Glass is the new painted concrete

Much has been written about the glut of painted concrete monstrosities that started sprouting in Chicago's River North in those halcyon days of the 1990's building boom. Lynn Becker cogently summed it up in his Chicago Reader piece "Stop the Blandness", while also helping to put a stop to the trend.

Back then, people at City Hall pushed what they thought the mayor wanted: neo-traditional brick and stone boxes. Of course, with tight budgets, high rise residential developments tended to end up as painted concrete enclosures with punched windows sitting atop massive, unfriendly parking garages, a far cry from traditional. Since then, a few things have happened reversing this trend: the zoning ordinance was rewritten with new parking requirements (among many other things), the Chicago building code developed its own energy code, and the mayor came to embrace contemporary architecture. These had the effects of, respectively, masking parking structures behind pretty facades or other uses (such as townhouses), requiring more efficiently insulated enclosures than painted concrete, and making glass and metal walls the enclosure of choice.

So now we have Magellan Development and Loewenberg Architects - the greatest proponents of the old trend - designing glassy buildings and hiring small design firms to doctor up the exteriors of their buildings. But as much as I like this new-found embrace of contemporary architecture and glassy buildings, I can't help but wonder if it's just a new wrapper for the same old thing. And with few of the latest glass residences complete, it's difficult to say if the final product measures up to the drive behind this change from painted concrete to glass.

Much of this thinking was spurred by a few new developments that caught my eye as I flipped through the free daily rag at the Italian deli down the street. Below are some brief comments on each.

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R+D 659

The first is R+D 659, located at the corner of Randolph and Des Plaines and designed by the neo-Moderns at Brininstool + Lynch. Even though the rendering is fairly preliminary, it gets the main idea across: glass is class! We can see many of the elements characterizing this new wave of residential developments: cleverly enigmatic name, full-height glazing, horizontal spandrel panels, inset balconies, and a bold design gesture, in this case a red ribbon rising from the lobby to the top of the building.

The advertising pushes the development as "Residential Daring", though I fail to see what's daring in the design, one that resembles many other glass boxes either under construction or in the works.

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The second one is Emerald on Green Street by Pappageorge/Haymes. This project sets itself apart by billing itself as a "green" project by "using environmentally-responsible materials...unit finishes feature eco-friendly paint and products such as bamboo flooring and beautiful fabrics made from recycled fiber...even our marketing materials utilize recycled paper and soy inks." But unfortunately this commitment to sustainable design doesn't extend to the building exterior, a mix of full-height glazing, protruding balconies, and natural stone accents at the corners. While it's not clear if the project is aiming for LEED certification, it is clear that "green" is limited to product selection and doesn't go where it needs to go, towards reducing energy consumption through design and alternative energy sources.

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The third and last project goes by the nauseating name SoNo. It's located just South of North Avenue and is designed by Booth Hansen, who also designed MoMo. See a pattern? While the newspaper has a pretty picture of the sales center model, the project's web page is limited to an abstracted elevation, meaning today's discriminating buyer doesn't really need to know what their future home will actually look like. These twins seem to be almost kissing, a condition that will make for reduced privacy in the end units staring into the adjacent end units. Which of course makes me think of the oft-repeated phrase, "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." In this case you shouldn't throw stones, because the people across the way can throw them right back at you.


  1. Why the disdain for Booth? Or is it the Smithfield machine that bothers you? Personally, I kind of like that they're giving their towers names that are far more inventive than "The Streeter" and "The Pinnacle." Also, how can you be sure that those end units will be glazed on their adjacent facades?

    Just playin' Devil's adv here.

  2. I don't have a problem directly with either Smithfield or Booth Hansen. Their partnership seems to yield some distinct projects. My crack was more about the neo-NYC naming (SoHo, NoLiTA, TriBeCa, etc). There's gotta be something out there between these sort of names, the ones you mention, and just numbered addresses. To me, MoMo isn't so bad, kinda goofy in a way, not too serious about itself. But SoNo just doesn't do it for me.

    As far as those end units, your question gets to part of my point: they're selling units but have very little information on the building available. (Oops! Just realized I forgot to provide the SoNo link. Just fixed it so now it's there.) Browsing their rather difficult unit plans, it looks like those end units will not only have glazing but balconies facing the units across the way. I wonder if you can jump from one to the other?


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