Visiting Chicago

In May, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Chicago after judging at the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals competition at Michigan State.  I took the Amtrak from East Lansing to Chicago - Union Station, then the "L" ("elevated") train the rest of the time.  There was one issue when I tried to get out to the University of Chicago which involved missing a bus connection and having to be rescued by my friend, but aside from that, public transit was a breeze.

Chicago overall was a really fun city: not too big as to feel overwhelming, but with great transit around the downtown Loop area, perfect weather at the end of May, and lots to see and do.  I'm already looking forward to going back.  I made myself a Google map of the city with an ambitious number of places to visit, but thanks to my patient friends, I was able to check off most of the places.  The others will have to wait 'til next time.  Here's the run-down of what I was able to see.

Day 0
Before I even got to Chicago, I did get to see one pretty cool building at Michigan State: the Broad Art Museum (not to be confused with the one in Los Angeles) by Zaha Hadid Architects.  Opened in 2012, the museum is a lovely, compact piece that invites viewing from all sides, to the point of wondering how the art (and staff) even gets in - the loading areas are so well-integrated that the building does not feel like it has a front or a back.  The art inside was not quite as impressive, although there were a few interesting pieces, including a room that appears to have a hole in it leading outside.  (The hole is real, the "outside" is fake.)  You might say this building has all the angles.  Definitely worth a visit if you're in the area.  I think this was the first Zaha Hadid building I've visited.

Not a real plant.

Not a real hole.

Not real plumbing piping.

Still really pretty cool.

Day 1
I arrived around noon and met my friends for lunch at True Food Kitchen, which was pretty good.  I didn't realize at the time that it's a chain with a location here in Palo Alto - so maybe I'll have to try that location too.  We spent some time walking around, checking out the outside of the John Hancock tower, the Chicago Tribune tower, and Studio Gang's Aqua tower, before getting on the boat for the Chicago Architectural Foundation's river cruise.  The sun was blasting in our eyes for much of the boat ride, but it was still great to see all the buildings from the river perspective, and the guide was entertaining.

John Hancock Tower - SOM

Chicago Tribune Tower - Hood & Howells

Aqua - Studio Gang

You can just about see the "Skydecks" poking out from the face of the very top of the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower, by SOM).  Something to do on my next visit.  Or the "Tilt" attraction at the Hancock Tower, which is similar.

After the river cruise we wandered through Millennium Park, which is fantastic; past Grant Park; and into the West Loop to find dinner.  Not in the mood to wait hours for a table at a notable restaurant, we found an upscale taco place we could walk into.  After that, we wandered some more downtown, checking out Chagall's Four Seasons mosaic, the Palmer House lobby, and the Crown Fountain before calling it a night.  No photos of these, since my camera doesn't do well at night.

Cloud Gate - Anish Kapoor

Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park - Frank Gehry

BP Bridge - also Frank Gehry

Buckingham Fountain

Day 2
This was the most ambitious day, where I started south of the city and worked my way north, with my very patient friend driving me to see random architectural sights.  We started at the Robie House at the University of Chicago, after she rescued me from a highway overpass as previously mentioned.  I think I've had just about enough Frank Lloyd Wright for one lifetime now, having visited Fallingwater, the Hanna House, Florida Southern College, and now the Robie House; the Unity Temple would have been nice, but it was closed at the time, and maybe I'd visit Taliesin West in Arizona, but other than that, I think I'm good now.  The low ceilings do wear on you after a while.

This is a key detail: the grout joints between the bricks are different widths and even different colors (the vertical joints are tinted red) in order to accentuate the linear look of the brick.  FLW was a bit crazy.  But it works.

The University itself had some pretty cool buildings, including the tantalizing Mansueto Library, by Helmut Jahn, which can only be entered from the adjacent Regenstein Library, to my great disappointment.  We wandered around it looking for an entrance for a while.  No luck.  Apparently, below the reading room are massive automated stacks.

After U Chicago, next up was the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), home of the famous Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe plan and perhaps equally-famous McCormick Tribune Campus Center by OMA.  The Campus Center is incredibly strange.  The L tracks through the building are expressed both inside and outside, so it's clear there's a large train running through it.  Inside, the finishes are left, well, unfinished: steel panels on the floors, unpainted drywall on the ceiling.  At first I thought it was being renovated, but I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be that way.  It's like the floor and ceiling finishes got reversed by accident somehow.  There is a copious amount of neon orange, odd patterns in fritted glass, strange interconnecting levels, and a general feeling of outdatedness.  I don't think this building is aging well, and it's less than 15 years old.

By contrast, Crown Hall, the Mies masterpiece and home of the architecture department, felt delightfully spacious and open, even though it demonstrated some signs of age in the ceiling.  The end-of-year student work was on display throughout, and a couple families were wandering through.  My only puzzle was how the building could possibly work when it's full of people having studio: isn't it terribly loud, without any acoustic privacy?  The downstairs does have full-height partitions between the library and the rest of the space, but none of the other spaces have walls.  I wonder how it feels in there during school.

The mandatory decorative wide flanges.

We had lunch at the diner where President Obama was said to be a frequent patron - this is his home turf, after all - and my friend dropped me off at the Art Institute of Chicago downtown to finish off the day.  And all I can say is that it is an amazing museum.  I speed-walked through the entire thing, and in three hours I could do little more than take note of what was there, not even spend time looking at much.  My favorite areas were Piano's Modern Wing, the Tadao Ando Gallery, the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, the Thorne Miniature Rooms (need to spend more time in there.  what.), the collection of architectural salvage items, and the crazy half-spiral stair in the Michigan Avenue Building.  And a cool trompe l'oeil painting (1960s American?) of money and a medieval guy, of which I cannot recall the artist or title, so that's going to haunt me for a while.  No idea why I didn't take a picture of it.

I have to give a shout-out to my fellow Columbia GSAPP alumni, one of whom worked in the Slide Library with me, for having an exhibit on display next to the cafe!  Represent!

Suffice to say that three hours was not enough time to see the museum.  I need to go back.

That evening I hit up a few more buildings, including the Monadnock Building (Burnham & Root, 1891 - one of the earliest skyscrapers) and the Louis Sullivan masterpiece of the Carson Pirie Scott store (1899, now a Target), then had dinner with my cousin at "avec," which was a quintessential "New American" restaurant: overly loud with wood paneling as far as the eye could see.  But tasty.

Monadnock Building - Burnham & Root

Carson Pirie Scott Building - Louis Sullivan

Day 3
Grabbed some pastries and took the train to the airport - easy, convenient, and no issues other than being slightly confused about which entrance to use to get to the correct side of the station for the L.  But I didn't miss my flight, so it was fine.

Hope to be back soon, Chicago!


Book Review: City of Quartz

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990, updated Preface from 2006) by Mike Davis is a strange book.  Honestly, I still have no idea what the title is about.  As the back of the book notes, it's a work of "sociology/urban studies," meaning some of it is about urbanism, and some of it is a social history.  I also have to admit that several of the chapters, the social history ones, had little interest for me; they chronicled a specific moment in LA history that, as a non-resident, doesn't seem to have a lot of interest or general usefulness now.  But several of the chapters described a city wrestling with the effects of suburbanization and affluent NIMBYism that were the precursors to today's continued urban problems, and those in particular are worth a read.

Davis is an academic and a Marxist, approaching his topics with a clear view as to questions of social and economic equality, which colors much of his commentary.  But his analysis of local LA politics and history is extraordinarily thorough and deep.  In his first chapter, he describes competing myths of Los Angeles, varying over time and depending on who the myth-makers were (novelists, scientists, artists).  The second chapter follows the city's power brokers over time, focusing on families, industries, and social groups.  Chapter three, "Homegrown Revolution," is where things really get interesting, as he writes about the suburbs, where residents raced to build their dream communities and then, once complete, turned about and fought any further density (read: diversity) under the guise of "slow growth."  Chapter four and five discuss the police, chapter six covers the Catholic church, and the final chapter, "Junkyard of Dreams," follows the development of farmland in a fringe town, Fontana, into a steel mill and finally a post-industrial wasteland.

"Homegrown Revolution" is the one chapter I'd recommend reading.  This chapter is a careful analysis, down to the level of city council minutes, of how white, affluent homeowners fled the city, created their own suburban fiefdoms, got the county to pay for their new suburbs' development, and then shut the gates to anyone who might want to follow them into their new paradise.  As Davis writes, "The most powerful 'social movement' in contemporary Southern California is that of affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in the defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity" (153).  He contrasts the contemporaneous Northern California / Bay Area "slow growth" initiatives, largely organized around ideals of environmental conservation, with the Southern California version, which was almost exclusively concerned with "the defense of household equity and residential privilege" (159).  Unlike the Bay Area, where he notes that developers and slow growth / environmentalist advocates alike learned to speak in terms of environmental impacts, in the LA area, developers became pitted against homeowners who refused to allow any growth - in sensitive areas or not - that they perceived would diminish their own property values.  Of course, much of this opposition was also based on racist and elitist foundations, with wealthy homeowners refusing to allow minorities or the less-wealthy to enter their communities under the belief that their presence would not be good for home prices.  (Such beliefs were nearly always self-fulfilling, as the wealthiest could afford to move out to ever-more-exclusive enclaves to avoid incoming poor or middle-class neighbors.)

Davis traces the history of homeowner associations, restrictive covenants, and racial segregation in LA, combined with the "white flight" of the 1950s-60s and the county's agreement to offer public services (fire, police, etc) to newly-incorporated areas at below-market prices, to describe how so many suburban wealthy enclaves were formed.  After the 1960s, these same homeowners turned to defending these areas from all further development.  As developers pushed politicians to re-zone single-family areas for higher density, and thus, higher market segmentation (and more renters), homeowners fought back with "slow growth" initiatives.  As their property values, and thus tax assessments, rose, the same homeowners embraced Proposition 13, which restricted property taxes and made it possible for home values to continue to rise without equivalent increases in taxes for homeowners.  Prop 13 continues to impact California cities today, by disproportionately benefiting the wealthiest homeowners, who should be paying the highest taxes.  Meanwhile, the increasingly poor urban residents of LA continued to receive nothing, including no new transit, as homeowners associations organized against new light rail to downtown under the banner of avoiding development in "anybody's" backyard (205).

The chapter delves into the minutiae of local politics, as does the rest of the book, but it's an amazing glimpse into California history.  David concludes that "if the slow-growth movement [...] has been explicitly a protest against the urbanization of suburbia, it is implicitly - in the long tradition of Los Angeles homeowner politics - a reassertion of social privilege" (213).  In other words, the NIMBYs were (and are), beneath it all, doing nothing other than enforcing their race and class privilege against their neighbors, behind a veneer of "quality of life" and "environmentalism" that is merely a screen for maintaining their property values at the expense of others' lives - lives spent in traffic, spent in poverty, and spent in segregation.

It's hard not to think of Palo Alto when I read this, especially of East Palo Alto versus Palo Alto, with the hard dividing line of renters versus homeowners, the demographic divide that persists to this day, and the virulent opposition by Palo Alto homeowners to any new development, even senior housing (which could hardly impose new burdens on schools or traffic, but never mind that).  Palo Alto and Mountain View both have an unwieldy jobs-to-housing balance of nearly 3x as many jobs as housing units, with no forseeable way out of this quagmire, since low-density zoning has trapped us where we are.  Without substantial changes in attitudes, and the dissolution of the NIMBY coalition, it's hard to see how we can solve our problems of traffic (due to commuting to jobs), lack of transit (due to low density), and sky-high housing prices (due to both high demand and a restricted supply of housing).  The Bay Area's "slow growth" of the 1960s has left us this quandary, which now looks more like the "slow growth" of 1960's LA than like the environmental movement of before.  While we can still agree that preserving the unstable hillsides and green belts is important, we need to come to terms with the need for higher densities on the areas that can be developed, or continue to face chronic housing shortages and all the problems that come with it.