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No, it's not impossible. Landmarks Illinois' Athletes Village plan for the 2016 Olympics shows how to save Chicago's Gropius/Bauhaus legacy





 -by Lynn Becker

[August 25, 2009] - An alternative plan released by Landmarks Illinois for a proposed athletes village for the 2016 Chicago Olympics demonstrates how the irreplaceable Bauhaus-inspired buildings on the former Michael Reese Hospital campus, designed in part by Walter Gropius, can not only co-exist with the village, but improve it.



I want this to be a tree in which birds of many colors and shapes can sit and feel sustained. I do not wish to restrict it to species with square tail-ends or streamlined contours or international features or Bauhaus garb. In short, I wish it to be a hospitable tree from which many songs should be heard, except the fake sounds of the bird imitators.

So spoke the great German-American architect Walter Gropius, in 1953, about a tree that had been dedicated to him at the new Michael Reese Hospital complex where, in the words of an accompanying plaque, his "guiding hand contributed so such to the planning of this campus and its buildings." Missing plaque on Gropius memorial tree at Michael Reese Hospital, ChicagoThis past spring, that plaque unceremoniously disappeared, ripped from the rock on which it had rested for half a century. The stately tree most likely suffered the fate of many others as the beautiful campus landscaping by Hideo Sasaki has recently been wantonly destroyed, beautiful trees pulled up by the roots.

You see, in Chicago, most often there's room for only one song, from one very big bird, mayor Richard M. Daley , who surrounds himself with courtiers falling over themselves to slavishly echo his every whim and sound.

To create an athlete's village for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Mayor Daley wants to lay waste to every building on the historic Michael Reese campus but one, including a number of irreplaceable Bauhaus-inspired designs in which Gropius was directly involved. Despite the fact that one of the key modern criticisms of the development of the 1950's Reese campus was its scorched-earth approach of destroying every last structure - and the history they possessed - to create a tabula rasa for redevelopment, the Mayor seems less interested in learning from history than in having the muscle to repeat its mistakes. the endangered Michael Reese Hospital campus, Chicago, designed with the participation of Walter GropiusAnd so, that single song is repeated - endlessly and mindlessly - by the mayor and his minions: there is no other way.

Bunk. The gutless Commission on Chicago Landmarks may have refused, despite its central responsibility as the protector of the city's architectural legacy, to lift a finger to save anything from the 1950's campus, wrapping itself in the empty posture of gee, if only someone would submit a good plan, maybe we would do something, but Landmarks Illinois has called its bluff. Rendering of alternative plan by Landmarks Illinois for preserving the Bauhaus inspired buildings on the Michael Reese Hospital campus, Chicago, designed in part by Walter Gropius, and incorporating them into an athletes village for the 2016 Chicago OlympicsOn August 13th, the organization released a stunning alternative plan for the Michael Reese campus that not only far surpasses the official Chicago 2016 plans previously released, but manages to save five of the Gropius-era buildings. “We believe,” said Landmarks Illinois president and CEO James Peters in a press release, “this plan offers a more sustainable approach, not only for the Olympic Village but for a more viable neighborhood after the Olympics. By reusing the most adaptable historic buildings—just six of the 29 structures now scheduled for demolition—we think this will result in a more balanced approach for community development.”

The bulk of the conservation would be in a highly compact, one-and-a-half square block site that is the core of the buildings designed by Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett with the direct collaboration of Gropius and his firm, The Architects' Collaborative. Included are four distinctive International Style structures - the Baumgarten, Singer and Kaplan (originally the Private) pavilions, plus the Friend pavilion just to the south.

It is, indeed, a compromise. None of the 1920's structures at the northern end of the campus would be saved, nor would one of the most handsome 1950's buildings, the Serum Building just off 31st street. “It was a tough call,” Peters wrote in an email response to my questions, “on the other four Gropius buildings, including Serum. The problem with Serum was its location at the southern end of the campus, where both the Olympic dining center and bus transport points are to be located.”site plan, Landmarks Illinois plan to preserve Bauhaus inspired buildings designed in part by Walter Gropius on the former Michael Reese Hospital Complex by incorporating them into an athletes village for the 2016 Chicago Olympics

It's an indication of the care that Landmarks Illinois took with their plan. In some ways, it does a better job of accommodating Olympic committee requirements - and balancing them with the long-term interests of the city - than the official plans we've seem so far. (You can see a comparison of the two plans on Blair Kamin's blog here.)

Not only does the Landmarks plan restore the street grid, as does 2016, but it avoids having two of those streets being revived only to be truncated once they hit the rail lines to the east, calling instead for much needed pedestrian bridges that extend over the tracks all the way to the lake. Similarly, the Landmarks plan decks over the tracks and adjacent parking lot north of 29th street, providing the kind of residual benefit that was hastily eliminated when the city decided against building the village over those tracks. Power Plant, designed in part by Walter Gropius, on the former campus of Michael Reese Hospital, Chicago
Perhaps the plan's masterstroke is preserving the original plan's grand promenade to the lake, but moving it one block north to 27th street, both to allow it to be connected to a 27th street Metra stop, and to make a fifth Bauhaus inspired building, the striking 1952 Power Plant, “an icon of the Olympic Village - visible from Lake Shore Drive, throughout the site, and as the focus of an Olympic Village Plaza. ” And what better symbol of Chicago's industrial might and architectural legacy? I can see the towering smokestacks at night, lit up with the four colors of the Olympic rings (omitting only black), beacons that would be a uniquely Chicago take on the Olympic flame.
floor plan, Baumgarten Pavilion, converted to support the athletes village at the 2016 Chicago Olympics

Landmarks Illinois is not advocating converting the 1950's structures for residential use during the games. “The IOC standards”, Peters wrote me, “call for identical housing - so that one country doesn't view their housing as 'different' - so we felt these buildings would be better suited before and during the Olympics for office and other uses . . . with residential an option after the Olympics.”

I think he's on to something. We've allowed the debate to be framed on whether the Gropius-inspired structures are suitable for residential conversion, but why even try? There'll be a wealth of new residential towers all around them. Why not leave them, during and after the games, for retail, recreational and residential use? The most attractive option might be to convert the upper floors to offices, offering residents of the adjoining towers the option of a live/work environment that would measure their commute not in miles but in footsteps.

This alternative plan, to be sure, is not above debate, but Landmarks Illinois has provided an invaluable public service. They are the ones who stepped up to the plate, who put themselves on the line. Now its up to the preservation community to unite behind a plan that is not just the only one to be presented, but damn good. Kaplan Pavilion, former Michael Reese Hospital campus, Chicago, designed with the participation of Walter Gropius
We now have a great story to tell: These are exceptional buildings that merit being saved. They can not only co-exist with the Olympic village; they can make it better. They can enrich our city far into the future. We need to make sure that story gets out, not only so that the mayor's song isn't the only one to be heard, but so that his song actually gains strength, harmony and beauty in being reinforced by other, different but complimentary voices.

See full information on Landmarks Illinois' plan, including higher res images, here.

For residents of the 42nd Ward and other interested parties, alderman Brendan Reilly will be sponsoring the last of the 2016 Committee community outreach sessions tonight, Tuesday, August 25th, beginning at 6:00 p.m. in the Empire Room(!) of the Palmer House, 17 E. Monroe.

And this Wednesday, August 26, AIA Chicago will sponsor a lecture: Gropius in Chicago: A Legacy on the Brink by Grahm Balkany, the architect activist whose tireless dedication to saving that legacy has kept the issue in public focus. 12:00 - 1:00 p.m, 35 E. Wacker, Suite 250. More info here.
Walter Gropius quotation from Gropius: An Illustrated Biography of the Creator of the Bauhaus, by Reginald Isaacs.

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© 2009 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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