The City of Tomorrow | Feature | Chicago Reader

The City of Tomorrow 

It will probably look nothing like this. But we can dream, can't we?

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The trees in front of the Picasso have turned, and their yellow and brown leaves are beginning to fall. Across Washington Street, under a striped awning, a vendor in the Brunswick Lofts building shows a blue-and-orange rug to two customers wearing loose, wide-sleeved garments. A clock shows that the lunch hour is almost over: a preacher in his open-air pulpit (built into the side of the Chicago Temple building) must be winding up his sermon. Children scamper among the trees. A free trolley clangs its way down Clark Street. There's less traffic around Daley Plaza, and the plaza itself seems somehow more lively and welcoming than it ever was in 1989.

This is how one Loop crossroads might look on a warm fall afternoon in 2028. This vision--courtesy of local architects Ron Sakal and Sallie Hood and sociologist-historian Noel Barker--is embodied in three lovingly detailed drawings now on display at the Chicago Historical Society's "Chicago Street" exhibit. The drawings grew out of a set of ideas about how cities can be made not just survivable, but livable. But these three visionaries are not innovators. "Architectural styles and building techniques have changed radically over the past two centuries," the trio writes. "The ingredients of good urban design have not."

In Sakal and Hood's first drawing, benches line the walls of the little "Miro court" between the Chicago Temple and the Brunswick building. People lounge in the corners, chat, look at the statue, listen to the preacher's spiel. Across the street, Daley Plaza is full: trees, pools, fountains, pushcarts, small round-roofed shops, and a larger glassed-in enclosure. Outside of one small structure--a marriage chapel?--a traditionally dressed bride and groom, pirouette.

In the foreground, two men in orange coveralls and dark blue glasses stroll down Washington Street. "They look kind of sinister," says Hood, as if she were looking into the future instead of at her own drawing--"some kind of removal experts." In the background, several high rises (clearly built since 1989) attest to Chicago's continuing love of mammoth skyscrapers. Beneath them, the glass walls of the State of Illinois building have been outfitted with insulating curtains, which may come in handy in a few hours. It's sunny now, but cumulus clouds are piling up in the western sky.

"Daley Plaza today is too big and too empty," says Sallie Hood. "San Marco in Venice is big and empty too, but it's full of people because it's surrounded beautifully by arcades and stores and cafes, and it links all parts of the city. Daley Plaza is a wrong proportion--even on market day, there's so much space. It's laid out in this grid of squares, compulsively regular--but you can't even see that at ground level.

"This should be one of the most important intersections of the city, and nothing happens here. Most pathetic of all is the eternal flame. It should be important, but it's hardly noticeable--it's enclosed by the same kind of [nondescript] railing as the stairs.

Daley Plaza became of more than passing interest to Sakal and Hood when Wim de Wit, architecture curator of the Chicago Historical Society, asked them to produce an image of what they'd like a Chicago street of the future to look like. Their work over the last decade has included designing both new residences and residential and commercial renovations, as well as teaching architecture and urban design at the University of IIlinois at Chicago. Sakal and Hood, who live and work in both Chicago and Union Pier, Michigan, and have a 16-month-old daughter, have received a Graham Foundation grant to do a book on small houses that's due out in 1991. But Hood says, "This project was a big break for us," and they were happy to spend some 932 hours on it ("half an average work year, and that doesn't include time spent talking about it")--so that, figured on an hourly basis, their fee was not a large one.

When asked about the ground rules they'd made for their project, Sakal points out that many other designers might have "taken other architects' work and renovated it completely to make it 'better.'" They sigh over the gutting of the "great 50s" lobby of the Prudential, which seems to be losing its gold-leaf ceiling and portentous motto. "At the very beginning, we decided not to remove anything that is there in Daley Plaza now," he says. "We don't like to take away what other architects have provided us with even though they disapprove in principle of buildings over ten stories tall.

So in redesigning the plaza on paper, they left the flame, the stairs, the Picasso, even the Helmut Jahn high rise slated to go up across Dearborn Street.

"We left all these things in--we just tried to define them." In other words, they'd like to convert a sunless, windswept, inhospitable expanse into the cozy kind of place where you might look forward to meeting someone.

We're back in the future, it's midafternoon, the crowds have thinned out a bit, and were looking down on the plaza from the fourth floor of the Daley Center. The stairs that today lead downward are still there--but they're lined with shops and benches. A lone woman is standing by the eternal flame, which is set off by a reflecting pool and a row of square white pillars. Hood points out to me that just behind the eternal flame is the Harold Washington memorial--a great shiny ball of black granite on a granite pedestal. Across the street, the Brunswick building has been converted into lofts. Many of the apartments have balconies, with greenery overflowing them--there are even a few tenement-style clotheslines running across the space between the Brunswick and the Chicago Temple. ("We used to hate that building, but this makes it kind of nice. The thing about balconies is that you immediately know how big a person is. Otherwise the scale of the building is unclear--are the windows 5 feet high or 50?")

Like the face of the Brunswick, no longer monolithic, Daley Plaza has been broken up into smaller, interconnected spaces--spaces defined by shop awnings, tree plantings, monuments, the edges of pools, an arcade of tiny lights. There are several dogs being walked. A man sits and reads the paper. "There's either a real or a false Jesus there in the center," says Hood, keeping up the fiction that they're explorers, not inventors. "We're not sure." Two people with shopping bags are telling each other stories. Half a dozen people in yellow robes (Hare Krishnas?) are doing a circle dance. Two businessmen cut purposefully across the plaza.

"We see a few more people of color and women in business attire," says Hood, "but still not too many. And over here there are some strange-looking guys in baseball caps and green uniforms. They seem to be doing some kind of paramilitary drill--it's kind of disturbing. I don't know just what it is."

It would be easy to breeze past these drawings in the Historical Society exhibit, to dismiss them (as the Tribune's Paul Gapp did) as "whimsical and satirical." "People don't expect the future to look so much like the present," says Sakal. "But if you look at pictures of Chicago 40 years ago, it's not that much different."

People have a concept of the future, says Noel Barker, "that is actually 50 years old--the kind with walkways 300 yards above the pavement, and autogyros. If you stand at Harrison and Ashland and look west to the medical center--it's like that. Or the second-level walkway at the UIC science and engineering labs." Such high-tech scenery may excite some architects' megalomania--it's like recreating the world from scratch. It may exhilarate the tourist or visitor. But "it just doesn't work out for human life," says Barker, who had a big hand in what went into the drawings. "'We have seen the future, and it doesn't work.'

"But given that certain developments have already happened, how can we make them work better? Whether or not you like the State of Illinois building, it's there."

Perhaps because they came late to the profession, and by circuitous routes (Sakal--who's 40--has a degree in psychology, Hood--who's 44--in art history), their strongly held opinions do not engender a desire to rip out others' work and do it over again right. "When we've finished a renovation," says Sakal, "our greatest compliment is when people say, 'What have you done?'"

Says Barker, "Ron and Sallie are willing to stay the architect's hand in order to show what the city could be. The question is not what new tall buildings you can think of, but what the street life will be like. We're less interested in where the 100-story bank building will go than in where the little six-table Thai restaurant will wind up--that place where the bankers feel so relieved. A city should be full of places where it's nice to hang out"--and Daley Plaza today is not such a place.

Is that a simplistic notion of what cities are about? "Sure, the concept is simple, but the designing is complicated," says Sakal. Adds Hood, "You don't need to use fifty-cent words to make it sound smarter. Really, I'm not sure how complicated it all is. It's like kitchens--people have forgotten how to design good kitchens, so that you can prepare good food and enjoy each other's company. After we redesigned one client's kitchen, she said how she was suddenly glad to have her children around her in the kitchen--it had really improved their family life."

It's after 5, and the 21st-century crowd has a going-home feel. As the warm yellow lights come on, the first snow of the season comes floating out of a gray sky. On the Randolph Street side of the Daley Center, an enormous video screen displays a People's Court in which two Mohawked defendants stand before a judge. A day-care center, its windows alight, seems to occupy part of the second floor next to it. A few demonstrators parade outside, hoisting a sign: "Bill Stickers Is Innocent." Across the street, visitors in the Greyhound Hostel ("Lowest Rates in Town--Single $1399.00, Family $2599.00") look out their windows at the illuminated trees planted at intervals along Randolph. At street level, next door to the hostel entrance, is a string of small shops, which signify among other things the ultimate defeat of the urban renewers and cleaner-uppers: Flowers . . . Adult Books . . . Tattoos . . . Pawn.

"Architects," says Barker, always show things in summer. If urban design works, it has to work on a gray winter day," My first thought is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of architecture here. Some of it, of course, is hidden. "We did plans and elevations before these drawings," says Sakal. "You can't just start with the drawing if you have any integrity at all. We designed the rooms inside the Greyhound Hostel to make sure they would work."

There is another sense in which there isn't a lot of architecture in this vision--if by "architecture" we mean the creation of mammoth landmarks. But if we think of architecture as place making, then we are speaking a different and possibly more human language. Sakal and Hood refer me to A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al. At 1,171 pages, this offbeat 1977 classic is something of a landmark itself. The book, conceived as a sort of Elements of Style "for building and planning," manages to be both dogmatic and mellow--but in it I find the language Sakal and Hood use to talk about their reconstruction of Daley Plaza.

Pattern 61: "Make a public square much smaller than you would at first imagine; usually no more than 45 to 60 feet across, never more than 70 feet across." (Seventy-five feet, the authors say, is the maximum distance at which two people can easily see each other and communicate.)

Pattern 106: "Make all the outdoor spaces which surround and lie between your buildings positive. [In other words,] give each one some degree of enclosure; surround each space with wings of buildings, trees, hedges, fences, arcades, and trellised walks, until it becomes an entity with a positive quality and does not spill out indefinitely around corners."

Pattern 124: "Surround public gathering places with pockets of activity--small, partly enclosed areas at the edges, which jut forward into the open spaces between the paths, and contain activities which make it natural for people to pause and get involved."

"We feel like idiots talking about this," says Hood. "None of this is original. It's stuff everybody has known for at least a quarter of a century. It's been studied to death--there are certain dimensions that make sense when you re a certain size.

"Why do people travel to places they like? Believe me, Disney understood. And the Air Force Academy [in Colorado Springs] makes people feel small. It's very successful in its inhuman way--it's staggering what control the architect had. But do you want to make a city feel like that?"

Maybe "we" don't want to, but it still happens. "Even the best designers, people who teach urban design, will put up a solid wall in front of a house in the DePaul-Old Town neighborhood. They wouldn't let a student do it, but they do it themselves." The students can be equally infuriating. "I got angry at one fifth-year design student. I said, 'You really must go look at McCormick Theological Seminary.' He said, 'No, I'm too busy designing to go out and look.'"

Having looked, would other designers agree with Sakal and Hood? Perhaps not--there is something in the modern worldview that makes us want to see space as uniform and undifferentiated and unaffected by the structures that surround it. But even modernists might prefer to sit "where they can have their backs protected, looking outward toward some larger opening, beyond the space immediately in front of them"--Alexander's pattern 114.

Chicago architect Philip Bess argues in the November/December Inland Architect that this school of thought is actually a revival of the Aristotelian "natural law" way of thinking about cities and about people. Sakal and Hood prefer to proceed inductively: "I think an awful lot of people have lost the sense of urban design because they don't travel much," says Hood. She cites her visit to Aix-en-Provence with special fondness: There the street was made wide enough that even at the winter solstice, when the sun is at its lowest, the buildings across the street did not shade the cafes. But the street was too wide for the proportions to be comfortable, so rows of plane trees were planted down the middle.

Hood points out, "You can look at pictures of urban design in books and it isn't the same. We were in Aachen, saying what a great building this is, what a great space. Then we realized that we had a picture of it at home--but we'd been looking at its photo for so long, we had remembered the space wrong."

It's possible to view Sakal, Hood, and Barker as connoisseurs of space, gourmets of design trapped in a fast-food universe. (An interesting feature of the Historical Society's street exhibit is the intricately designed lampposts from the turn of the century. Only after their design had been pointed out to me did I notice, while waiting for the bus, the completely featureless green metal tubes at the corner of Clark and North.) Have our tastes been so coarsened by blank plazas and buildings without human scale that we don't recognize good design when we happen onto it?

In their notes to the drawings, Sakai, Hood, and Barker argue quite the opposite--that the sterile emptiness of places like Daley Plaza actually causes people to "spend their time away from real cities--living in suburbs and vacationing in fantasylands like Disneyland, where the Main Street of a mythical yesteryear is built on a human scale. Too many Chicagoans, enjoy Chicago architecture most from airplanes or tour buses."

Does bad design drive people out of the city? Well, maybe. "We're not as simplistic as the early modern guys, who said their designs could change all our politics and everything," says Hood. "We do know that bad designs are detrimental." She gives as an example certain CHA apartments that were designed with no place where an entire family with five children could sit down together, and with no room for more than a couple days' supply of food. "But the positive side is less clear. You can't get rid of crack by good designs."

"What we've done here is not real expensive," says Sakal--but that could actually be a strike against their vision in a municipality where the letting of large concrete contracts gives a project political fuel. And it may be economically unfeasible to maintain essentially low-rent shops and stalls in a high-rent area like the Loop without some kind of city subsidy. ("There's a Dairy Queen below the Brunswick building now," says Hood, "because no one can afford surface rental. We feel the city has a responsibility to provide accessible sites for services during the week. Everyone works; no one has time to run errands."). Already the liveliest streets in the Loop are the lower-rent streets under the el. "Given a choice," says Sakai, "I would rather walk down Wabash than down State Street." And he'd rather walk down either of those than down Wacker Drive. Barker says Wacker "feels cold on almost any day. There's nothing but big corporations, no watchmakers, no fast foods. Nobody on Wacker Drive is trying to sell you gold jewelry."

But the best design in the world won't work if people don't cotton to it. Don't these drawings ultimately rest on wishful thinking? Who would want to hang out in Daley Plaza in February? What if they prefer the Pedway--an innovation that Hood detests? (She says it steals pedestrians from the street and adds, "We don't think people have any business walking around underground unless there's been a nuclear holocaust.")

"Chicagoans are so nervous about the weather," she complains. "In Munich, they have an open-air market every day, all day long. Even in the north of Holland, where it is every bit as cold as Chicago, everybody was at the market.

"I bet if they ran the farmers' market here all year round, people would come." They have to cross the plaza anyway to go to work.

"I'm sure people would much rather wander through stalls [which would cut the wind], browsing among little Christmas trees and the like, than cross it the way it is now. I'd almost stake my life on it." Maybe, one day, she'll get a chance to try.

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

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