Tanks for the Memory
 -by Lynn Becker

Mayor Richard M. Daley jump-starts a Chicago architectural competition that seeks to locate the city's soul in its historic water tanks. A new exhibition displays 167 of the entries and examines the water tank's history and future possibilities in a high-tech age.

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“Blicket auf,”
Doctor Marianus, Goethe's Faust

“Everyone sees these water towers but most people don't notice them,” said Rahman Polk of Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge, the $3,500 first prize winner of the Chicago Architectural Club's recent competition to find new uses for Chicago's water tanks.

“However, I remember a quote from Robert Crumb. He said that what distinguishes his drawing from the drawings of other cartoonists and animators is that he adds the 'urban detritus'. That's the term he uses. He adds that to his work, and that's what makes it seem real. And so when you go back to water towers and telephone poles and all the technological things that make a city work, that actually read as background, those are the things that if we were to take them away, would render the city less real.”

Rahman spoke at the opening of a new exhibition, handsomely mounted by Nathan Mason, at the Chicago Cultural Center that puts 167 of the competition's entries on display, along with an array of other objects that recount the role of the water tank in the city's history. They still cling to the rooftops to countless Chicago buildings, cryptic presences channeling between utility and remnant, grunge and the picturesque.

The exhibit includes samples of water tank name plates and finials, and a chunk of Louis-Sullivan inspired terra cotta ornament that once covered the tanks atop the Carson Pirie Scott store on State. There's 's a 1922 Herman Rosse water tank illustration for Ben Hecht's book 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. There's even a collection of model railroad water tanks, including one from a vintage 1920's American flyer set, assembled by the city of Chicago's cultural historian Tim Samuelson. “That's all my EBay hunting, “Samuelson says.”

Chicago's water tanks were another expression of the city's obsession with avoiding a repeat of the devastation that marked the great fire of October, 1871. (Joseph Medill was elected mayor a month later on the “Fireproof” ticket.) As the exhibit notes explain, “The tanks could instantly deliver large supplies of pressurized water throughout a building using the reliable downward force of gravity.”

Wood was the original material of choice, of a quality that still makes it desirable today. “There are actually people taking the tanks apart and selling them,” says Samuelson. “Those were clear-cut redwood and cypress. You just straighten out the bevel on them and you'll have wood like you'll never see - what they call tank grade: no knots, straight run, 18 feet tall, 2 and a half inches thick.”

In 1930's, metal began to replace wood as the material of choice, but by the 1980's, mechanized pumps had run the water tank out of general production. Draining a water tank is sowing the seed of its destruction. “As long as there's water in it,” explains Chicago architect Sam Marts, “it maintains the pressure that keeps the tank together. As long as the wood keeps wet, it doesn't rot.” Once a tank is emptied, however, boards become loose, and weather and insects expedite decay. About 130 water tanks remain in use today, and even where they've been dismantled, the tall platforms that supported them often still stand, now forlornly incomplete. Because they're tied in to the roof, removing them would require tearing up and restoring the waterproofing, an expensive proposition.

The Chicago Prize competition isn't the first time someone's addressed how to best deal with the water tanks. In the 1970's, 41-year-old Japanese-American artist Sachio Yamashita made it his personal mission to paint as many of them as possible. “He said his watchword was to paint something every day,” says Samuelson. “He'd go to the building owners, and talk them into letting him paint the tank. He'd get them to chip in for the paint, too. He'd go swimming in them - a hot day, climb up the ladder, go in and swim around. Every time he'd paint a tank, he'd paint it in bright colors, and then paint a number on it, and it was sequential. The first two sat atop the old Piper Bakery on Wells Street, side by side, that said 1,2”

At the opening, Brian Vitale talked about the competition's genesis. “It really started,” said Vitale, “with a call that I made with my co-president Robert Benson to the mayor's office to see if there any architectural issues that were needing to be dealt with in the city that we could lend a hand with. Roughly eight months later, we were standing in a room with this year's Pritzker prize winning Thom Mayne,” of Morphosis, who chaired the competition's jury.

“This is all about the history of the city of Chicago, the architects, engineers and tradesmen who built these wonderful tanks that basically reflect the great history of Chicago,” said Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. “The thing I was concerned about is that if they all disappeared, that would not be Chicago. So we have to reflect upon the past, and really enrich the past and see what we can do in dealing with the preservation of these water tanks, and restoration of some others.”

When I first learned of the competition, I thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. It's hard not to think that there aren't a host of urban challenges that would have put all that effort to far better use. But walking into the reconstructed Adler & Sullivan's 1895 Stock Exchange Trading room at the Art Institute was like falling into Samuel F. B. Morse's Gallery of the Louvre. Nearly 200 boards lined the walls in two stacked rows, a profusion of creativity so tightly packed it made the huge room seem claustrophobic.

Only about 50 of the entries were from the Chicago; the remainder coming from across the United States, as well as from 19 foreign countries from China to Israel to Qatar. Mayne mentally calculated that the combined entries represented “20,000 hours of work. That's ten years of work.” Not surprisingly, they tended to fit in to about five basic categories. “This is Chicago,” said Mayne, “and I guess it's a somewhat pragmatic place because I would have to say that probably the largest category would be pragmatic, and they were in a general notion of science, ecology . . . . . . maybe two-thirds of them, certainly over half.” Tanks sprouted windmills and arrays of photovoltaic cells, became planters for hanging gardens, and sanctuaries for both migrating birds and, in the case of a honorable mention entry from Edinburgh's Ross Perkins, for human beings, “a UN sanctuary,” according to Mayne's description, “like an embassy, where you could flee before being arrested and have your rights protected internationally.”

Many of the best entries tap into the way the romance of the city, its latent, sensual intimation of promise and possibility, can subdue the grubby, harsh reality of isolation and loneliness.

“There's a lot of surveillance cameras out there,” says Chicago sculptor Mike Null who, along with Berlin-based architect Oliver Heckman and Hoon Cho created another honorable mention entry, “City of Dreams,” where cameras mounted on the water tanks “record what the city has experienced during the day,” and hit the replay button by projecting them on the tanks at night. “It's based on this idea of a dream state,” Null continued, “We saw it as a metaphor of the body. When you sleep at night, your mind goes back and tries to put together parts of your day. When the city goes to sleep, these kind of images pop up from that day.” In the words of the display board, “Moving through the city at night, people remember the activity and vibrancy of the day, and the images of the silent memory on the water tanks embrace the city at night.”

In the best Chicago pragmatic tradition, Rahman Polk's proposals covers both tanks and platforms. “Where the tank has been removed,” said Polk, “I decided that recreating the shape of the tower was important, so I created a turbine that would actually replicate that shape of the tank.” The turbines would both power a Wi-Fi network covering the Loop, and provide excess electricity that building owners could then resell, giving them an economic incentive to rehab the towers. Inside the tanks that still exist, Polk would insert a vertical access wind turbine powering a wrapper of LED screens that would display “imagery culled from the Wi-Fi network [as well as] cultural broadcasts and municipal and art-related events.”

Polk's proposal also draws on another bedrock Chicago tradition of pride of craft, working out his concept with incredible thoroughness and detail. “If you read it,” said Mayne, “if you look at the pieces, you could just about build it. This guy saw this problem at every level.”


Water Tanks: The Chicago Prize Competition is on display in the Chicago Rooms of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington, through January 29, 2006.

Postscript - July, 2006. Another exhibition of the entries to this competition is on display at the Chicago Center for Green Technology, 445 North Sacramento Boulevard, from July 15th through August 31, , 2006.


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© Copyright 2005 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.