In the wake of Chicago's biggest construction boom since the 1920's, a look at the resulting buildings raises a fundamental question: Can planning be a means to better architecture?
(Originally published in slightly different and far better-edited form under the title "Can Planning be a means to better architecture"
in the Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer, 2005 as part of a special issue on Urban Planning Now - What Works, What Doesn't?)
While macro plans like the CAP tend to get all the press, it's the micro plans, in the form of municipal regulation, that have a more direct effect on what gets built. Unlike the sugar plum visions of the big picture planners, zoning and building codes tell developers in often dizzying detail exactly what they can do and what they cannot. Rewrites of both the zoning and building codes have recently been finalized.
The new zoning ordinance went into effect on November 1, 2004. It seeks to address many of the failings of the recent crop of residential towers. There are floor-area ratio bonuses for placing parking below grade and for wrapping above grade parking with occupiable space, Other design flaws are addressed with highly specific mandates: Large expanses of blank walls should be avoided. . . . If solid windowless walls are necessary . . . they should be articulated with arches, piers, columns, planters, and so on. Such prescriptions, however well intended, are less incentives to great design than invitations to a formulaic banality.
It often appears that Chicago's most creative new buildings are those with the lightest bureaucratic oversight. The zoning ordinance categorizes any project that crosses set thresholds of height or density as planned developments, subject to an intensified scrutiny that adds a preliminary hearing held by the city's Plan Commission to the usual process of review by the zoning and planning departments, followed by a City Council hearing and final action by the Council as whole. All of the worst new towers are planned developments. Two of the best - Erie on the Park and Ralph Johnson's new Contemporaine - are not.
The Commission sees its role in mitigating bad design as limited. With the recent additions to the building ordinance, the hopes is now that even bad buildings will be forced to contribute to a more lively and livable streetscape. The bottom line however, in the words of architect Linda Searl, is that You can't make an architect or developer do a better building. Searl is acting Plan Commission chairman. Although the last chairman left over six months ago, the mayor has yet to name a replacement.
Many members of the Commission seem almost starved for superior, contemporary design. Reacting to Krueck and Sexton Architects' bold glass faceted design for a new Spertus Center as it came up for consideration at a recent meeting, Doris Holleb's comment about welcoming a design that doesn't hearken back to the late part of the 19th century was only one of several remarks from commissioners that appeared to signal an impatience with the faux classicism of an architect like Lucien LaGrange, who likes to top off his luxury condo towers with Mansard roofs whose execution in painted metal evokes the Quonset Hut as much as the French Second Empire.
This is the same Lucien LaGrange whose firm also designed Erie on the Park. The difference in quality derives less from any kind of planning or regulatory intervention than from the identity of the developer. A handful of developers, such as Smithfield Properties' Bill Smith, responsible for both Erie and its striking neighbor, Kingsbury on the Park, also by LaGrange, and Colin Kinhke of CMK Development (The Contemporaine), account for a disproportionate amount of new, innovative design.
The role of the mayor remains an enigma. No More Ugly Buildings was the headline he provided the Chicago Sun-Times early in 2003. His energetic championing of the ultramodern work of Frank Gehry and others in the city's new Millennium Park, a refuge of creativity within an increasingly generic city, would seem to signal a new receptiveness to contemporary architecture. His several trips to Paris left him with a deepened awareness of the importance of superior urban design and an increased commitment to bringing those lessons home to Chicago, but, as in a game of telephone, his intentions have tended to become garbled by the time they reach the end of the communications chain. For years the word on the street was that Daley favored retro-Beaux Arts design, and the result can be seen in all those Mansard topped buildings and in the Art Nouveau feel of the heavy, black lines of Robert A.M Stern's bus shelters. Did Daley tell the architects that's what he wanted? Probably not. More likely, the designs were the result of planners' and architects' self censoring, trying to anticipate what would please the prince.
The bottom line is that exceptional design is both subjective and, more importantly from a design standpoint, intangible. That's undoubtedly one of the reasons the mayor has found the idea of promoting Chicago as the the greenest city in America so compelling. Not only is sustainable architecture an increasingly apple pie issue, but also it can be measured and documented. There's even an organization, the U.S. Green Building Council, keeping score, awarding LEED certifications-silver, gold, and platinum-in a sort of green architecture Olympics. The city has formulated a Chicago Standard to create LEED certified buildings that will reduce energy costs 15 to 20%. The new 22nd District Police Station, which opened in June, was designed to attain a LEED Silver rating. That's a lot easier to put into a press release than trying to explain why a certain new building is a superior design.
The city's Green Bungalow initiative targeted the stock of 80,000 iconic brick bungalows built in the first half of the 20th century by creating four prototype green bungalows that achieved annual energy savings of up to 69%. In practical Chicago fashion, bungalow owners have banded together to create two historic landmark districts, not to become city landmarks - which would require regulatory approval of improvements or modifications - but to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in which oversight is much more permissive;, and major rehabs qualify for an eight-year property tax freeze.