Friday, August 19, 2016

Chicago Shapes #4: The triangle

    Since last October, when I examined the parabola, the circle and the square through the lens of Chicago, readers have been besieging me with requests to continue the series, the obvious next candidate being the triangle. So I....
     Oh, that's a lie. Nobody cared whether the series continued or not. Now you can see how very disappointing life can be, at times, for a guy who could even imagine they might. Zeroing in on shapes is the kind of esoteric investigation that I seem to do for my own amusement, at best tolerated by you, my very indulgent readers. I've been meaning to push forward for months and now, theoretically on vacation, seemed the perfect moment to pull my triangle notes together. Though I hit a hitch right out the gate, as you will see if you make it to the end of this.

     Let's start with the Triangle Package Machinery Company.
    —"Why a Triangle?"
     "You'd have to talk to our marketing department. Kim Magon. But she's not in today, so you'll have to call back on Monday."
      —"Can I have her telephone number?"
     "I can't give that out. Call the main number."

    So let's not start with the Triangle Package Machinery Company. Though we'll get back to them. Let's start with something else.    

     Let's start with Chicago architect Harry Weese.
    "Harry Weese seems to have been obsessed with triangles," Jay Pridmore notes in "A View from the River." Indeed, there are two buildings in downtown Chicago with pure triangular bases—the Metropolitan Correctional Center, at 71 W. Van Buren, and the Swissotel, 323 East Wacker Drive—and Weese designed both. 
    The MCC's floor plan is an isosceles right triangle, meaning it has two equal sides, one 90 degree angle and two 45 degree angles.
(Triangles, for those slow on the uptake, have three sides and three angles, from whence they get their name: "tri-angle," a word some 600 years old).
      Such a triangle is seen in the floor plan for the MCC at right, which is a cross section of the building above.  A quick glance will remind you of the drawbacks of triangular buildings: instead of big square corner suites you get these narrow points. The ratio of linear wall to floor square footage of such a building is .... nnggg, doing the math .... 34/50. On a square building it is 20/50. So you need 70 percent more wall to enclose the same about of floor. Quite extravagant, really.
   The Swissotel is an equilateral triangle, meaning it has three sides equal length and three angles of 60 degrees.  A cross section of its floor space looks like this. 
     At first I thought Weese was being pigeonholed based on two buildings out of the hundreds his firm designed. But when you look at what they are, Pridmore's use of the word "obsession" seems apt. 
      Take a gander inside Weese's First Baptist Church of Columbus, Indiana. Notice anything? He also designed the distinctive, if not in my mind pretty, Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist, on Wacker Drive, which is not triangular, but very round, though even that has a hidden irony: it sits on an unwieldy, triangular site which Weese masks with its circular auditorium. 
First Baptist Church, Columbus, Indiana
   His 200 S. Wacker Drive is a conventional square building, but Weese made it two conjoined triangular buildings, one seven stories taller than the other.
    And then there are his River Cottages which you may have seen and wondered about, just north of Wolf Point on the River. Ugly buildings, without question, that look both dated and out-of-place: I'd expect to find this kind of thing on the Sava River in Zagreb. 
    Why a triangle? Some see them as pushing back against the grid brutalism of the modernists.
     "If the Weese vs. Mies opposition is to be believed, this would seem Weese’s clearest rebuttal: triangular instead of square," Ian Baldwin wrote in "Places" journal   
     Not to suggest that Harry Weese is the only thing triangular about Chicago.  There is the "Viagra Triangle," referring to the bars on Chicago Avenue and State Street, with Rush serving as the hypotenuse.  The "Polonia Triangle" formed by Ashland and Division, with Milwaukee Avenue as the hypotenuse. This is the Triangle that shows up in Nelson Algren stories, such as this, from Never Come Morning:
    Udo had been restrained and credit restored, subtly, to the poolrooms and taverns of the Triangle.
    Chicago proved unable to rename a street for Algren (those honorary brown signs don't really count) because residents complained they would need new stationery. So the Triangle seemed an apt spot for a fountain honoring Chicago's bard of the night court. When it was unveiled in 1998, some wondered how the famously-bitter Algren would react. Though if representatives of the Polish Roman Catholic Union could declare no hard feelings and show up (when Algren's books were first published, some in the Polish leadership felt his books painted a dim picture of their community and tried to ban them) I assume Algren would have found it in his aggrieved heart to show up as well, particularly if there were hors d'oeuvres and cocktails after. 
     There's more: the Old Town Triangle,  bounded by North Avenue, Clark Street, and what is charmingly referred to as "the Ghost of Ogden Avenue." There is the "Triangle Offense," used with great effect by head coach Phil Jackson during the Bulls championship runs in the 1990s (the triangle is created by the center, who stands at the low post, the forward at the wing, and the guard at the corner, and if you know what that means, you're a better man than I).
Won't return phone calls.
     We haven't even touched on the symbolic aspects of triangles, when it comes to trinities and love triangles, plus their sturdiness when it comes to supporting loads, as seen in the cross-bracing on buildings like the very non-Weese John Hancock.  I wish there were some folklore aspect triangles suggesting bad faith or laziness, so I could circle back to the beginning, but I can't find any, so we'll have to just grab the lever and pull hard.
    Returning, reluctantly, to Triangle Package Machinery. I must have called them six times over a span of days. Maybe more. Kim Magon-Haller, their supposed marketing representative, never picked up the phone. Never called back, or returned emails. I tried a David Mustiel and he never answered either. Even left a message for the Triangle president, Bryan Muskat—the Full Boy Scout Try, I call it. I just wanted to know, though at some point I suppose it became a quest, a point of honor. No reporter wants to be thwarted by the Triangle Package Machinery Co. Eventually, I thought, "The hell with them" Though they're a fairly large company. I shudder to think what their dissatisfied customers go through. And based on my experience, my guess is that there must be a bunch of dissatisfied customers.   


  1. Glad you returned to the shapes; triangles are interesting. If I could add a couple more, there is the Bermuda Triangle, and the musical instrument triangle :)


  2. Then there's the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire (1911) that killed something like 146 workers who could not get out of the exit doors that had been locked to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks. RIP

    1. Right, but that was in New York City. The point of this was the Chicago connection....

  3. I've always wanted to find out what the people who work at the MCC think of the floor plans. Often when I pass it I think "looks interesting, but I wonder how much wasted space there is inside?"

  4. Greetings Neil: Wow it's amazing the life of the internet. I do remember receiving a voicemail from you last year sometime. Sorry to say, but i receive a tremendous amount of solicitations everyday. I truly thought it was noise and not a quest for information. To answer your first question, Triangle Package Machinery Company was founded in 1923 by "my grandfather & 2 partners" (3). We went through a number of structural changes in the early years and in the end my grandfather and 2 other family members took control of the company. Today we are in our third (3) generation, still in Chicago and still serving our customers. Myself and my 2 brothers (3) are operating the business today. Please let me know how i can assist with your Triangle Quest. My apologies for not responding the first time, come on by to see what we really do. It's pretty impressive.

  5. Well, you could answer the question: Why a triangle? I'm assuming it's because there were three partners. Was that it?


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