a vasta scala in fase di realizzazione nel nostro pianeta, un progetto che sta ridisegnando in modo dirompente il delicato paesaggio lagunare. Le infinite controversie, i seri dubbi sull’effettivo funzionamento del progetto, i costi immani e l’impatto sull’ambiente che caratterizzano questo progetto sono elementi dai quali scaturiscono i nostri sforzi per ri-modellare il mondo. Ma nonostante l’intensità dello sforzo la parte visibile, tangibile, del progetto, la sua manifestazione fisica è sostanzialmente invisibile. Come nel caso del Deep Tunnel il suo eventuale successo sarebbe dato, semplicemente, dall’assenza dell’acqua alta.

Quindi la domanda che ci siamo posti durante il WS09 era se l’architettura fosse o meno in grado di partecipare alla concretizzazione di questo progetto ambizioso. O se il compito che le compete è soltanto quello di provvedere poi all’aggiunta di elementi decorativi, di aggiungere piccole finiture a progetti già definiti dalle grandi compagnie investitrici. I tanti programmi One Percent for Art fanno sorgere una semplice domanda: perché l’1%? Perché non 50%? Perché non un livello di parità? 100% per l’arte? Sei miliardi di euro per un’opera pubblica…e allora perché non sei milioni di euro per portare alla luce il progetto?

La sfida proposta ai 40 studenti che hanno partecipato al workshop era trovare un modo per rendere visibile questo vasto progetto, quasi completamente invisibile. Che il MOSE venga ultimato o meno, che esso funzioni effettivamente come è stato immaginato o che aggravi la situazione, non rientra nelle nostre preoccupazioni. Noi abbiamo affrontato il progetto nelle sue ambizioni, invadenza, e nella sua scala.

Il nostro insegnamento al workshop è consistito prevalentemente nel sollecitare un ragionamento ad una scala appropriata a quella del MOSE. I primi ragionamenti progettuali degli studenti erano fossilizzati a modelli tipici della Venezia storica, ad una scala di super-dettaglio più adatta forse ad una piccola costruzione in campo San Polo. Una torre veniva considerata “alta” ad appena 30 metri, gli spazi aperti verdi venivano chiamati grandi anche se solo di un ettaro.

Durante le discussioni con gli studenti l’obiettivo era quello di ragionare in termini spaziali all’interno dei 550 chilometri quadrati della laguna, con un budget di sei miliardi di euro.