Places in Time III

This third and most likely last installment in the inadvertent "Places in Time" series looks closely at three books: the first about Chicago from the Great Depression to the mid-1980s; the second one about the broader American built landscape over roughly the same period of time; and the third jumping to Switzerland and tracing the urban development of Schlieren, near Zurich, over a 15-year period this century. All three of the books were in my roundup of holiday gift books a couple of weeks ago. The first two Places in Time posts looked at Detroit/Chicago/St. Louis and Paris/Indonesia/Flanders.

In my holiday gift books roundup a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that, of the four pieces in the subtitle to Chicago Skyscrapers, 1934-1986 — "technology, politics, finance, and race" — technology is the most prevalent throughout the book. That assertion was based on just a cursory look through the book, all I could manage at the time, but also on its relationship to architect and educator Thomas Leslie's previous book, Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934, published ten years prior. If I were doing that roundup now, having had more time to delve into the new book, I would write that politics and finance were, if not the most prevalent, the most illuminating and thoroughly discussed aspects in the book's presentation of skyscrapers over fifty years last century. Indeed, many of the drawings and photographs focus on the technical and technological aspects of skyscraper design and construction (just look at the cover!), but the stories of how certain skyscrapers came about and were shaped are rooted in Chicago's political machine, money, and the developers that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, SOM, and others worked for.

An example is in order. If any architect jumps to mind in the period covered by the book, it is Mies, who reshaped Chicago through his glass-and-steel towers but also who, through the replicable nature of their designs, reshaped cities around the world. To this day, his most notable tall buildings in Chicago are 860-800 Lake Shore Drive, the Federal Center, and the IBM Building, all boasting steel structures and glass curtain walls. But before that trio of towers (860-880 came first, in 1952) there was Promontory Apartments, completed in 1949 near the University of Chicago. Structured in concrete, not steel, and with windows sitting on brick spandrel walls rather than on the floor slabs or hung as curtain walls, Promontory is often seen as an anomaly or an awkward step toward the more refined glass boxes that would follow. But, Leslie tells us, concrete was "selected over steel because of postwar supply problems" and the brick spandrel wall was mandated by code as a means of stopping the spread of fire. Furthermore, even with the windows sitting on knee-height walls, lenders balked at their size, wondering "how people can live with so much glass" and making it hard for the developer to gain financing. One year later, in 1950, "Chicago's progressive building code eliminated the masonry spandrel wall requirement," leading to 860-880 LSD and other glass-sheathed towers designed by Mies and others.
The book's nine chronological/thematic chapters are full of similar political and financial information that greatly helps put the many notable skyscrapers (as well as quite a few apparently insignificant ones) into context. For example, chapter five, "Daley's City: Commercial Construction, 1955-1972," tackles the most powerful political player the city saw in the half-century covered by the book, Mayor Richard J. Daley. In a flip from his predecessors, "'Daley's City' sprung from investment capital," Leslie writes, "wedded to a regime intent on gaining and exercising raw power to tip the market's balance wherever it could." Early on, Daley oversaw the creation of the Central Area Plan (1958), discussed at some length in the book, and during his lengthy tenure he saw the erection of many commercial and residential towers in the Loop. But the Daley era is also when the Chicago Housing Authority shifted to high-rises and built them as segregated enclaves primarily on the South and West Sides, just about all of which have been torn down in recent years for low-rise developments. As such, the race aspect of the book makes up a good chunk of chapter six, "High-Rise Housing in the 1960s," though the subject is present throughout the book, just not to the same degree as the other three subtitled terms. 

Oddly, Leslie's book ends with a lengthy discussion of Helmut Jahn's State of Illinois Center, the 17-story building in the Loop that opened in 1985 and was renamed in 1993 as the James R. Thompson Center, for the governor who championed the project and oversaw its realization. I say "oddly" because the squat, rotund building is hardly a skyscraper, at least not in my mind. It is shorter than most buildings around it as well as others being built at the same time, such as Jahn's own 40-story One South Wacker, and does not have the vertically of most towers. So why include it? I think, in part, because it was the climax of postmodern architecture in Chicago in the 1980s, but mainly because it is a case study where technology, politics, and finance converge to the utmost degree; it's a fascinating story deeply and ably recounted by Leslie. It comes at the end of the last chapter, "After Sears," and spreads across four three-column, image-free pages; only on the last spread do we see the building, but only its exterior, not the stunning atrium it is known for. While this ending leaves something to be desired in terms of page design and illustrations, it captures the incredible amount of research Leslie managed to put into this second installment in his skyscraper history of Chicago. I'm hoping there is a next one and that it is already in the works, so it doesn't take ten more years for the rest of us to hold it in our hands.

Lost in America: Photographing the Last Days of our Architectural Treasures by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, published by CityFiles Press, November 2023 (Amazon / Bookshop)

As an architect who writes primarily about contemporary architecture but who is increasingly cognizant of the importance in saving and reusing old buildings, even going so far as to preferring adaptive reuse over new construction, I have a love/hate view of "Lost ___" books. The ones in my library tend to be about places where I've lived: Lost Chicago by David Garrard Lowe, for instance, and Lost New York by Nathan Silver. Looking at page after page of black-and-white photos of buildings that will never be again is to be transported in time, which I like, but all to often the captions border on the finger-wagging: "How could you tear down this glorious building?" they seem to be telling me, even though I played no part in their destruction. Yet, as Thomas Leslie's skyscraper book featured above reveals, even buildings loved by later generations were often not appreciated in their day. Leslie writes that Henry Ives Cobb's 1905 Federal Building "suffered from grave planning and environmental deficiencies that led to calls for its replacement almost immediately after opening." Lowe, who put the domed interior on the cover of the 2000 edition of his book, calls it "an awesome feat of engineering" with "one of America's supreme interiors." "This magnificent edifice, the most notable example of civic architecture in Chicago," he summarizes, "was wantonly demolished in 1965–66," making way for the three-building Federal Center designed by Mies van der Rohe. While Leslie helps us understand something of why the building was demolished, Lowe looks at it through rose-colored glasses, making its destruction a scar on modern-day humanity.

Photo historians Richard Cahan and Michael Williams are a bit more balanced in their description of Cobb's Federal Building, one of the one hundred buildings and bridges they gather from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) for Lost in America. They give some background on how Cobbs designed the 1905 building in the Beaux-Arts style "that was all the rage in Chicago and across the nation following the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition," where Cobbs had designed seven of its buildings. And the authors paint the picture in the 1960s, when the "once-majestic courthouse and post office had become lost in the canyons of skyscrapers" and was "covered by decades of city grime." They don't make demolition excusable, but their matter-of-fact description — of this building and the 99 other places in the book — tell interesting facts and appealing stories that do an excellent job in helping readers understand the photographs and the value of HABS. In this case, the photograph is, like the Lost Chicago cover, of the domed interior, taken in 1964 by Harold Allen, who "climbed high to the base of the dome to take this shot." Although Lost in America is limited to one photograph per structure, the descriptions invite readers to dig further into the HABS archive at the Library of Congress, where many of the photographs dating from 1933 to the present are digitized. In 1965, the dome atop the Federal Building was seen better than ever, we read, when neighboring structures were razed and opened up views unavailable before; Allen captured one such view, when one of Mies's glass boxes was already in place behind it.
HABS was created in 1933 during the Great Depression and is considered the nation's first federal preservation program. In the ninety years since, the program has documented thousands of structures in the United States through photographs — all b/w large-format film photos, even to this day, it should be noted — drawings, and other materials, all of them archived in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress alongside the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) collections, which were created in 1969 and 2000, respectively. Why, you might be thinking, was Henry Ives Cobbs's Federal Building, which was completed in 1905, not documented until 1964? From the beginning, when Charles A. Patterson, an architect at the National Park Service, drafted a proposal for what would become HABS, the intent was to document antique buildings that were "diminish[ing] daily at an alarming rate." So photographing, measuring, drawing, and documenting them otherwise often took place when a building was threatened or demolition was imminent. The cover of Lost in America shows one instance where the act of demolition was actually captured by the photographer: Jack E. Boucher at the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1963. Cahan and Williams selected the structures and compiled them in a way that the book climaxes, for lack of a better word, with buildings like Grant's cottage, which are partially demolished — photographed just a bit too late. It's a sobering end to a sobering but excellent book that shows how the unfortunate flip side of American progress is erasure and forgetting.

Urban Change Over Time: The Photographic Observation of Schlieren 2005–2020 Reveals How Switzerland Is Changing edited by Meret Wandeler, Ulrich Görlich and Caspar Schärer, published by Scheidegger and Spiess, October 2023 (Amazon / Bookshop)

Although I've been to Zurich many times since I started working with World-Architects more than a dozen years ago, I've yet to visit Schlieren, the municipality on the western edge of Zurich. It's certainly an oversight, given that the town, which sunk into a post-industrial malaise from the 1980s onwards, "suddenly" turned the tide this century and "grew dramatically, attracting new residents and architectural tourists." This according to Caspar Schärer, one of the editors of the two-volume Urban Change Over Time, who drives the point home in the next sentence: "Architectural tourists!" How bad was the situation in Schlieren before the fifteen-year turning of the tide the book encapsulates? One newspaper, in a report from Schlieren, was titled "Life in the Cantonal Trash Can" (Schlieren is part of the Canton of Zurich), per another text in the book. So, how did things change, how did Schlieren get through this "difficult phase"? 

Proximity to Zurich and the town's location along a train line connected to the city surely helped, but much of it can be attributed to planning. In 2005, the town implemented the Schlieren Urban Development Concept (STEK I), which would determine where and how growth would occur, instead of letting it happen "uncontrolled and uncoordinated." STEK I became the basis for a photo project by Meret Wandeler and Ulrich Görlich, who decided on a 15-year timeframe — not shorter — as necessary for being able to see how the urban plan would physically take shape and impact the town. By 2020, when the project was done, the town had already moved on to STEK II, a new plan based on a reevaluation of STEK I in 2015/16, but the photographs nevertheless revealed that change in many parts of the Schlieren was dramatic. 
The first of the two volumes, which are packaged in a sleeve bearing the cover shown above, is a 152-page landscape-format book with spreads devoted to the 69 locations in town that were documented in photographs over the fifteen years, typically every two, odd-numbered years (some gaps are found in some places). The consistency of the photographic framing is exceptional, owing in part to the hiring of professional photographers after the initial photos were taken by the authors. The locations are keyed to maps in the back of the book, one for 2005 and one for 2020; seen together, the photographs and map illustrate the districts where STEK I was focused, where change was most pronounced. The town is basically bisected by the east-west rail line that connects it to Zurich; the most apparent change and increased density is visible to the north, while areas close to the train tracks on the south side were also filled in. Given the broad swath of the town documented by the project, it's interesting to see places where change is not immediately evident, akin to a real-life version of those find-the-differences cartoons.

The second volume consists of essays, additional presentations of some of the photographs (focusing on typologies, on STEK I districts, the town's "building boom," etc.), and in-depth maps that help to give outsiders some orientation while also focusing on the development areas. These many pieces are presented beautifully across 480 pages in portrait format. The wide-ranging essays, which discuss the town, the project, "rephotography," and myriad other subjects, are particularly helpful but also, in the commendation of the book by the jury of the 2023 DAM Architectural Book Award, "very careful not to waste the reader’s time." The repackaging of some of the photographs from volume one is in some ways more helpful in understanding the town's urban change, since the authors use the photographs in ways that turns them into essays in their own right. The "Typologies" section, for example, groups photos of building entrances, parking lots, playgrounds, alleys, stores and restaurants, and garages, while "A New Town," which concludes the book, hones in on the places that would draw architectural tourists. Many of the photos in volume two are considerably larger on the page than the static format of volume one, accentuating one interesting quality of the photographs: they are devoid of people and other living beings, though not of signs of life. This rigorous approach, no doubt an impressive technical achievement, gives the project a strong anthropological quality and reveals that, while planning may be at the heart of the town's evolution this century, the shaping of the lives of the residents via planning was paramount.