Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ARCHITECTURAL CRITICISM. Personal Responsibility

I like the Insurance Exchange. I like it a lot. 175 West Jackson Boulevard. D. H. Burham & Co (1912) and later Graham, Anderson, Probst and White.(1928) Peirce Anderson designed the building for Daniel Burnham.

My first job as an Intern Architect was at 309 West Jackson Boulevard. A job that became full time after graduation and lasted for enough years to tell you that I passed this building (more often in a hurry than not) nearly 3000 times -- to and from. Even in a cold rain, the Insurance Exchange had elegance and presence.

It fit. Cornice heights and details echoed throughout the immediate neighborhood. It worked. The Fed, the Continental Bank, and the Corn Exchange were up the street and around the corner. And the Board of Trade. Lunch, shoeshine, a drugstore, and a tobacco shop opened on to the skylit court. Custom suits were made there (for people with more money than me).. Everybody knew it was a Daniel Burnham building. And that it made Ernest Graham's fortune. (Perfect timing, I'd say.)

Over the years, it settled into gray disrepair. But the space was cheap and the location was good (especially for consulting engineers) . And though the white terra cotta never quite lost its sparkle, Chicago's Architectural "Critical Framework" tended to focus elsewhere. Daniel Burnham, of course, wasn't nearly the architect that......... So this piece of history was left to renovation (the architect describes his work as an "elegant transformation") rather preservation. No one said it should be any other way.

I think that those of us interested in Architecture need to remember that what surrounds us is not just an expression of effete style. To be criticized with a roll of the eye and a click of the very educated tongue -- to be dismissed because it is loved. It is a reflection of men (scroll down to that picture of Daniel Burnham as a teenager) and place and history. It is also a reflection of aspiration. And we need to remember this and talk about it and photograph it and share it as loudly and as often as we can. So when the time comes, as it apparently has, for Michael Reese, everyone would already know Walter Gropius and Peter Behrens and that mid-century modern was born in dreams already then 30 years old and that we were about to lose a piece of something irreparable. And every person whoever drank from the Rosenberg Fountain would, each day, know that Hebe (who holds the secret of eternal youth) is directly connected to those whose inspiration built a once great institution.

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