Endangered Nabes

National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2008 11 Most Endangered Places -- aimed at increasing exposure to particular areas and preservation in general -- includes the usual variety of buildings, "natural" features, and neighborhoods. Of the last, one each are in my current and previous homes, New York and Chicago.

The Lower East Side is characterized as New York City's "first home for waves of immigrants since the 18th century...[as] new hotels and condominium towers are being erected across the area, looming large over the original tenement streetscape." Most notably among these are Blue and THOR. But as can be seen in the snippet below (top image), less effort is being put into the design of buildings that continue to puncture the five-story "ceiling" of the area bound by Houston, the Bowery, and the East River.

The Trust's description naturally focuses on demolition and the architectural character of the place. While they do briefly mention the social and economic conditions that are creating the change (not restricted to this corner of Manhattan), it is not enough to fully acknowledge the relationship between what concerns them (loss of old buildings and the compatibility of new buildings) and what creates the situation (insurgence of money and young people gentrifying the area).

The Lower East Side is perhaps the ideal paradox for preservation: its existing building stock -- created under less than ideal conditions for those less fortunate than the new inhabitants -- is so appealing that the area becomes a magnet for people who wish to infuse their own ideas on the place. As somebody who appreciates the differences between old and new, I embrace new architecture in an old district, but that can happen at the scale of the existing fabric. BIG does not necessarily mean good.
[Lower East Side (top) and Michigan Avenue Streetwall (bottom) | image source]

Less a neighborhood than an architectural feature on an urban scale is Chicago's Michigan Avenue Streetwall, extending from Randolph (the NW corner of Millennium Park) to Roosevelt Avenue, the east-west "entry" to the Museum Campus and Soldier Field. The Trust is troubled by "the inappropriate addition of large-scale towers that retain only small portions of the original buildings or their facades," not buildings like the recent Spertus Institute, which respects the wall while departing from its materiality and regular openings.

Placing a tower at the "rear" of a building (a la North Michigan Avenue's string of mall/tower developments), as is planned with the 1893 Chicago Athletic Association building, starts to questions the limits of the streetwall's current landmark status. It sounds like preservationists want to extend protection to the west, to prevent views from Grant Park being spoiled by tall towers behind the shorter streetwall buildings.

The Trust is calling the planned effort above, if successful, a bad precedent, though I see a change to the landmarking of the district based on their argument as the same thing. It makes the argument that visual perspective dictates extent, making me wonder if every vantage point need be considered. Does a building on Wabash Avenue need to take into account a boater on Lake Michigan? Silly example, for sure, but one that gets at the point: what is it about the streetwall that's so important? To me it's the view above, the oblique view where one feels embraced by the buildings, not the frontal view from the park or lake shore. Here the "character" of the place seems to be less defined than the Lower East Side, even if the architectural definition is that much more precise.


  1. http://arcchicago.blogspot.com/2008_04_01_archive.html

    add the April 4th images
    they show how slippery a slope can be created if the oblique view argument is not well enough defined

    but I agree, the skyline can be everchanging from the lake, without taking away from the composition that is the michigan avenue streetwal


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