"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.
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
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
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 Kleihues
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