Next week a committee of ten men and one woman, ranging from architect Henry Cobb, a partner in the firm of I.M. Pei, to Oscar Martinez of the UIC College of Dentistry, will gather in the Cultural Center to choose the design for Chicago’s new central library, to be known as the Harold Washington Library Center. Their task is not an enviable one. The jurors will have to pore through a stack of submissions over two feet tall, including hundreds of drawings. They will have to listen to three-hour presentations, all open to the public, from each of the five design teams. They will read typed transcripts of tens of thousands of comment cards that have been submitted by visitors to the display of design entries at the Cultural Center. They will then spend the weekend deliberating privately before revealing their decision at 9 AM on Monday, June 20.
The jury will have considerable help, of course. A technical review staff assembled from various city departments will report on how well each entry meets the library’s needs for space, heating, cooling, floor loading, and so on. City staff will also analyze each entry according to a set of urban design guidelines established for the project before the design process began. But when it comes down to what are really the pivotal questions–what should the library look like? how should it relate to its users and the city around it?–the jurors will be relying chiefly on their own wits and imagination.
Their task is complicated by the fact that the submitted designs are of very high quality, yet each has its drawbacks. None is a clear winner, and none can be casually dismissed. The five designs were submitted by teams of architects, developers, builders, and consultants who represent the elite of their respective professions in the central United States. Formidable intelligence has been brought to bear on the problems the library presents, and radically different solutions have been offered.
The design competition has generated enormous interest locally and to some extent nationally–far more, frankly, than its organizers anticipated. Five thousand comment cards were printed up initially; they ran out in three days. Now the print run has reached 40,000.
Countless Chicagoans have streamed into the Cultural Center during lunch hour, after work, and on weekends to inspect the drawings and models and to view an hour-long video (an excellent idea, incidentally) in which the architects and developers explain what they were trying to accomplish. Forums and workshops on the competition have been well attended and the discussion has been animated. Spontaneous debates break out periodically in the exhibit area as architects, design students, representatives of the design teams, and interested citizens argue the merits of the various projects. It is an exhilarating public spectacle.
There is a widely held sense that the selection of a winner in this competition will have a profound impact on the future direction of architecture in Chicago and, because of Chicago’s international reputation as an architectural center, in the world as well. The five entries span the spectrum of contemporary thought in this regard. What with the crowds, the press coverage, and the TV cameras (public TV’s Nova has been filming for a program next fall), one has the feeling, as one had during the raucous mayoral vote at City Hall last year, that this is a historic occasion–certainly not as acrimonious, but momentous nonetheless.
But the hype is unimportant. The city has to build one of these things (ground breaking is expected to take place next fall), and it will have to live with the result for the better part of a century. The jury will form its own opinion on these matters, but I want to discuss here some of the issues they will face.
Briefly described, the five designs and their principals are these:
The Buck team’s design might be described as “traditionally futuristic.” It will remind admirers a little of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, detractors of Harry Weese’s Metropolitan Correctional Center a few doors west of the library site. It is one of two entries to propose bridging the el tracks at Van Buren. (The primary site is bounded by Congress, Van Buren, State, and Plymouth; teams were offered the option of also building on an irregularly shaped halfblock site across Van Buren to the north.) Erickson’s design features bold geometric shapes, a generous plaza on State, and an interior atrium. It is to be finished in monochromatic precast concrete. Apparently the public’s favorite, it is loathed by many architects and critics for its unfashionably stark facade and aloofness from the street, about which more later.
This design, which uses the primary site only, is a melding of contemporary and traditional library looks. The building is basically a big cube, with an exterior finished in creamy limestone and three shades of gray granite. Other noteworthy features include an asymmetrical pattern of windows, all nicely detailed; barrel vaults at rooftop on State and Congress; and a strong cornice line. Apart from a small outdoor sculpture plaza on Congress, the major public spaces are indoors, including a 12-story atrium.
Lohan’s design, like the SOM entry, is basically a cube that uses only the primary site. It features traditional “Chicago windows” (a large squarish central pane flanked by small, narrow windows) in an attempt to blend with the surroundings. Ironically, it is disliked by some architects because its relatively nondescript exterior looks too much like an office building. Its most striking feature is a dramatic four-story, 200-foot-long entrance lobby off State called “the Great Hall.” This entry was the surprise winner of a straw poll held at a Friends of Downtown workshop last Saturday.
This entry is a typical Helmut Jahn extravaganza, and it may be discounted by the jury for that reason. Though Jahn is probably the most daring architect of our time, his detractors are legion. For better or worse, though, his is the most original of all the designs. The main building is pulled 80 feet off the ground on stilts and spans the Van Buren el tracks. Small geometric structures underneath house a museum gift store, a book shop, a children’s library, etc. The building reminds some of the famous statue of Romulus and Remus and the wolf: a big mama building with a bunch of baby buildings nursing underneath. An immense full-height atrium runs the entire length of the building. Like the Erickson design, Jahn’s is disliked by some architects and critics because of its poor relationship to the street. But the model always draws a crowd.
This is the most frankly historicist of the five entries. Architecture buffs will enjoy playing Name That Reference. The rusticated masonry base and the tiers of windows topped with Romanesque arches were partly inspired by Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium, one block east of the site; the red brick facade owes a lot to Root’s Rookery Building on LaSalle. Like the SOM and Lohan entries, this is basically a cube using the primary site only.
There are several obligatory postmodernist quirks, such as the wildly overscaled sculptural excrescences at the roof line. A typical one is an owl, symbol of wisdom, on what looks like a bed of lettuce. The facade on Plymouth Court, in bizarre contrast to the rest of the structure, is finished in sheer reflective glass. Popular opinion seems sharply divided; the building seems to infuriate some older folks, oddly, though it’s perhaps most in tune with trends among architectural tastemakers.
The design competition has been controversial from the beginning. For that matter, so has the push for a new central library in general, which dates back to the closing years of the Daley administration. The library has never been adequately housed; for a time after the Great Fire of 1871 it was located in an old water tank. The old central library, now the Cultural Center, was a beautiful building but poorly suited to its purpose; it was considered obsolete only a few decades after it opened in 1897.
In 1974, with the building bursting at the seams and in need of major rehabilitation, the main book collection was moved to a dingy warehouse on North Michigan Avenue. Over the next 12 years–a period that by one count saw four mayors, six library commissioners, and four library board presidents come and go–the city struggled ineffectually to find a new location, a search made increasingly frantic by the fact that developers wanted to tear down the library’s temporary quarters to make way for new development. Sites were proposed all over the Loop, most recently the old Goldblatt’s store on State Street, which was shot down after a blistering (and, some thought, unfair) series of articles in the Sun-Times.
In 1986 the city finally decided to build a new library at State and Congress, and things quieted down for a time. But controversy erupted anew when the format of the design competition for the new library was announced. In contrast to typical design contests, in which architects are merely required to submit a few drawings, the designers were obliged to team up with developers and consultants to produce a fully realized plan that could be built within the city’s $140 million budget–a price that all entrants were compelled to guarantee, by agreeing to pay any cost overruns out of their own pockets.
While obviously advantageous to the city, this “design/build” format also sharply limited the number of entrants, a matter that occasioned considerable concern in the Chicago architectural community. Many had hoped the event would have the impact of the famous 1922 Tribune Tower competition, which drew hundreds of entries from leading architects around the world and which is still considered one of the watershed events in the history of design. As in 1922, architecture today is in a state of flux, and a high-profile competition featuring the leading architects of the day would have drawn wide interest. The Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects attempted to persuade the city to ease the rules, but without success.
From the standpoint of sheer quantity, the critics’ fears were borne out. Even the competition’s promoters, who had hoped for a dozen entries, were dismayed when only six turned up. (One entrant later dropped out because of difficulty with bonding requirements.) Nor is there a broad geographical representation. Four of the five lead architects, and all five of the developers, are based in Chicago. One can easily reel off the names of a score of architects from the U.S. alone whose contributions would have added luster to the occasion.
Still, from the standpoint of quality it is hard to complain about what we got. That such a parochial group could produce what is clearly a world-class selection of entries is a tribute to the depth of talent in this city. If there is any doubt that Chicago remains one of the world’s leading centers of contemporary architecture, a visit to the exhibit at the Cultural Center will dispel it.
To be sure, we have also benefited from shifting architectural tastes. Municipal procrastination for once has worked to the city’s advantage. Had the library been built ten years ago, our range of choices would have been much narrower. Orthodox modernism, with its limited expressive range, prevailed in architecture until well into the 70s. At its best it could produce the sort of chilly grandeur you see at the Civic Center or on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology; at its worst–well, look around you.
Today architecture is a whole new ball game. For the first time in decades architects can use applied decoration and evocative historical forms without fear of being made professional pariahs. The competition entries vividly exemplify the richness and power that the new pluralism has brought with it.
We are the beneficiaries of the passage of time in another way as well. Just as architecture today is far more open than it once was, so is City Hall, at least for the time being. The present administration–which consists largely of Washington appointees, admittedly, but give Mayor Sawyer credit for not firing everybody–has done much to involve the public in the design process. This is a welcome contrast with the practice of only a few years ago, when officials were inclined to cloak their deliberations in a secrecy more appropriate to Bulgaria.
A day-long workshop was held last year to help develop guidelines for the library’s design, and civic groups were invited to participate in an advisory committee that met periodically with officials. The city also took pains to convey to the public just what the design teams were offering. The exhibition at the Cultural Center was planned from the outset. The design teams were asked to provide not just drawings and models, but also samples of the materials in which their proposed libraries would be finished.
There’s no question that the entrants got into the spirit of things. The teams went to great lengths not only to present their submissions to best advantage but also to make them intelligible to the layman. The SOM and Beeby displays in particular go into detail about how their entries will work and feel. Some of the drawings and models are works of art in their own right. The Lohan group even commissioned an oil painting of their entrance lit up at night.
Perhaps the most striking instructional tool, however, is the video. All the design teams were required to produce brief video presentations, which were edited and combined into one long program that is currently being shown throughout the day. Despite its length, it draws rapt audiences, whose members often shush noisy newcomers.
It makes fascinating viewing. One marvels at Helmut Jahn’s accent, which is German by way of the south side of Chicago, with startlingly flat As. Erickson, a distinguished looking fellow, seems assured, Lohan nervous. Smith and Legorreta read pompous canned speeches, while Wislow and Beeby get so excited neither will let the other finish a sentence.
God knows where it all will lead. A hundred years ago the key to success in architecture was how well you could do a rendering. After World War II everything depended on your ability to make beautiful models. In the future it may be how well you come across on the tube.
Choosing the winner will be largely a process of elimination. In the end I think it will come down not to aesthetics but to differences in opinion about how a library ought to work.
Let’s start with the popular favorite, the design by Arthur Erickson for the John Buck Company. It has inspired a great deal of commentary, pro and con. Its conspicuous omission from the set of pictures accompanying Tribune critic Paul Gapp’s analysis of the entries has been widely noted. I’m told some local architects oppose it on the grounds that the library is an important Chicago building and as such ought to be designed by an important Chicago architect, an attitude whose provincialism needs no comment.
Erickson’s design is a straightforward and capable exercise in heroic modernism and has the strengths and defects of its genre. One observer tells me a lot of older people seem to like it, whereas the younger folks seem to go for the Beeby. If so, we have a clear case of traditional modernism versus modern traditionalism, and an indication of just how confusing things have become. But I think it would be simpler to say that buildings with distinctive shapes–what we might call “high concept” architecture–have always caught the public fancy.
Many people like the way the Erickson design brings the el trains through the middle of the complex. Erickson notes that his library will present a very striking picture to the riders, although as a practical matter the passengers who will get the best show are suburbanites on the Evanston Express. The CTA, by the way, says it does not want to rebuild the station at State and Van Buren, but political pressure might make it change its mind.
Erickson’s design makes a very attractive model, but I suspect the public would be much less happy with it were it actually built. Much of the facade consists of flat slabs of concrete, a pretty ordinary material. (An early plan to use terra-cotta proved impractical.) There is little fine detailing. Though there are some broad expanses of glass here and there, most of the windows in the structure are small and narrow. There is a reason for this–the architect means to prevent light and heat from damaging the books–but other designers have addressed the problem with less forbidding results.
A representative of the Buck design team has told me that Erickson’s large plaza will revitalize the surrounding area because it will attract lunch-hour crowds, much as First National Plaza does now, but I have my doubts. First National is in the geographic center of the Loop and is surrounded by buildings with thousands of office workers. Even so, it is really used only a few months out of the year, when the weather is inviting and the bank programs a heavy schedule of events. The library site is on the fringe of the Loop with only a handful of office buildings nearby, a situation that isn’t likely to change soon. And the library has little money for programming. Other plazas in the area are used mainly by the homeless, and the same fate may befall Erickson’s.
A slightly more abstruse concern is that the design does not “maintain the street wall”–it doesn’t continue the long rank of dignified facades that makes the east side of State Street so impressive.
Perhaps more important, it presents an extremely grim face to Congress Street. Except for a door, the ground floor on Congress consists entirely of blank walls, and the facade above is not much more inviting. This is a serious mistake. Congress is an important street that has been neglected far too long. For years it has been an eyesore. Yet thousands of motorists drive on it each day, and for many of them it offers their only glimpse of the city’s business core. It is also a psychological barrier for the many South Loop residents who must cross it on their walk to work. The construction of the new Midwest Stock Exchange and the Morton Hotel addition, both of which present much friendlier aspects to Congress, were steps in the right direction. The new library must reinforce that trend. The Erickson design does not.
Helmut Jahn’s design has many similarities to Erickson’s, and is susceptible to many of the same criticisms. It too leaps across the el tracks, creating an imposing north-south spine. It too has a large plaza on State Street, and makes use of monumental forms.
On the negative side, I expect Jahn’s plaza would receive even less use than Erickson’s, since it has neither seating nor a water sculpture. The simple geometric forms of the “baby buildings” would probably look toylike. The Congress facade suffers from the same defects as Erickson’s; elevating the main structure 80 feet off the ground is no way to create an attractive pedestrian environment. Some also mutter that there is no way Jahn could build this confection for $140 million.
Having said that, let me now give the devil his due. Jahn’s State Street facade, with its irregular pattern of projecting bays, is one of the liveliest he has designed in a long time. No doubt the sight of those mighty columns carrying the building’s great weight would be arresting. I’m sure the atrium would also be striking. It is difficult from the drawings to get much of an idea what it would look like, but interiors have long been Jahn’s strong suit, as witness the United Airlines terminal.
It’s worth noting that Jahn achieves his effects without recourse to ornament, which has been coming back into fashion lately, and which some of the other entries use extensively. Jahn is one of a dwindling number of architects who remain fascinated with the expressive possibilities of structure, which was once the distinguishing feature of Chicago design and of modernist architecture generally. Few architects have lavished more attention on the beams, columns, and trusses that hold up their buildings. Jahn has been called a postmodernist, but the description is erroneous; his work remains very much in the modernist tradition.
None of this changes the fact that his library design is not the best choice for this place and time. Neither is Erickson’s. It is too easy to throw around words like “antiurban,” which implies a hatred of cities. I do not think that is the case with either man. Nonetheless, sad experience has shown that designs of the type they propose are not well suited to a densely built-up urban environment, and I think they must be excluded from consideration.
The other three entries are superficially similar to one another. All are roughly cubical structures, 10 to 12 stories high. All more or less fill the entire primary site, that is, the block south of the el tracks. None makes any immediate use of the additional half block to the north, which the city had initially thought of as a potential plaza. (I am not surprised. Eighteen months ago I wrote that the trains and the configuration of the site made the north block ill-suited to a plaza, and I am gratified to see that the majority of entrants agree. On the other hand, this does leave the library with a somewhat shabby collection of neighbors. Some people hope the federal government will build its planned new office building on the site, but it will probably take some behind-the-scenes finagling by the city to make this happen.)
Any of these three would make an acceptable library from the standpoint of urban design. Lohan makes a point of putting his primary entrance on State, while Beeby and SOM put theirs on Congress. But all provide secondary entrances on the other streets, and all present reasonably attractive faces to the north, south, and east. (The west or Plymouth Court side I will discuss further later on.) The question is thus which design works best from the standpoint of users and library staff, and which makes the most appropriate architectural statement.
To start with the exteriors, Lohan’s facade has some nice touches, but will set few pulses pounding. The middle portion of the State Street facade has been set back to create a shallow forecourt that serves to emphasize the entrance. Dramatic lighting and sculpture add to the effect, as does an immense four-story lobby that will be visible from the street through the glass curtain wall. But otherwise the building’s exterior is bland.
The SOM and Beeby designs are much stronger–which is not to say they are equally successful. Perhaps the oddest feature of the Beeby design is the use of a reflective glass curtain wall on the Plymouth facade as opposed to the heavy masonry treatment used elsewhere. The truck docks are located here, and above them the library offices and other service functions. The glass emphasizes the backstage character of this portion of the building and suggests that the apparent solidity of the other walls is a fraud–which, strictly speaking, it is, since in fact the walls do not support the weight of the building and their massiveness is largely for show. Ironic gestures of this sort have become common in architecture in the last few years, but they leave a bad taste in the mouth.
That said, let me add that from most vantage points Beeby’s library would be an imposing sight. The odd glass-masonry juxtaposition is largely blocked from view by nearby buildings, and the historicist detailing in the rest of the structure is carried out for the most part in a straightforward and impressive manner. Furthermore, my guess–certainly my hope–is that Beeby’s rooftop sculptural fantasies would be scaled back before construction began.
Beeby’s main entrance, which is on Congress, would go a long way toward beautifying the street. But he fudges a bit to enhance the effect. His model shows a sculpture garden on the south side of Congress across the street from the library, as well as a suspended pedestrian bridge across Congress at Dearborn, presumably to frame the ensemble and hide the ugliness beyond. Admittedly the city encouraged such pipe dreams, but there is no budget for them.
The SOM design plays no such tricks. Its main entrance is also on Congress; it makes room for sculpture by the simple expedient of setting the building back a few feet from the street. In contrast to Beeby’s design, the nicely detailed masonry cladding is carried around all four sides of the structure. One of the great strengths of the design, in fact, is that it treats all sides of the building more or less equally. The intrusion of truck docks and vehicle ramps on Plymouth Court is minimized and landscaping is provided. This is a smart idea that meshes well with other planned improvements on the street, such as the planned construction of the Chicago Bar Association headquarters a few doors north.
The SOM facade incorporates many charming ornamental touches. Several of them are obviously inspired by historical precedent, but so far as I can tell none is a direct copy from an earlier work–again, in contrast to the Beeby design. There is little question that SOM’s approach is healthier for architecture in the long run. The asymmetrical window pattern may strike some as a bit restless, but the rich use of materials will likely delight most eyes. All in all, I think SOM’s exterior design is the best choice.
The situation is less clear when we turn to the design of the library’s interior. Both the Beeby and SOM buildings have problems, while by comparison the Lohan design stacks up quite well.
The most striking interior feature of Lohan’s design is the lobby, which he calls the Great Hall. In the drawings it is extremely impressive. Some 200 feet long and four stories high, it is flanked by two grand staircases that lead to the third floor. Lohan envisions the lobby as a gathering place and considers it an alternative to an outdoor plaza, which in Chicago is unusable for half the year. The Great Hall makes the interior of the library very open and transparent, both literally and figuratively in the sense that the building’s organization is readily apparent to the user.
A bookstore, restaurant, museum gift shop, and auditorium are located on the ground floor. The library’s principal control point is located on the second floor, and the stacks and reading areas are above that. This enables the public to circulate freely through the lower levels and permits unguarded entrances to be placed on Congress and Van Buren streets. All of the entrants have adopted variations of this sensible strategy.
In comparison to the grandeur of the Lohan lobby, Beeby’s interior spaces are small, although they seem nicely detailed. Beeby is alone among the competitors in not including a large atrium. The design’s conservatism in this respect is the work of developer Wislow, who has built elsewhere in the area and fears that generous interior spaces would attract the homeless. (The Pacific Garden Mission is only a block and a half away.)
Wislow’s concern is understandable, but he may have been overcautious. Consider his team’s “winter garden,” a skylit interior court filled with potted trees and overlooked by the library’s administrative offices. I’m sure it will be beautiful; the only drawback is that it is located at the top of the building. Many library patrons may not realize it even exists. The employee cafeteria and a public restaurant are to be located on the same floor, so I suppose there will be a certain amount of traffic, but the room is so far off the beaten path it seems unlikely to be heavily used. All the other entries put their major public spaces on the bottom floors, which seems like a better idea.
In other respects the internal organization of the Beeby library is well thought out and I expect it would work well from the standpoint of both users and administrators. The reading areas, for instance, consist of small rooms distributed around the perimeter of each floor, providing natural light and at the same time preventing the sun from damaging the books in the stacks, which are located well away from the windows.
The SOM design is similar to Lohan’s in that designers Smith and Legorreta obviously see the library as a great public gathering place suitable for year-round use. The indoor public spaces are generous and varied. But some of them present problems.
The most serious difficulty is posed by a large room fronting on State and Congress that SOM, like Lohan, calls a Great Hall. The room is not, as one might at first suppose, an entrance lobby, but rather a large empty box three stories high that sits to one side of the entry corridor leading from Congress. It contains nothing of interest. It houses no exhibits (a separate exhibit hall is provided elsewhere on the ground floor); contains no seating, apart from a few steps; is without “activity generators,” such as a fountain or winter garden; and is not adjacent to any potentially lively area, such as a restaurant or store. The room’s one interesting feature is an array of floor-to-ceiling doors facing the street that may be opened to admit the breeze in mild weather.
The exhibition materials suggest that the Great Hall will be extensively programmed, and one illustration shows a band playing, but given the library’s budget it is hard to imagine who will foot the bill. Chances are that most of the time the room will be empty. Some have suggested that pigeons will take roost in it. A more serious concern is that it may become a haven for the homeless (a problem that Lohan minimizes by making his Great Hall a high traffic area). I would not be surprised if after a time the library put up gates and kept the hall locked most of the time.
The other notable interior spaces in the SOM design are a richly decorated 12-story atrium in the center of the building, and four reading rooms, two and three stories in height, stacked above the Great Hall. The atrium is to be lined with stained-glass windows along the State Street side. Hyatt Hotel-style glass elevators crawl up another side, while balconies overlook the great space at each floor.
The atrium is dramatic and demonstrates a lush use of color and materials that I like very much. Like Lohan’s Great Hall, it makes the internal organization of the library obvious. My concern is that it will give people vertigo. The Hyatt people usually line their balconies with bulky planters so that the acrophobic can avoid having to look over the edge; the SOM design provides only a railing. The fact that the balcony floors are to be made partly of glass block will compound the problem. While I would not want to eliminate these features, some nonthreatening route through the building must be provided for those with a fear of heights.
The reading spaces in the SOM design are excellent, probably the best of all the entries–and I say this as somebody who uses libraries a lot. In addition to the generously scaled reading rooms, all of which have southern exposure, tables and study carrels are placed close to the stacks in many areas.
Lohan’s interior is probably the best as submitted, but SOM’s has many appealing qualities, and if its problems could be dealt with I would prefer it. The jury is permitted to explore the possibility of minor modifications with the design teams, and this would be a good place for them to do so. (While we’re on the subject, I might suggest that if the opaque roof over the SOM atrium were replaced with translucent glass, it would provide a very pleasant diffused light in the afternoon.)
Overall I prefer the SOM entry, with the Beeby as my second choice. I am sure the Beeby design, despite its idiosyncrasies, would be a very usable library and a very handsome building. But its large interior spaces are disappointing and I am not sure it says what needs to be said about the direction in which architecture ought to be going. There is little to be said against the Lohan entry, but it does not excite me as much as the others.
And the truth is that there is a lot to be excited about. We are past the time when all we could do was settle for the best of a bad lot. The design teams and the competition organizers have earned our warmest thanks. I look forward with great anticipation to the jury’s deliberations.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.