Thursday, August 16, 2007

An Atrocity Exhibition

Pictured above are some recently developed condo projects in North Coast neighborhoods, selected for their rampant ugliness and complete disrespect for their neighborhood context, for historical correctness, and most of all, for the contempt their designers seem to have for any concept of beauty or grace. Pretty has become almost a pejorative among academic architects. It's almost as though the architects wanted to make these developments as ugly and offensive as possible, and their motives are the same as any graffitti "artist" defacing the city with gang scrawls and wild-style block letters: they are offended by beauty and style because they are incapable of producing it, and can only "make a statement" by producing eyesores.

These, along with thousands of cookie-cutter 6- or- 8 unit Urban Generic condos, sadly botched rehabs,and new buildings of extraordinarily shoddy construction, are the visual, tangible remains of the rampage of greed, and imprudent borrowing and lending,that was the housing bubble of the early 21st Century. They, along with the collapsed hedge funds and the millions of foreclosures and ruined credit ratings, are the legacy of the greatest binge of financial lunacy in the history of the world, and one that our heirs and assigns will be stuck with for many long years after we've recovered financially and gone on to other obsessions.

In the first photo, is an Uptown townhouse development, a block of boxy, featureless, common-wall townhouses on Ainslee that have the air of a military barracks. The windows are small, ugly , and cheap, and the wall facing Winthrop is nearly blank. The best thing you could do with these places is to plant vines that will, in time, cover the places in their entirity.

Next is of a gut-rehab condo at the corner of Winthrop and Thorndale. The building, while never beautiful, was at least a respectable, though stodgy, vaguely Prairie-styled structure, that the developer rendered hideous by the addition of historically incorrect modern windows, in glaring white frames no less, along with "mod" pipe railings on the inset terraces on the Thorndale side, and new, glaringly inappropriate balconies and sliding glass doors on the Winthrop elevation. What is it with the sliding glass doors, anyway? Why are these ugly, graceless renmants of the 60s being slapped onto classically-styled buildings all over town? Wouldn't French doors be more in keeping with traditional styles of architecture? Why is it so difficult to respect the architecture of the structure, and to select fittings and appointments that are in keeping with it?

Then, we have another barracks-like townhouse complex on Ainslee. It's hard to believe that this is middle-class housing costing nearly $400,000 a unit. All the mature trees were cut down to facilitate construction, and it will take many more years for the young trees now growing there to veil the naked, scabid ugliness of the barren complex with its tiny, badly-placed windows and the gaping garage doors that lend the street the look of a storage facility.The screaming yellow Hummer in one drive highlights the military ambiance, in addition to making it painfully obvious that the driveways are too short, and so, possibly, is the garage. Could the driveways and garage entries have been placed in the back of the complex instead of in front? Somehow the streetscape looks just as blighted as it did in the days when this area was truly a slum. Note to owners: get the vines started.

On to Sheridan and Broadway, we consider one of the area's great lost opportunities. A beautiful and dignified old church used to occupy this triangular site, and it is one of the greatest building sites in the neighborhood. However, instead of a beautiful, well-proportioned building of striking design, what we got here was a hodgepodge of modern with a few traditional doodads pasted to it, built with cheap, ugly bricks and punctuated by small, ugly windows and large balconies cluttered with owner's possessions. The contrast between this stupid, graceless building and the otherwise beautiful Sheridan Road streetscape is ugly-it's like seeing a trash dumpster standing in a lush garden.

Next, we have Catalpa Gardens, a double-tower high rise complex sheathed completely in cinderblock painted in garish primary colors. Why do places have the word "Gardens" in their name when the place is more reminiscent of a warehouse or parking garage than a place of living, growing things? I thought that the city was not permitting cinderblock to be used on the facades of new buildings any more, but I guess the architects were able to sell the local zoning and planning board on them as long as they painted them in "playful" colors, to look like a couple of gigantic children's building blocks. This building should have been a legal impossibility, but here it is, and it's going to be blighting the Edgewater skyline for at least a century to come.

Lastly, we have a formerly lovely 20s vintage courtyard in the 1600 block of W. Lunt,that has been destroyed by an atrociously tasteless rehab. This building was a beauty, with beautiful brickwork and a terra cotta roof, and the fine proportions and air of elegance typical of courtyards of this vintage. Rogers Park has always been famous for the beauty of its courtyard buildings; no other neighborhood or city has such a collection of really beautiful, well-built, or varied buildings of this type. However, the hyper-development of the past few years has resulted in the degradation of some of the neighborhood's most beautiful buildings. Here, the facade has been defaced by ugly modern windows in the same glare white used on the developer's other de-habilitated developments, and by the addition of balconies and sliding glass doors.

This is only a small sampling of the ugly, inappropriate, misconceived developments that went up all over Chicago during the Great Real Estate Bezzle. Additionally, thousands of merely humdrum structures were built, and a few truly excellent buildings, happily.
Why has most of the stuff built since World War II been so overwhelmingly ugly and graceless? And why can't a rehab of a beautiful old building be done without destroying the beauty of the place and turning large, comfortable old apartments with exquisite millwork and beautiful, classicly proportioned rooms into ugly, stacked tract houses?

I would ascribe it to the cult of the Bauhaus, with its utilitarian, machine aesthetic that dovetailed so well with the desire of builders to cut costs and deliver the cheapest, mingiest construction they can get by with, who are further enabled in the endeavor by acquiescent buyers who long ago resigned themselves to the commonplace ugliness of most modern architecture, figuring that it's just how things are done these days and what can you do about it? There is also the idea that anything "new" or "cutting edge" is intrinsically superior, which is a very commonplace notion in an era of constant innovation and instant obsolescence.

There is nothing that dates faster that newness for the sake of newness, and the trendier and more "cutting edge" something is now, the more sadly outdated it will be just a few years down the road. You can't help but think of all the short-lived design fads of the twentieth century and of all the landfills stuffed with Bakelight and avacodo appliances, and every whacky youth fad of the past 80 years, when you look at much modern architecture. But a bad building is going to be with us a lot longer than last year's hot cellphone, and cost a lot more to replace, so you can't help but wonder what the landscape will look like 50 years hence, when we might well be a much poorer society than we are now, and will no longer have the money to replace the ugly, rapidly deteriorating garbage we've spent 50 years filling it with.

1 comment:

Bryan said...

Maybe you can go into the rehab business and actually DO something about something, instead of being another one of those modern-day blights... bloggers w/ big opinions, and zero input into the solution.