Classicists at the Gate | Architecture | Chicago Reader

Classicists at the Gate 

And a goofy condo tower shall keep them at bay.

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If Chicago is the citadel of modern architecture, Notre Dame's School of Architecture must see itself as the government in exile, the rebel stronghold mustering its resources to assault any sign of modernism's dominance. Since 2003 it's been handing out the annual Richard H. Driehaus Prize, named for the Chicago investment manager who bankrolls the annual $100,000 award, to architects it considers major contributors to traditional and classical architecture.

And last weekend the school hosted a powwow called "Three Generations of Classical Archi-tects: The Renewal of Modern Architecture," declaring victory for classicism in its "struggle for legitimacy" and plotting its "historical position and obligations."

At its worst, the new classicism hews to the architectural styles of ancient Greece and Rome with a fundamentalism Jerry Falwell would envy. Earlier this year, architect Ed Keegan took 2005 Driehaus winner Quinlan Terry to the foot of LaSalle Street for a WBEZ in-terview. "I think the Rookery is extremely interesting," he told Keegan. "It's got a whole mixture of things . . . these unusual capitals and that great big arch in the middle. But I wouldn't put it in the same class as the first two classical buildings"--those being the Federal Reserve and the former Continental Bank, whose columned porticoes face each other across LaSalle. "Outstanding, confident, classical buildings," declares Terry. And also as deadly sterile as Burnham and Root's Rookery is endlessly inventive.

At its best, however, the new classicism transcends its fetishes and addresses the problem of restoring livability to our cities. Leon Krier, perhaps the most famous classicist architect and the first Driehaus winner, has attacked the way conventional zoning, by restricting entire districts to a single purpose--industry here, offices there, residential here--creates balkanized "lights-out" districts that become unsafe ghost towns at the close of the business day. The rebirth of Chicago's Loop was brought about by an opposite strategy--a huge infusion of residential development in the downtown business district.

As much as Chicago was one of the birthplaces of modernism, it could also be said to be the birthplace of the new classicism. The city's first skyscrapers featured a stripped-down simpli-city distinct from the profusely ornamented style preferred in New York City. But all that changed with the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition, where under the direction of Daniel Burnham and his new chief designer, Charles Atwood, ancient Rome was reborn as the White City, a sequence of massive exhibition halls structured in steel but with classical facades of sprayed-on plaster. The public--27 million people--ate it up. It was Disneyland's Main Street designed not as a set for Andy Hardy but for the emergence of the United States as an imperial power. Louis Sullivan thought it was the death of architecture, and as far as his career was concerned, it was.

"Burnham is a man of enormous quality," Krier told Keegan in a 2002 interview. "The White City was something that was incredible to engineer in such a small period of time. Yet all these people, they were under the influence, the imperial phase of industrialization. Quantity wins over quality." To classicists, industrialization and innovation is original sin. To Krier, Mies van der Rohe, who chose to take advantage of the technology of his time, was "intellectually confused." To Terry, "modernists are building a financial equation to suit the needs of a developer for 40 years and then they say to pull it down and build again."

To escape the demands of the market economy, the new classicists have turned to the monarchy. In 1988 Britain's Prince Charles, for example, chose to take on the cause of the "mass of ordinary people" not by attacking Margaret Thatcher's policies but by enlisting Krier to design Poundbury, a postcard-perfect fabrication of a small town in Dorset that out-Hollywoods Hollywood--it's How Green Was My Valley without the coal dust. That it represents an idealized past that never really existed is of minimal concern. "Who cares what is authentic and what is not?" asks another Driehaus Prize winner, Demitri Porphyrios. "People only care about what is beautiful."

With no underemployed royalty to guide us, Chicago is a lot more pragmatic about its classicism. Exhibit A: the Bernardin at Chicago and Wabash. What better way to honor the memory of a beloved spiritual leader than with a new condo tower? Its designer is Greg Gorski of Antunovich Associates, a firm known for its preservation work on projects like the conversion of the Reliance Building into the Hotel Burnham and for creating a pro bono plan to save and reuse the old Cook County Hospital building.

The Bernardin isn't technically a classical building. Twenty of its 25 stories are rendered in the featureless modernist style that was all the rage 40 years ago, seen in the anonymous towers along North Sheridan Road. At the top, direct from the 19th century, is a mansard roof housing three superpriced penthouses.

What redeems the building, however, is its five-story base, inspired by the architecture of the Renaissance. Here the homage to the opera-loving cardinal begins to make sense. It looks like a stage set out of Puccini's Tosca--the Farnese Palace reimagined by Disney. The precast cladding is a light peach color and the window frames are burgundy; there are more than a hundred flower boxes. The second-story facade, which hides a 215-car garage, has large framed windows with fake shutters--air louvers to ventilate the parking area. Centered over each of the windows on the floor above is a smaller arched window, itself centered in turn beneath a pair of very small rectangular windows just under a projecting cornice.

There's not an ounce of authenticity to any of this, but there's more life in the base of the Bernardin than in any of Quinlan Terry's stillborn new classicist temples. It's impossible to build up any sense of outrage over a building that's so engagingly loopy, like a shaggy mutt working overtime to be loved. It's like film critic Pauline Kael said about Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments: "As old-fashioned hokum, it's palatable and rather tasty."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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