Friday, October 23, 2015

Lose one blob, gain another

Thompson Center 

     Maybe there's some obscure Chicago ordinance requiring at least one curvy, hideous public building to exist in the city at all times.
     That would explain why Gov. Rauner's announcement last week that the bulbous salmon-and-blue monstrosity of the Thompson Center would be disposed of and, please God, torn down, will be followed so closely by Rahm Emanuel's pet City Council approving — next week, take it to the bank, after the Bears's last few qualms are mollified — the eye-scalding white hillock of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which some are calling Jabba the Hutt's Palace, but I think of as "Space Mountain."
Proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

     One step forward, one step back.
     While I'm no knee-jerk preservationist, I do think the Thompson Center should be preserved, for a while, because it's a crime scene. It should be kept vacant, as evidence, until Helmut Jahn's show trial for crimes against architecture can be held in its vast cavernous belly. Only then, upon the inevitable conviction, can it be imploded upon him, a fitting punishment for him and an apt end to his 30-year blot on the city.
     But I am not here to criticize. Too much of that. Too much negativity. I'm here to offer a ray of hope regarding our newest civic asset, on two fronts.
     First, regarding the utter aesthetic failure of the Lucas Museum's design, a thought: How many now-beloved world icons were despised initially? France's great minds jostled each other like piglets at a sow to condemn the Eiffel Tower while it was being built in 1887. "This belfry skeleton" Paul Verlaine sniffed. "This high-and-skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant, ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous, thin shape like a factory chimney" wrote Guy de Maupassant.
     Time soothes. While I sincerely believe Ma Yansong's design resembles nothing so much as an enormous glob of pigeon poop, maybe we'll get used to it. Other, heretofore, reviled structures won't seem so bad. "The Bears should support the Lucas Museum," quipped an editor on the city desk, "because it makes Soldier Field look good by comparison." That's true. The lopsided spaceship that landed in Soldier Field's colonnaded glory looks like the Parthenon compared to the Lucas Museum.
     There is the inside to consider. Yes, last May I suggested it was the "Buck Rodgers" museum, hinting that Star Wars will someday (again, please God) be as forgotten as the once popular Saturday afternoon movie serial.
     But Lucas insists it won't just be a shrine to Luke Skywalker. It's the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, remember. He has a trove of Norman Rockwell paintings. When I was in Boston earlier this month, I made the drive out to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum.
     The art world dismissed Rockwell, but I've loved him since I was a child, savored his deeply human, richly detailed paintings. A visit to the museum confirmed his genius. You put your eye 3 inches from a pencil sketch of his and swear the man was Michelangelo. Any accusations of sentimentality are deflated by his powerful paintings for Look magazine on the civic rights struggle of the early 1960s.
     The was a special exhibit hall showing the excellent New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, and her book on her parents' decline into dementia, a reminder that "narrative art" can be a very big tent.
     I learned much during my visit. The museum highlights Rockwell's Four Freedoms paintings, based on FDR's famous speech. You're familiar with "Freedom from Want," a much-copied image of a family around a Thanksgiving table being presented with an enormous turkey.
Norman Rockwell's "Freedom of Speech"
     But it was "Freedom of Speech" that taught me something, or rather the docent lecturing nearby. The painting shows a workman at one of New England's town meetings, standing up, having his say.
     "Notice the ears of the listeners," the docent said. "Rockwell made them slightly bigger."
     He certainly did. And I realized, looking at those ears, something important about the trouble in America today. Nowadays, everyone's talking, but nobody's listening. And if nobody's listening, freedom of speech loses its value.
     A lesson worth driving to Stockbridge to learn. I hope Lucas makes a museum that isn't just a tourist trap for Star Wars fans, but somewhere that visitors can go to discover similar truths hidden in art. And if he doesn't, the 99 years will pass, and the mistake will be corrected.

20 comments:

  1. A far worse building by Jahn is the wretched Citicorp Center.
    It replaced the old Northwestern Station, which functioned perfectly as train station. But Jahn's replacement doesn't function as a station. Having to go through revolving doors to get to/from the platforms is a disaster, it causes huge backups when a train enters & those with luggage must go through mantraps both at the street level & the platforms.
    Then, try to find a clock is this mess, there's only one, but it's in the wrong place!

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  2. The old military acronym SNAFU, was an accurate description for the construction of the Thompson Center. When the bids started coming in way too high, the managers started modifying specifications. One being the substitution of double pane thermal glass, with single pane glass, and forgetting to re-size the chillers accordingly. When the sun hit, it was like the inside of a solar oven. After about six months, one of many investigations discovered a backup chiller could be turned on. It was located in a basement room, for which no one had the key.

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    1. That last sentence reminds me of one of the many things that caused the Titanic disaster.
      The binocular for the lookouts were in a locked cupboard, but the key to the cupboard was left behind in Liverpool.
      No one was willing to break open the cupboard to get the lookout's binoculars, so he went up to the crow's nest without any binoculars.
      The rest we know!

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  3. I look at that painting and I think the guy is talking how about putting fluoride in water is turning our youth into pinko fairy commies and BENGHAZI!!!

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    1. Interesting, Peter. I assumed he was telling the townsfolk how he imagines the day when there'll be an America where there aren't just a bunch of white people in a painting like this. Given that, according to Wikipedia, the population of Stockbridge is 97% white, I guess that day hasn't arrived, there, despite Rockwell's civil rights paintings...

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  4. Bernie, I think that building is more FUBAR than SNAFU

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  5. I think imploding the Thompson Center on Jahn would be too harsh. From what I've heard about the place--the noise, the ungovernable heating and cooling, the odors wafting up from the food court--forcing him to work there would be punishment enough.

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  6. Agree the Thompson Center was a big architectural mistake, but I have no visceral objection to the Lucas design -- although I dislike the ring thingee on it's top. De gustibus non est disputandum. Perhaps it would be less visually offending to its manifold critics if they painted it a nice grassy green. You would hardly notice it.

    Re the Paris references, you might have mentioned I.M. Pei's glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre, which Parisians have had thirty or forty years to get used to. Like others of a traditional bent I thought it must be a blight on its ancient setting, but when I got there found it highly functional.

    "Nowadays everyone's talking but nobody's listening." I'm not sure that is as much the problem as something students of communication have come to recognize: that true understanding depends on a shared frame of reference. The point is illustrated by the old joke about a New York tourist, lost on 57th street, asking a man carrying a violin case how to get to Carnegie Hall. The unhelpful answer is, of course, "practice, practice, practice."

    The point is made in a different way by what one gay guy says to another as the two of them watch a beautiful girl enter and walk gracefully past their restaurant table. " Gee John. Do you ever find yourself wishing you were...a lesbian."

    Tom Evans

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  7. In one of the true-life anecdotes in the book The Professor and the Prostitute, the author tells of a bartender born a man, who was converted by surgery to a woman, and then became a lesbian. Interestingly enough, the main point of the story was that it was very difficult to find out who murdered her, because it seemed that everyone who knew her had good reason to end her life.
    john

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  8. Regarding Norman Rockwell: I've often thought of him as either an extremely accomplished illustrator or a very hacky artist.

    One thing I find interesting about him, in light of his relentless championing of small-towns mores and virtues: He was born and raised in New York City.

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    1. And you detect a note of hypocrisy in that? I'd say that being born and raised in New York City is exactly the sort of experience that could make a person appreciate small towns. Rockwell also painted plenty of city pictures.

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  9. He brings to mind Andrea del Sarto, who was a wonderful technician -- he was dubbed "The Faultless Painter" -- but never achieved the acclaim of some of his great contemporaries because it was said (by Vasari, I think) his pictures lacked soul. There may have been an element of jealousy in that judgement because he married a rich widow and built a nice house on the road up to Fiesole.

    Tom Evans

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    1. One of my favorite poems is Robert Browning's "Andrea del Sarto." A tad long, but worth the reading, and with some memorable lines. I can relate to him. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173001

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  10. I totally agree that the Thompson Center is a travesty and needs to be torn down. This started me thinking about what buildings I do like. For me, the John Hancock building is the essence of the Chicago skyline. I drove by it quite a bit when it was being built and was fascinated by the design features and its new materials of construction. I always look for its distinctive design when driving into the center of the city. The Sears Tower, which was built shortly thereafter, never had the same attraction for me. It may be that I wasn't around when it was being built (high draft pick in the first Vietnam era lottery), but I never felt connected to it and esthetically it's not as beautiful as the Hancock.

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  11. re: the Eiffel Tower, Guy de Maupassant said he frequently ate lunch in the restaurant at its base – not because the food was remarkable – but because it was only place in Paris where he couldn't see the Eiffel Tower.

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  12. snuck in to hear ta-nehisi coates speak at cahn auditorium yesterday. folks still listen. especially when the message is not shrill. its hard to endure what passes for public discourse most of the time these days

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  13. You said Rockwell did his civil rights illlustrations for Look. Are you sure? I had always thought that Rockwell worked for the Saturday Evening Post for most of his career. Also Look tended to use photos for covers, while the SEP used illustrations.

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    1. A quick Google search led me to this:
      http://www.everydaycitizen.com/2008/02/norman_rockwell_and_the_civil.html

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    2. Yes, I'm certain. The information at the museum said so. And this, from Rockwell's Wikipedia entry: "Rockwell's last painting for the Post was published in 1963, marking the end of a publishing relationship that had included 321 cover paintings. He spent the next ten years painting for Look magazine, where his work depicted his interests in civil rights, poverty, and space exploration."

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  14. When the Thompson Center was going up and first occupied, I was working across the street. And so, I had the chance to talk to some of the poor souls condemned to work in that building. Jahn who in his own way was an incompetent as Frank Lloyd Wright built a building which was a greenhouse thanks to the failure to install adequate air conditioning. He also turned the offices into less than useful rooms as the walls and floors were not strong enough to support massive bookcases. However, the immature and oversexed were thrilled by the glass bottoms originally installed in the elevators which could be easily be viewed from the lower levels. Thank God it's being torn down!

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