Changing Place/Changing Times

Published in Invisible Insurrection, Fall/Winter 2004, "Architecture, Technology & Surveillance After 9-11"

Chicago is a city known for its buildings, rather than its spaces. One thinks of the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Center, Lake Point Tower, Marina City, all remarkable examples of the high-rise as an object. Each creates a place within the city through its form, but of these examples only Marina City goes one step further and creates a space, the space between the two “corncob” towers as well as the interstitial spaces between each project element. Here, the spaces are leftover from the congested use of the site for different uses (residential, hotel, cultural, parking) within different objects (five in all). Physically it’s a fascinating place, but its relationship to the city around it happens really only at the river with a boat dock and a restaurant; otherwise its focus is internal, a city unto itself, as its name suggests.

But when one thinks of the great urban spaces of the Windy City, things are a little more complicated. Grant Park and Lincoln Park are great amenities, as are many other parks around the city, be them next to Lake Michigan or removed from its shores. These are not spaces formed by the buildings around them; they are formed by streets and natural features like the lakefront. Grant Park does have the street wall of South Michigan Avenue, a true defining element but one that disappears in many parts of the large park. Likewise the high-rise residential towers around Lincoln Park make one aware of the park’s edges, but they don’t provide its definition, per se.

One needs to travel into the Loop to experience spaces truly defined by buildings, where one can start to search for spaces that fit the definition of great and urban. But things are just as complicated in the Loop as elsewhere, most plazas being leftover spaces rather than well-designed, civic spaces. This is partly due to economics, zoning, and other factors, but also to the fact that it is difficult to create spaces scaled to the city without building on more than one block. Where this circumstance does happen is at the Chicago Federal Center, bridging Dearborn Street between Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard, finished in 1974 and chiefly designed by the legendary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

The Federal Center is made up of four structures: three buildings – the 36-story Everett McKinley Dirksen Building east of Dearborn, the 42-story John C. Kluczynski Building along Jackson, and the one-story U.S. Post Office in the northwest corner at Clark and Adams – and a sculpture by Alexander Calder titled "Flamingo." Each of the buildings is done in the signature Mies style: steel and glass boxes with articulated steel I-beam vertical mullions as part of the exterior curtain wall. Their uniformity of appearance gives the space a cohesiveness and singularity that is elegantly offset by the Calder sculpture, steel like the buildings but curving and bright red like the black buildings’ antithesis.

While the buildings that define the plaza at Federal Center appear simple, the space is anything but. Each building works together to create a total composition that would fall apart if one piece were removed, the space likewise failing if one piece were changed. Proportionally, each building works almost perfectly. The block-long Dirksen building is the shorter of the two multi-story buildings, the Kluczynski building taller but with a smaller footprint, almost like the Dirksen on its side. The 42-story building is broken vertically by a louvered band at the mechanical floors, a band that mediates between the lower Post Office and the 36-story building across the street. Suffice to say the Federal Center is a composition where the parts work together to create something larger than their individual pieces. Spatially, the Post Office is the most important structure, its low height allowing for unimpeded views of other Loop buildings, new and old. These other buildings are brought into the plaza space as the viewer gets a glimpse at the sides of buildings that the density of the Loop otherwise doesn’t allow. Around the two other Federal buildings, space is more elusive, wrapping the corners of the buildings and implied and less direct in its effect. Nevertheless it’s a powerful 360-degree composition of creating a space within the city and relating to it in a unique way. Most importantly, the space allows for public access across the plaza in multiple directions beyond the Chicago grid; there is – or more accurately was – even access through the Dirksen building to the shopping on State Street beyond.

Shortly after the attacks on September 11, 2001, concrete barriers sprung up around the plaza, allowing people to traverse the spaces through narrow gaps, but intended to secure the federal buildings from any imminent terrorist attack. At the time it was a logical, temporary measure, symbolic of the public’s acceptance of terrorism as a threat warranting some sort of protection. But, like the restrictions of public freedoms in the PATRIOT ACT, the initial barricades – and subsequent, designed solution – affects the public domain, an important aspect of our freedoms, be it through the expression of free speech and demonstration or even the freedom to walk across a plaza or take a photograph.

The first barricades, known as Jersey barriers, are a ubiquitous part of American civilization, found on highways and other roadways across the country. Usually they are involved with construction and therefore viewed as temporary, their situation at the Federal Center no different. But with terrorism becoming the number one concern for the public and the federal government (from basically nothing to everything overnight), a protective solution would require in-depth thought and time, lots of time. So the Jersey barriers would be hanging around the plaza long after they wore out their welcome. To alleviate this problem, some were painted red, white, and blue, patriotic symbols of our freedom, as much as the concrete barriers they covered. Their presence discouraged the public’s use of the space, a popular place for lunches and other work-day activities, as well as host for events like the nearby Berghoff Restaurant’s Oktoberfest celebration. The plaza went from active to dormant.

The Federal Center’s owner and operator, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), held a design charette in early 2002 to develop a solution for the plaza’s security, primarily to protect the buildings from a truck bomb. Although they had other concerns, this predicament is the most physically overt and ultimately obtrusive in terms of a solution. Driven by concerns raised from the Oklahoma City bombing, some sort of barricade would be needed to keep vehicles away from the buildings, but the question remained of how these barricades would look. Heavy planters were installed after the incident at the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, but more would be needed to ensure total security of the perimeter, while also returning the plaza to its previous incarnation as an inviting public space.

The outcome of the charette – the design that’s in place – are rows and rows of square bollards, faced in stone and just above waist height. Roughly two-feet square in plan, the bollards are spaced with room for about two bollards in between, giving the impression that there is more void than solid. Also their spacing follows the joints of the stone paving covering the plaza and surrounding sidewalks, something of which Mies would be proud. In my opinion it is trite and predictable, creating unrelenting lines of bollards that are occassionally broken by the aforementioned planters, all faced in the same stone. On a positive note, the bollards are a definite improvement upon the Jersey barriers, they do relate (albeit simplistically) to the square column covers of the Federal Center buildings, and they distance themselves from the lobbies only as much as they need to, so they don’t infringe upon the plaza space too much.

Regardless, some areas the bollards are spaced so greatly and tightly that it appears a systematic way of devising a solution superceded any site-specific concerns. This happens especially at street corners where two lines of bollards meet not at a single bollard, but a grid of about eight bollards, in order to alleviate congestion at the corner, but at the sake of creating a complex, turnstile-like entry to the buildings. This last analogy alludes to the biggest problem with the bollards at the Federal Center; their existence as a barrier, an additional layer in the public space of the plaza that impacts its use and its physical embodiment of freedom.

Previously the plaza was an unencumbered space, its most prominent occupant the Flamingo, with seating and planters scattered to help break up the expanse of paving. This situation yielded a truly free and open public space. Outside of the buildings, motion across the space was your choice, no intermediate barriers coerced or affected movement. Granted the bollards do allow movement, but they affect the pedestrian mentally by creating a psychological block to this unencumbered movement. It seems small, but it’s a hinderance of our free and public space, as much as the FBI being allowed to check credit statements without just cause is a hinderence of our personal freedoms.

Loosely defined, public space is that which is shared by all of us, an equalizer across genders, races, ages, etc. What constitutes that public space is as important as the fact it exists. At the Chicago Federal Center, we are being told that our public space (our freedom) needs to be sacrificed to make things safer for ourselves, something that most people would never argue, but also something that most people wouldn’t question; perhaps after the solution generated we need to do both.