Cityscape: This Is Your Library | Essay | Chicago Reader

Cityscape: This Is Your Library 

It is Thomas Beeby's achievement to show that architectural irony can be elevated above the level of the one-liner.

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Deny his association with it though he might, architect Tom Beeby has breathed new life into the wise-guy branch of postmodernism, once thought to be dying a slow death. His winning entry in the competition for the new central library proves that it is possible to join the grandeur of historical forms with an ironic modern sensibility without producing an architectural bad joke.

At the same time, aspects of his design continue to make me uneasy. It is a quirky work, and not the simple exercise in classicism that the press and for that matter Beeby himself have tried to paint it. No doubt I will grow reconciled to its eccentricities, but I have to wonder what sort of example it will make. It is a work of some subtlety, and not all the architects who admire it and will be inspired by it are subtle folk. I shudder to think of the ghastly historical pastiches it may inspire at the hands of the C students in Beeby's architecture classes.

Nonetheless, it is clearly a work that is on the leading edge of contemporary architectural thought, and there is something to be said for that. More important, it will be an impressive and efficient library. Even though it was not my favorite, I am happy with the choice.

It's interesting that Beeby disavows any connection with postmodernism, a term that has become the architectural equivalent of "yuppie." But it is the only word we have to describe what is happening in architecture now. There are two schools of thought on what it ought to mean. The mainstream view, as expressed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern, holds that postmodern architecture has three characteristics: applied ornament, historical allusion, and a respect for context--i.e., it makes some effort to fit in not only with its surroundings but with people's expectations. A library, therefore, ought to look like a library, and not like an office building.

Defined in this way, most new architecture today, certainly including Beeby's library design, is postmodernist. To the layman the postmodern approach probably does not seem like a radical departure, and in the long view of things it isn't; it is really a return to the way architecture was practiced prior to World War II. But its principles were explicitly not part of the modernist program, which was antihistoricist, eschewed ornament, and cared nothing for context. As far as most people are concerned, therefore, the arrival of postmodernism was long overdue.

There is another interpretation of the postmodernist idea that is more subversive, however. It was implicit in the writing of one of the pioneers of the movement, Robert Venturi, and elaborated on at great length by the critic Charles Jencks. It involves the notion of "double-coding"--that is to say, irony. It suggests that architecture should say one thing and mean another, that it should defeat expectations. To the extent that architecture is a fine art, this is a legitimate ambition. To the extent that it is a public enterprise, it can be problematic.

At its worst, postmodern design is architecture with a smirk. The classic example is Philip Johnson's AT&T Building in New York, the one with the scooped-out Chippendale top. You want historical allusion, I'll give you historical allusion, one can imagine Johnson saying. I'll give you ornament more appropriate to a China cabinet blown up to giant scale.

This sort of thing gets old quickly. The thought of a city full of such buildings is enough to make one positively ill. It is Tom Beeby's achievement to show that architectural irony can be elevated above the level of the one-liner.

Beeby is not an architectural comedian in the sense that Stanley Tigerman is (or was), but he is not a just-the-facts-ma'am sort of designer either. Happily for us, his use of irony is not gratuitous, as is too often the case with the work of Venturi or the equally controversial Michael Graves. On the contrary, in some ways the logic of his design compels it. Parts of Beeby's library design are closely based on earlier buildings, such as the Auditorium. If he is to avoid the charge that he is simply recycling the past, he must make a modern gesture, and irony is a sure way to do it.

We see two instances of this in the library design: the glass curtain wall on the Plymouth Court side, which clashes so sharply with the masonry treatment of the other facades, and the comically overscaled sculptural effusions at the roofline. The curtain wall reveals what the other walls deny, namely that this is a modern building held up by an interior framework, not by the walls themselves. Its lack of ornament makes it plain that this is not a building Louis Sullivan could have designed, however much it may look to Sullivan's work in other respects. Similarly, the sculptures are so much larger than anything an architect schooled in the beaux-arts tradition would have attempted that they must be considered a spoof.

I was troubled by these features at first, and to some extent I still am, in part because they may be misinterpreted. Advocates of the Beeby design argue that the glass curtain wall will be very attractive, particularly at sunset when it catches the light. Others may see something else. After the announcement of the winning design, one reporter asked me whether I thought the wall was an attempt on the part of the design team to cheap it out. It would be unfortunate if such a view were to become widespread.

The oversize sculptures will not provoke such a reaction; their fate may be ridicule. Still, I would not dispense with them. They are starting to grow on me, and besides, my buddy Walter Arnold the stone carver needs the work. If they are handled properly I think they will at first outrage, then bemuse, and finally charm, much as the Picasso sculpture has done.

I'm told that Beeby and his partners on the Sebus team were genuinely surprised when the announcement was made that their design had been selected. The rumor in the hall beforehand was that the nod would go to Dirk Lohan's design. I found this impossible to believe; the Lohan entry was just not hip enough. I knew Beeby's design would appeal to the architectural experts on the jury, and I suspected, I think correctly, that their views would carry a lot of weight.

Moreover, after watching the teams' formal presentations to the jury, it was clear to me that my pick, the entry from Skidmore Owings & Merrill, just had too much going against it. The Sebus team was enthusiastic and had an answer for every question the jury raised, whereas some of the Skidmore presenters, notably architect Adrian Smith, seemed flat and unexcited.

Moreover, it became increasingly apparent, as one observer later put it, that the Beeby design's problems were aesthetic while the Skidmore design's problems were structural and operational. The jury evidently shared my fear that Skidmore's "great hall" would attract the homeless. One of the architectural experts pointed out another problem I'd overlooked, namely that the main pedestrian route from the ground floor to the second floor circulation desk was confusingly convoluted. The Skidmore team's defense on both of these points was ineffectual.

It's too bad. I think Beeby's design will make a fine library, but I'll miss the big reading rooms and the dramatic atrium that Skidmore promised. I hope Beeby's top-floor "winter garden" will be an adequate substitute.

The one point of controversy that remains is the disposition of the half block north of Van Buren. The Beeby team did not incorporate this site into its design and recommended that it be developed with a compatible commercial structure. The jury concurred and urged that any tax money deriving from such a project be devoted to other library improvements. But members of the library board objected. They had been sold on the State and Congress site with the promise that they could have an open-air plaza along the lines of Bryant Park, which lies behind the New York Public Library, and by God that is what they wanted.

One hopes the board won't be bullheaded about this. The settled belief of almost everyone who has looked at the site is that a plaza would be, if not a disaster, at least a disappointment. The trains are too noisy, there is too much dirt from State Street, and there will be poor exposure to sunlight once the new library is built.

Some board members may feel that the promise of a plaza was just a trick to get them to agree to an otherwise marginal location for the new library, but they need not be concerned. State and Congress is an excellent site. In ten years' time the surrounding blocks will be substantially redeveloped, and no one will remember that the area was once shabby. I am ordinarily leery of using major public works as urban renewal gambits, but this is one bet that seems pretty safe.

I don't know that I expect Congress Parkway to achieve parity with Michigan Avenue anytime soon, but if it does it may partly be because of determined efforts to disfigure the latter. "Modernization" is due to be inflicted next spring on the John Hancock Center, one of the world's tallest buildings and, till now, perhaps the handsomest of its type. Like many structures built during the 60s and 70s, the Hancock building is set back from the street on a large plaza. The owners of the building propose to fill in the plaza with a low retail structure, the centerpiece of which will be an atrium with a peaked roof that has been described as looking like a Swiss chalet.

In the drawings the effect is ridiculous, like the jolly Green Giant standing on a bathroom scale. (One local resident has been quoted as saying it will look like "Rambo in baby socks.") No doubt the addition offers some practical and economic benefits, but it destroys the integrity of the original design. What was once an imposing structure will become a backdrop to the architectural froufrou at its base.

Regrettably, no one in a position of influence seems in the least concerned. The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, which apparently is in favor of anything as long as it involves spending huge amounts of money, supports the project. So does 42nd Ward Alderman Burt Natarus. Since no zoning change is required, there will be no public review of the design.

Perhaps the owners will have an attack of good sense before it's too late. Failing that, one hopes Michigan Avenue property owners will be sufficiently embarrassed to consider how such mistakes might be avoided in the future.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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