MCA Makeover | Our Town | Chicago Reader

MCA Makeover 

The beast will soon be looking a bit more beautiful.

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"What a time to be talking about public space," said Chicago architect Douglas Garofalo the day after the United States went to war in Iraq. But when uncertainty and dread reign, thinking about making things better is a welcome salve, and a large audience had come to the Museum of Contemporary Art to hear Garofalo's thoughts on what could be done to lighten the effect of the MCA's hulking tomb of a building on its surrounding Streeterville neighborhood.

"Maybe hatred is too strong a word," said Garofalo of his own reaction to the structure's presence, but he labeled it "cold" and lacking in public hospitality.

It's easy to see where he's coming from. The MCA plaza is often empty and windswept, and the museum itself represents a failure of nerve in city planning. It's placed along a strip between Chicago and Pearson that should have been Michigan Avenue's grand gateway to the lake, an open and airy promenade in a dense sea of development. Instead, it's become a haphazard accumulation of aggressively segregated public and back-alley uses. Robert Frost might never have written "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" if he had seen these few blocks.

Behind the pumping station on Michigan Avenue, an underused parking lot is hidden behind a high stone wall. A second lot off Pearson is demarcated with metal rope. Seneca Park, to the west of the MCA, is fenced in, as is the MCA sculpture garden. Lakeshore Park, east of the MCA, is enclosed by wrought iron, the tennis courts within it caged by chain-link. Even along Chicago and Pearson, each unit of parkway is protected by its own midget metal grating. To a pedestrian hazarding a stroll, "Keep out!" screams from every turn.

The demolition of the old Illinois National Guard Armory in 1993 offered a last chance to reclaim some continuous open space on the strip, but it was thrown away with the construction of Josef Paul Kleihues's overbearing mass. Although the MCA's interior spaces have been widely praised, its exterior is a forbidding, blocky, blank-walled palace, designed to overawe its surroundings and managing it in the most banal way possible. Originally, bright multistory banners brought relief to the facades, but the metal frames that held them have stood empty since neighbors complained about the noise they made banging about in the wind.

From the park to the east, only the very tip of the old water tower is visible above the MCA's Chinese-wall rear facade. The building does open up to its surroundings in the large expanses of glass that make up the east and west walls of the central atrium, but that free flow of space has been completely privatized atop a 16-foot podium that makes it all but invisible from the street.

"We wanted to make the building more friendly and welcoming," says the museum's chief curator, Elizabeth Smith, and so they brought in Garofalo Architects and a group of students from UIC's School of Architecture--where Garofalo is on the faculty--to develop the first of what it expects to be a series of annual commissions. The idea is to explore the design of urban space and to bring some life to the MCA plaza. The budget for this year is small--about $40,000--and the project temporary, scheduled to run for six months starting May 3.

Garofalo is known for using animation software--the same stuff used by graphic artists--to "look at projects in a much more organic fashion, over time. Virtual modeling is a bit like inventing, and then evolving a plant," he says. "It allows us to handle complex shapes that we could only dream of before."

His work has included a number of residences, as well as a spindly-framed prototype newsstand for the MCA's "Material Evidence: Chicago Architecture at 2000" exhibition, installations such as the sleek National Time Museum at the Museum of Science and Industry and last summer's "Earth From Above" photography show at Millenium Park, and the striking interior of the new Oysy Japanese restaurant on South Michigan. He also used computer-aided design to create the Fireorb, a commercially distributed spun-steel hearth that hangs from its flue and rotates 360 degrees.

Garofalo's team began with research and observation, studying everything from how people approach the museum (70 percent come on a diagonal from the southwest) to wind strength in the plaza (which they tested by flying a kite). From this, the concept of a "woven carpet" began to evolve: lightweight, 8- to 12-foot-high forms with soft lines and surfaces that would segment the barren plaza into a series of outdoor rooms and support a range of cultural programs.

The students investigated various materials and assembly methods. In the work of Japanese bamboo basket weavers recently on exhibit at the Field Museum they found "possibilities of weaving and intricate patterning." In the ceramic and wood objects they came across in the MCA shop, they found the forms and surfaces they "were striving for at a larger scale."

From a safety standpoint, the new structures had to be open (no kiosks for muggers), so the group decided to use the Unistrut Metal Framing System, a life-size erector set of standard components that make for quick assembly (and disassembly). To secure the structures against wind, they'll be inserted into metal shoes embedded in a total of 34 ribbonlike concrete weights that will double, padded, as seating. Structures will "crawl" up the MCA's grand staircase, to "bring the geometry of the building down into the street and back again," says Garofalo. Light-emitting diodes inserted in each Unistrut joint will glow "like a swarm of fireflies when the sun goes down."

Many of the structures will also have wooden decks, including one at plaza level for an open-air cafe. Over the Unistrut frames, a series of "flyover" canopies are to provide shade and color. Garofalo and his students explored a number of different coverings, including camouflage and parachute fabric, but materials and colors will ultimately be determined by "what we can get on time and on budget." The standard white stalls of the popular Tuesday farmers' market, returning June 25, will contrast with the more colorful flyovers. Garofalo expects his group's structures to begin appearing on the plaza any day now, assembled by his office, UIC students, MCA staff, and "some extremely generous friends."

Garofalo and the design team talk of the entire project as a structure animated by the events and programs living within it, a kind of daily street theater that includes the very act of assembling, disassembling, and moving the individual units. Perhaps the MCA should consider working with local dance companies to create performance pieces that flow through the changing of the guard of the structural components.

Ultimately, Garofalo sees the project as "a net to catch people." He mentions positioning components beyond the plaza, to draw traffic in from Michigan Avenue, but even without those he has his work cut out for him. Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Altes Museum in Berlin, from which Kliehues modeled the MCA's grand staircase, faces a great lawn that engages with the building. The MCA faces a fenced-in park that doesn't appear to want anything to do with it. Perhaps it should consider a capital campaign to replace those empty banner frames with giant video displays.

It's anyone's guess how people will take to Garofalo's designs, but the MCA's commitment to temporary, yearly installations is an inspired way to promote learning about what works, not from a computer simulation but from real-world experience. In a city increasingly dominated by stolid, unfriendly architecture, the Garofalo team's bright, insectlike structures stand to scamper across the impassive surfaces of the MCA in small, happy rebellion.

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