As cities evolve and change they frequently undergo growing pains. One person’s idea of history can be another person’s idea of an impediment. Negotiations are settled. Tradeoffs are made. And sometimes compromise turns out to be an ugly baby.
One of the more common architectural compromises made in Chicago is known as the facade-ectomy — The process by which an old building’s skin is preserved while a new building is inserted, erected, or otherwise squeezed into its space.
As far as I can tell, it was the Chicago Tribune’s former* architecture critic Blair Kamen who came up with the term “facade-ectomy” as he lamented the shoehorning of the Ritz-Carlton Residences (664 North Michigan Avenue) into the former Farwell Building. Though now that the project is complete, hopefully he will one day see the finished result and realize he got his undies in a bundle over nothing.
While the Ritz is the city’s most recent facade-ectomy, it’s hardly the only one. In recent years The Legacy at Millennium Park (21 South Wabash Avenue) went into a row of Wabash storefronts turducken-style. The Otis Building had 10 South LaSalle shoved down its throat. The Oliver Typewriter building (159 North Dearborn Street) is nothing but a rind over the back end of the Oriental Theater (24 West Randolph Street). And even the beloved Museum of Science and Industry (5700 South Lake Shore Drive) went all Face/Off with a limestone quarry.
It was a hotel, restaurant, and retail development that violated the McGraw-Hill Building (520 North Michigan Avenue). Assimilating the Boul Mich-era office building into the North Bridge complex involved cutting up, removing, labeling, storing, and re-assembling the magnificent art deco facade. And just like any project labeled “some assembly required,” there were parts left over.
Among those parts are massive decorative panels that once adorned the outside of the historic building. Until recently, they were somewhat hidden from the public; tucked away behind a wall of the Whisper’s Cafe where only only epically lost tourists and Chicago architecture bloggers hide.
Even though the giant slabs of stone survived several different cafes in this spot, they couldn’t resist the massive force that is Microsoft. When the Redmond software company opened its Surface pop-up shop late last year, the panels were moved to their current location — just outside Nordstrom Cafe.
For the first time in decades, thousands of people strolling by have the chance to admire these pieces of architectural art. It’s an echo of 1930’s Chicago when people shopping on Michigan Avenue paused to look up to admire them. Except now, the shoppers are indoors. And you can walk right up to the panels and touch them.
The panels are big — about six feet tall, and depict astrological symbols Aquarius, Aires, Capricorn, and Virgo. They were executed by a then-young Chicago artist named Gwen Lux, who also did part of the art for Radio City Music Hall (1260 Avenue of the Americas) in New York.
And just like Chicago’s other pieces of oversized art — Cloud Gate, the former Marilyn Monroe Statue, the untitled Picasso — people are drawn to these panels. In an hour or so of observation, dozens of people went out of their way to look at the heavenly symbols. Some from a distance. Some up close. And many had their pictures taken in front of them (Aquarius seems to be the most popular for poses).
Perhaps the Shops at North Bridge will take this as a lesson learned and examine at the value of public art, or at least keep the panels in their newly prominent location after the Microsoft shop moves on.
* Officially, Mr. Kamen is only on a sabatical. But considering the Tribune’s tenuous financial position, change in editorial direction, and the fact that it may have a new owner before Mr. Kamen returns, I’ll believe he’s fully employed when he starts writing for the Trib again full-time.