Archive for February, 2006


Best New Building in Chicago

We talked earlier on this blog about the best new buildings in Chicagoland. Here’s my candidate – one that’s gotten no press.

See how its green glass just dissolves into the sky?
—Especially on beautiful blue sky days.

And all proportions, inside and out on the street, are human proportions.

Fine detailing too, without and within. In addition to this staircase and glass wall is nice warm woodwork.

We’re talking 800 W. Madison, Madison and Halsted – in the west loop. On the west side of Halsted, just across the street from Skybridge.
It’s an MB bank. Who do you think designed it? I’ll tell you tomorrow, when I find out !

UPDATE: And the architect is: Booth Hansen

And maybe we’ll talk about the other buildings at this intersection of Halsted and Madison – three very different styles, heights and materials but since all are buildings of high quality, the ensemble is united. Like three children of very different ages, but from one good family.

The Oath for Architects



I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won gains of those great architects in whose steps I walk.
I will apply, for the benefit of all, all measures which are required, avoiding the traps of overbuilding and blocking too much sunlight and fresh air.

I will remember that there is art to architecture and cities, as well as profit,
and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh an extra story or two in a project.

I will insist on using quality materials and seek quality craftmanship, I build for the ages.

Most especially must I tread with care in matters of tall buildings, for these have great effect and are seen by all; and in civic buildings, for these are for all the people.

I will not be ashamed to say “I don’t think we should build there,” or “I don’t think we should tear that down,” or, “wouldn’t that be better as a public square or a park?,” nor will I fail to call my colleagues on the carpet when they accept a commission that shows disrespect to tradition or to the citizenry.

I will not fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a project.

If I’ve not clear ideas or strong talents, let me not obfuscate truth with “archi-speak.” Those who do should only teach, and never build.

If it is given me to build a private residence for a wealthy person, all thanks, may I resist the urge to soak ’em. May I also resist the urge to involve my friends in the profits.

It may also be within my power to help the less fortunate. I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those of pure mind and body as well as those with political connections.

Above all, I must not do like many in my profession – you’ve seen the Modernists? the Brutalists? Do not play at god!

May I resist temptation to design or put my name on, tea-kettles, bird houses, and pasta spoons.

I will remember that I do not build a single building, but that the landscape and the lighting and the space around the building, indeed the polis as a whole – is connected. My responsibility includes all related issues, such as transportation, and sustainability, if I am to care adequately for the population.

I will preserve and ennoble nature whenever I can, for I think that I shall never see a steel and glass skyscraper lovely as a tree.

May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of those in my buildings, even when they can’t find parking nearby, or the elevators break, the plumbing leaks, property taxes or heating costs go up, or an esteemed colleague builds something next door and blocks their beautiful view.

May I have the right to not have to live in one of my own buildings.

Were I given good fortune to live to 98 years, may I know when to stop designing.

If I do not violate this oath, may I be respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I design my own tomb (if no one else will.)

Until then, may I enjoy life, art, dry martinis, designer eyeglasses and Italian shoes.


All rights reserved. Copyright 2006 Edward Lifson

Has Chicago lost its way?


Our friend Blair Kamin wrote this fine article in the Tribune noting that the columns are now rising above ground for Trump Tower, on the Chicago River.

I couldn’t tell if Blair thinks the Trumpster will loom too large over the site and in oversized scale will seem to mock the great buildings around it, such as the Wrigley and Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Building. I asked Blair and he said, as he said in his article, we’ll have to wait and see.

I wish, unrealistically, that we were not going to hide 7/8ths of Mies’ great IBM perfect slab. That instead we considered it and treated like our version of Mies’ great Seagram Building in New York. We might have put a plaza in front and sloped it down to the river and had a natural access point for all citizens, rather than great views for the few who can afford to live in a Trump.

That’s not happening, and Trump will have amenities, such as a narrow riverwalk and not the world’s worst detailing (which used to be on that site;) but we are blocking what could have been a symbol for Chicago – the perfect mid-century Modernism that we did so well here, such as at the IBM building,

that the world copied us.

But life is leapfrog and maybe New York is ahead of us now.
Will we accept that?

I got to thinking, if we are going to build in front of IBM, in my dreams what would I like to see there? First I thought of something already planned for elsewhere in Chicago – the twisting, narrow Calatrava spire (which I doubt will get built on the site for which it’s proposed)

It’s slender to not block too much, the twisting shape would contrast nicely with Mies’ right angles, the white with his dark glass; in fact the ensemble would recall the futuristic 1939 World’s Fair – subsititute a perfect ‘rectangle’ for a perfect sphere.

Then my mind wandered to Norman Foster, the great British architect whose Hearst Tower in New York looks like this

Actually it looks even better in person.

So I’m thinking, a Foster could be nice if we’ve got to block the Mies.

And just a few minutes later (via ANN) I read that in New York, “Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building may be getting a new neighbor, in the form of a slender, nearly 700-foot-tall highrise building from Lord Norman Foster.” Here’s the story with a sketch in The Architect’s Newspaper.

So, are we letting New York build better than we do? We used to be the center, when monuments like IBM went up. And now? We were supposed to get a Foster, for the Hyatt Center on Wacker. After Sept. 11, 2001 it was deemed “too expensive.”

What we got, by the New Yorker Henry Cobb, is very nice, but it’s not Foster-quality, not as exciting as a Foster, and indeed, is a retread of Cobb’s EDF tower near Paris .

I think City Planners, Developers and Architects today need a version of the Hippocratic Oath. Coming next!


The piazzas of Chicago. Deep dish? lol

I often long for the public square. A place to stop, to have a coffee, to look at people, to soak up the sun, to collect my thoughts and in my respite, come up with new ones. Aren’t many places to do that in Chicago. Usually what we call a plaza has cars running on three sides of it and does not lend itself to contemplation. Millennium Park is nice because it’s raised up from the traffic. The plaza at the John Hancock is nice because it’s sunken down away from the traffic. It also has a raging water fountain to drown out the car sounds. I’ve liked it so much on a sunny day I affectionately call it, in Italian, “Piazza Giovanni” (Giovanni, as in John, as in Hancock.) When I tell my friends, “I’ll meet you at Piazza Giovanni,” by now they know where I mean.

I thought about the people-friendly places that cities need last night at the Joffrey Ballet, during “Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare (who knew what of) rolls out his love story in a public square, in Verona, Italy. People dance in the streets and on bridges. Jesters toss colorful garlands, and swordfights occur in the square, with gardens behind and arches alongside. How charming! How nice to truly live one’s life in a community. Here’s the real Verona piazza

We need public squares in Chicago. Where we can safely dance in the streets!

They’re breaks in the bustle of the city, like these strategically-placed photos are breaks in the density of this text.

The other day I went to Taylor Street to see the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. And there, on a gorgeous Global Warming February Day, I stumbled across a real square to sit in.

And I don’t even have to give it a nickname. It’s called “Piazza DiMaggio.”



The most urban Skyspace by James Turrell, ever.

The skyspace by James Turrell at the very busy intersection of Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street in Chicago, near the University of Illinois at Chicago, where the College of Architecture and the Arts commissioned this. This is what you see looking up through it.

Here’s another view.

Just kidding, that’s the ceiling of a wine shop on Wells St.

The skyspace is supposed to heighten your perception of the sky, its colors and its meaning. Turrell is a fine artist, see this and this .

Ours, here in Chicago, on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago is not finished, so one can’t judge, but the first mistake to me, seems to be that our skyspace is not a peaceful place. Since it’s open to the busy streets around it

you hear all the noise. It has “that Pantheon thing” going for it — rounded, open at the top, a nice spot of light moves with the sun, but at the Pantheon you enter a world, a universe, since it’s self-contained. And the only way out is up – to where live the gods. I guess we’re more democratic than that so here you can also look out straight ahead, at life around you; and we have security concerns, so we couldn’t really close off all the walls. Oh well.

The structure itself – not pretty. The benches look (almost vintage UIC!)like this:

And, like the Pantheon in Roma, the skyspace at Roosevelt and Halsted (just doesn’t sound the same, does it? as, “the Pantheon in Roma”) our skyspace casts a moving spot of light, which looks like this

at one particular moment in time. Never again. That’s part of it. Since the opening is oval-shaped, unlike at the Pantheon where it’s a perfect circle, here the sun takes on a nice Jean Arp-like amorphous shape.

The structure, as you see above, does have that Italian thing going for it. As does a restaurant not far away, on Taylor Street!

Back to the Skyspace. It’s done in a Burnt Siena color. Actually it reminds me of

a little-known structure by Brunelleschi (who of course also designed the famous and stirring dome of Florence Cathedral) – the only picture of which I have, includes me in it! Sorry. See the Brunelleschi in the background?

And why is their piazza (and pizza) so much better than ours?
Because they’re Italian!
But tomorrow’s post will be about — Piazza DiMaggio
at least that’s what I call it – here in Chicago on Taylor Street.

‘Til then, “Cin, Cin!”


The Goodman is gone.

Don’t know if you’ve been by the corner of Monroe and Columbus Drive lately.
I hadn’t – until last night on my way to the Art Institute.

Where once stood the stately – very stately – Goodman Theater — is now a large hole in the ground. The Goodman is gone.

Forever. Never again to walk down those stairs and into that very dignified, intimate, column-free, wood-paneled “living room” (it felt like you were in a friend’s living room.)

It was there that I learned about theater as a child. Especially serious theater. The Shubert, and other Loop theaters were for more commercial runs. The Goodman was smart. Now those memories are


And aren’t we about to start a Mamet Festival soon? Many have Mamet memories, at the Goodman. Some of my strongest are August Wilson memories.

Who remembers what the quote said engraved over the front door? Something about art being fleeting, or, “Oh enlighten thee all who enter here.” What was it again?

Photo on the left shows the site looking west from Columbus Drive at Monroe. Above this will rise the new Modern Wing, of the Art Institute.

Photo on the right is looking north, at the Sullivan arch from the Stock Exchange, in front of it was a garden and a fountain. The arch is shrouded in black, at the loss of its neighbor, the old Goodman Theater? It too remembers being torn down.

Piano’s glass pavillion for the Modern Wing of the Art Institute should be nice, tho’ the backlash against it in arch. circles has started – “Not risky enough.” “A safe choice.” “Piano has already done too many museum additions in too many cities.” “What about local talent – this is Chicago!”

But I’d like to know why we tore down Howard van Doren Shaw’s Goodman Theater, which would have easy to save since it was mainly underground.

And what’s this I spy?

“Historic preservation is based on the premise that the past, present, and future have a continuity that is essential to the health of our society.”

Oh, that’s from the School of the Art Institute itself. Which offers a Master of Science in Historic Preservation. Couldn’t save the old Goodman.

The new Goodman, stands at 170 North Dearborn Street. (Complete with very tacky “Grand” staircase.) I know, I know, the offices are much better for the staff and the acoustics are better and there’s more flyspace. But I never saw a play at the fine old Goodman and said to myself, “Gosh, I wish they had more flyspace.” It was a classy place to listen to serious writing. Seems there’s no place for that anymore. And I always wondered, because the acoustics were bad, did that make you listen harder, and help you have the deep experiences so many of us had there?


Unexpected Encounters with Art

Have you ever had a totally unexpected encounter with great art? You know, you’re walking down the street and then boom! There it is. A work you didn’t know was there. And it just knocks you out. And your experience is far more visceral and I think it even goes in a different part of the brain because – you’re not prepared for it. You’re not thinking about what you’re supposed to be thinking about this work of art. You’re not thinking about what you’ve read about it. (If it has plot you haven’t heard the end- so much of so-called criticism these days is little more than just telling you the entire story in advance, including the denouement! Thanks, critics. How self-indulgent of you. A self-indulgent art critic? ‘ nevah met one!) And when you run into great art unexpectedly, you’re happy, because you think you’re smart because you put yourself in the right place at the right time.

So when has this happened to you? Could be a movie you heard nothing about, went, and couldn’t even blink for fear of missing a frame. When I was a kid, “Walkabout” did that to me.

Or I remember, in sixth grade, AV wheeled a big old metal TV on a rolling stand into our math class so we could watch the World Series. Flipping through the five channels that existed, looking for the game, the AV kid happened for just a moment
on Miriam Makeba singing “the Click song.” He knew that wasn’t what he wanted but he paused ever so lightly, because I think he was touched by it. But then, he turned the channel and found the ball game and we listened to that. For hours. I don’t remember a single sound from it. But the unexpected single moment of Makeba changed my life forever. I had never heard a sound so beautiful. I had never heard language used so sensually, so gorgeously. I had never heard English spoken with such soft rolling letters, like rolling hills. The warmth in her tone melted something in me, took me back to when all was soft. Maybe it was more powerful for having been a snippet, just an elusive * moment, and then it was gone. I had to hang on to it if I wanted it to last.

Once in Berlin, I was riding my bicycle, I had no idea which part of town I was in, and I turned a corner, and then BOOM! It knocked off my bike. I had to throw my foot out to the side and stop cold to keep from falling over. Right there, right in front of me, was Peter Behrens’ AEG Turbine Factory. It’s a monolith, it’s a monster, it’s a heavyweight fighter. ‘Nuff said.

I guess often a pretty moon or snow in the park, or icicles make me stop and take notice, and nature is supreme, I agree, but the effect unexpected art has on one is what we’re talking here.

It happens often to me at the Old Town School of Folk Music when I go to see one band, and the warm-up band, previously unknown, are as terrific. (Most recently with Old School Freight Train. They warmed up for bluegrass maestro David Grisman; Grisman’s great, but you know what you get. He’s been doing it for years. This other group came from out of nowhere – at least for me – with a talent and freshness that just hushed the crowd until it was over. More on them soon, they’re coming back to Chicago fairly soon. I’ll let you know.)

The other day I was rushing down State Street to buy some flowers and I looked up as I always do and BOOM! The new cornice going up on Carson’s took my breath away and made my heart beat fast at the same time! You see, because no one had told me -“go see Carson’s new facade,” you experience miraculous moments of creation, in which the brain is trying to process what it sees, and it creates an original response to a powerful stimulus. What fun! The brain are the body and the soul create an original, purely you, unmitigated response. You put the new experience where your previous experiences tell you to put it. That is exhilarating. Because you add to your own self.

So why did I tell you to go see Carson’s cornice and lessen what could have been a potentially powerful experience for you? “Oops!”


1. Isn’t this why we don’t like people to tell us the end of movies before we’ve seen them?

2. Walking down the street in Chicago is the best movie of all.

3. Times Have Changed: The Surrealists had these fleeting experiences on the street
with beautiful women. I had mine in a suburban classroom with a woman on TV!


At the Union League Club.
Looking at the Monet on the wall. Such a colorful landscape! Art Critic Jim Yood says it’s a serious painting, you can tell because it’s got two coats of paint! I say it’d look fine in many a museum. He agrees. But what really knocked me out, pun intended, is “Le Combat IV” by Leon Golub. In his dour 1963 tones he painted two everymen (a’ la Cain and Abel) engaged in combat. You feel the weight of their struggle, and wonder why. Why do we fight? Is their beauty in it? Did Golub find some beauty in le combat? See for yourself. I’ll tell you how. And don’t miss “Woman at the Window” by one of Chicago’s greatest painters – Vera Klement. In this large canvas, a rather svelte and well-dressed woman with her back turned to us, looks out at a landscape. Klement gave us marvelous active brushstrokes in this painting, and colors of pale sunlight, with rays of warmth. Over the last forty years she has often painted dualities, and we see it here too – in the woman’s relationship to the landscape. They’re both part figurative, part abstract. At first they’re separate elements – woman and land. But as you look longer, and the gorgeous lively colors and shapes work their magic, you begin to connect the two parts in your mind. That effect alone is worth the more than the price of admission. Because it’s all free. They don’t charge anything to see the collection which is very strong in Chicago-area artists including Ruth Duckworth, Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, Richard Hunt, Ivan Albright and Don Baum (nice thin, painted house). That should please Jim Yood, who wrote in his ode to Millennium Park:

“I know my limits, I’m no member of Mensa
But couldn’t someone 606ish reach the heights of Plensa?”

Jim’s referring to the Crown Fountain, by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, and to the lack of work by Chicagoland artists in Millennium Park. Gotta have him on the show soon. He likes Millennium Park a lot less than do I. (Jim also writes for the CACA Review. Not surprised? CACA – the Chicago Art Critics Association.)

Now, back to the Union League Club, did I say FREE? Yes it’s true, but advance reservations are required. Best is to catch, with reservations, a tour the first Friday of each month, at ten am. Glad they’re not on Sundays or they’d compete with something we do, in addition to this blog. Hello Beautiful! Try to get a tour with the full-time art curator of the Union League Club – Marianne Richter. Wow! A full-time art curator at a club. That’s one club I would like to be a member of.
Just gotta watch out for the “Rendezvous Room” in the evening, if you don’t like stinky cigars.
So call the Union League to arrange for your tour, then hightail it to
65 W. Jackson.
Tell ’em I sent ya.