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Sleekness in Seattle- by Lynn Becker

Settling for Less - The Road to Chicago's
Harold Washington Library


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Chicago's Harold Washington Library was the end of a long, sad saga where the greatest priority wasn't making a great building, but risk management.

In the mid-70s the central library had been exiled from the Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge palace on Michigan Avenue it had occupied since 1897, with an explanation that the collection had outgrown the building. But the mad rush to vacate bore all the marks of a land grab to demolish the building and replace it with a skyscraper, since there was no new library - more capacious or otherwise - to move into. The books were boxed up and sent to a "temporary"
facility, the old Mandel Building warehouse behind and south of the Tribune Tower. (The story goes that it was only at “Sis” Daley's urging that her husband, Mayor Richard J. Daley, decided not to discard the ornate old library, but restore it as the current Chicago Cultural Center.)

The “temporary” warehouse wound up being the library's home for 13 years,
until 1988, when its owners decided to demolish the Mandel Building to make way for the new NBC Tower. Once again, the 4,700,000 items in the library's collection were packed up and hauled to yet another temporary facility, a loft building behind the Merchandise Mart. Administrative offices were set up at 1224 W. Van Buren, almost two miles away.

In 1981 Mayor Jane Byrne held a design competition for a new library only to scuttle the results in favor of carving a library out of carcass of the old
Goldblatt's store, now the DePaul Center, on State between Jackson and
Van Buren. That idea was killed by Mayor Harold Washington. There were concerns that the floors of the 1912 building might not be able to bear the weight
of the books, but ultimately, people - and the press - were starting to rally around the idea that the city deserved something better.

A second design competition was launched in 1987, with a set of rules that almost guaranteed mediocrity. Most design competitions are won on the quality of architectural design, but that wasn't the "Chicago way."

The city, anxious to end the embarrassment of a temporary central library that had the persistence of a cockroach, was committed to to opening its replacement by 1991, less than three years away. It wanted to ensure not only that the job would be finished on time, but that it would also avoid the kind of massive cost overruns the city had suffered on recent mega-projects at McCormick Place and O'Hare. Entrees to the competition would follow the “design/build” model, where the architect is a part - sometimes little more than window-dressing - of a team where the contractor, not the architect, was the primary player. The quality of the design became less important than the quality of the document that detailed how the contractor would be able to construct the proposed building within the $140,000,000 budget. All extra costs would be the responsibility - not of the city - but of the team behind the winning entry.

It's quite possible to get good architecture out of the design/build model, but it's even more likely the result will be the kind of bargain-basement dreck like the plug-ugly condo towers that have risen in the last several years like toxic weeds in River North.

Unlike Seattle, Chicago relegated its librarians and library board to a
secondary role. The rules of the competition were so unappealing that its
first stage became amazingly simple: having expected to have to narrow hundreds of entries to five, the jury received only six submissions. (By comparison, the competition for the new Ford Calumet Environmental Center and the Graham Foundation competition to extend the lakefront north of Hollywood Avenue each drew more than 100 entries.)

The five library finalists were put on display at the Cultural Center. (You can still see models of the four runner-ups in far southeast corner of the Harold L. Washington library's 8th floor; the model of the winner can be found in the "Called to Challenge" exhibit on 9.)

Public comment was solicited. Within the first several days more than 5,000
people filled out cards. Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp favored a
design by Dirk Lohan, grandson of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The public was
reported to have favored a modernist if impractical design from Canadian
architect Arthur Erikson. A design by Helmut Jahn that leaped the el
tracks was the last to be eliminated before the 11-person jury decided on
the entry submitted by Hammond Beeby and Babka, the firm of Chicago
architect Thomas Beeby.

At the time architecture was still in the throes of postmodernism, which
was less about creating a valid new architecture than about indulging an ABM
(anything-but-Mies) reaction to the profusion of brain-dead knockoffs of his sleek glass towers. Skyscrapers were sprouting ironic versions of classical
pediments and arcades, creating an architecture that was based more on parodistic commentary than original thought.

Beeby, the highly capable architect of the Sulzer Regional Library on North Lincoln and the new Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, presented a design that in some ways stripped postmodernism of its excesses. It was restrained to the point of torpor, its brick facades ponderous, its elegant glass curtain wall relegated to the side facing the alley. In 1993, Beeby's restraint received a deliriously goofy counterpoint with the installation of gargantuan owls on the roof that looked like they'd just flown in from a Batman movie. Contradictory and confused, the library was a clear reflection of its time.

For all of the building's bulk, "There's no there there," as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland. The interior is unrelentingly gray. Even the great hall on the ground floor, with its mezzanine and central opening to the floor below, is so square and colorless that it feels not so much invitingly spacious as uneasily claustrophobic. You have to travel up a sequence of three escalators just to get to the main entrance floor, and even there many of the shelves have had their books replaced with potted plants.

The six middle floors that hold the books are spacious, open and bright. Serene reading alcoves, one of the design's strongest inspirations, line the east wall. There's no central reading room.

The graceful, light-filled Winter Garden, one of the city's great interior spaces, is curiously disconnected from the library proper. It seems more like a separate banquet hall, designed primarily for revenue-producing rentals, than a library amenity. The escalators that link the book floors don't reach it - it's accessible only from a separate escalator and set of elevators buried deep in the building. The rich forest depicted in Beeby's original rendering is today a handful of lonely trees. On a recent visit, the Winter Garden's only occupants were a single pair of men sitting at an isolated table. If you start wandering around admiring the features of the faux classical villa facades that make up the walls (a restrained tribute to John Eberson's atmospheric movie palaces of the 1920's?), a kindly security guard may come over to ask if you've gotten lost looking for something else.





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