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Preserve that Hashtag: Media and the Preservation of Postmodern Architecture

Chicago Architect Ι March-April 2016 

Just two years after Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital completed its dance with a wrecking ball, his Marina City Towers are cruising towards landmark status. Preservation cries have arisen around Edo Belli’s 1975 expansion to Cueno Hospital. Meanwhile, Stanley Tigerman’s, FAIA, Pensacola Place is getting a crisp renovation from Brininstool + Lynch before its 35th birthday, and the Governor Rauner wants to tear down one of Chicago’s only Postmodern icons, The Thompson Center, before it turns 32.

Why is this city committing itself to saving Late Modern and Postmodern architecture of the very recent past, much of it little-loved by the public?

The reasons have to do with the media environment that surrounds architecture as with architecture itself.

Today, there are hundreds of websites and publications that cater to all niches. One-hundred years ago the entire American design media was a handful of trade publications. Now, architects can find projects in their Twitter and Instagram feeds from Utah to Uganda with a finger swipe. Vast hordes of data flit in and out of Dropbox files. Distance is obliterated. In the previous century, to attend a large architecture convention and meet practitioners from elsewhere, you boarded a steam engine that rattled on to its destination for days. Architects sorting through this new ocean of media form spontaneous communities around issues, projects, and ideologies.

And architecture’s evolution speeds up. Its event horizon increases. Architects might have practiced Neo Gothic for centuries, but International Style Modernism had only 40 years in the sun. Postmodernism was on stage for 20 years, maybe. And whatever we’re in now? New “isms” drop out of the machine before anyone has a name for them: Deconstructivism, Parametricism, “Social Activism?” As the branches off architecture’s evolutionary tree mutate faster and faster, preservationists notice: what gets build today doesn’t look like what got built 10, or even 5 years ago. So the call goes out: Save some of this stuff (even the garish robins egg blue and salmon hues of the Thompson Center) before Twitter belches out another hashtag that becomes a graduate studio everyone has to take, and the whole thing changes again.

The most trenchant analysis of how the media climate has accelerated architecture comes from March Kushner, founder of Architzer and partner at HWKN. In a 2015 TED Talk, he explains how the interactive social media climate allows architects to react to feedback at a much more rapid rate. Instead of having to spend years designing and building a building, and then waiting for public opinion to coalesce, architects now have a multitude of online platforms to share their plans in real time, helping designers to oscillate quickly between populist (often historic) symbols and innovative design-community sensibilities. “We’re simultaneously trying to preserve the past, and we’re also re-engaging with the experiments of the past to make them more contemporary,” he says. “I think that can only happen when you’ve got a lot of shit going on.”

In Chicago, there’s a group of young architects adept a raiding architecture’s recent past. Centered around the University of Illinois-Chicago and given international visibility with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, this group draws from popular culture, design histories, and vernacular traditions to practice a sort of meme-i-tecture: inside jokes, mutating riffs, and narrative quips that are re-stitched and aggregated with the exuberance and breeze of a Twitter conversation.

As Design with Company, Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer’s biennial exhibit “Late Entries to the Chicago Public Library Competition” is a Russian nesting doll of inside jokes and riffs on Chicago’s architectural past. It’s based on a 1980 Tigerman exhibit that was itself a riff on the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition. Design with Company’s entry aggregates Chicago architectural tropes into a playful Frankenstein’s monster of a library, just as Tigerman collected late entries to the Tribune Tower competition. Their model highlight’s Chicago’s tendency to delve into the past when it’s on the cusp of great things, and expertly translates the Internet culture of aggregation and curated synthesis into architectural terms. “Sampling and curating is the format that connects with audiences,” says Hicks.

Based in Chicago and New York, Norman Kelley’s “Chicago: How do You See?” offered one of the biennial’s most populist entries. It was a series of white vinyl stickers applied to the east windows of the Chicago Cultural Center, each one illustrating a different window type or treatment: Chicago School windows, Metabolist portholes, and pleated curtains.

These designers were born too late to bear any scars from Postmodernism’s insurgency. (Kelley is 31.) “We love aspects of everything,” he says. “It’s so much easier with music to say, ‘I listen to everything,’ than it is to say that about architecture.”

One unique facet of Chicago Postmodernism, says David Brininstool of Brininstool + Lynch is that it’s an outgrowth of Modernism, not an attempt to tear it down. Pensacola Place is more like an “evolution of Modernism as opposed to a radical challenge of it,” he says. “If you look at Pensacola as a planning exercise, it’s very Miesian.” Beneath its pilaster capital headdress, the Miesian grid is easy to spot at Pensacola, and at the Thompson Center, where it’s ballooned up to encompass a sci-fi fantasia masquerading as a state capital atrium dome.

Brininstool’s renovation of the 18-story tower will add more amenities (cabanas, fire pits, and a new gym, according to Crain’s Business) to its public areas. But overall, Brininstool says passerbys won’t immediately notice that change has occurred. Its signature elements will remain: the tiers of circular balconies forming pilasters, the row-house outlines at the building’s base, the siding fit for a Levittown ranch house. There’s little agreement that these allusions are tasteful architecture, but they’ll be given refreshed prominence with the renovation.

It’s too early in the Postmodernism and Late Modernism preservation cycle to predict what the city’s overall attitude to it will be, but two reactions to the preponderance of Miesian Modernism seem possible. First, that in Mies’ town, Postmodernism will mostly remain rare, little understood, and orphaned. Or, this scarcity might breed a desire to preserve what little exists. Kelley says that Chicago’s relatively short (but eminent) architectural history has always made it “look over its shoulder for affirmation,” even when it doesn’t have very far to look.

 

 

 

 

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