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The University of Chicago is often praised for its rigorous academics, its serene location in an enclave on South Side, its superb bookstores and museums, and its traditional ivy-laden, collegiate atmosphere. It is less frequently cited for its impressive collection of buildings designed by notable modern, postmodern, and contemporary architects: Henry N. Cobb, Holabird & Root, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, SOM, Murphy/Jahn, César Pelli, Rafael Viñoly, Jeanne Gang—and the list goes on—are all represented on the campus. In October 2015, Chicago–based Valerio Dewalt Train Associates (VDTA) joined these prestigious ranks with their Gordon Parks Arts Hall, the latest addition to the University of Chicago Laboratory School.
Located at the southeastern corner of the university campus, the Lab School occupies two square blocks. The eastern block is dedicated to a playing field and sports facilities, while the academic buildings sit around the perimeter of the western block. The new arts wing is given pride of place along the north side of the block—being the first thing one sees as one approaches from the north, east, or west, this VDTA addition is the new face of the South Side prep school.
Set back from the street, it faces Scammon Garden to the north and the Lab School’s central courtyard to the south. Both are important exterior spaces used for recreation and instruction, and are extensions of the Main Lobby gathering space. The Scammon Garden in particular elegantly responds to the architecture; a simple green field meets the main entrance in a ripple of concentric circles, as though the building were a stone dropped in a pond of grass.
From the north, the building appears as a long rectangular form made of Indiana limestone and glass. This continuous curtain wall is intersected by an irregular procession of rectangular masses, or “vertical solar chimneys,” which punctate the long facade and recall, abstractly, the buttresses of a gothic cathedral. The limestone carries around to the east and west facades, connecting the hall materially to its context—the Lab School’s original limestone building was designed by James Gamble Rogers in 1896—while glass-enclosed corridors connect it to the existing structures that flank the new wing on the east and west ends.
The building has spaces for music and visual and performing arts education for the middle school and high school students. Arranged along the north side of the building, all the classrooms are treated to floor-to-ceiling glass and a wash of natural light. Visual arts and music are designated to the upper two floors with studio and rehearsal spaces as well as digital media labs. On the first floor, there are classrooms for the performing arts, a formal art gallery for the display of student work, the Studio Theater, used for cinema screening, and the 250-seat Sherry Lansing black-box theater that doubles as a sound stage. According to the architects, Gordon Parks Arts Hall is a symbol of the Lab School’s commitment to multimedia literacy and “should be understood as a place where work is created by hand, and then shown to a larger, real or virtual audience using every possible media imaginable,” said Joe Valerio, VDTA design principal.
The most prominent feature of the first floor is the 750-seat assembly hall for performances, meetings, and special events. A large cylindrical drum, the hall dominates the double-height lobby and intersects the southern wall of the building, jutting out into the courtyard. It is the one interior volume that makes its presence known externally, signaling its importance beyond the arts program and for the school at large.
While the architects refer to the project as “emphatically modern” in its formal articulation and in its “seamless connection between the outdoors and the interior,” it has a distinctly postmodern flavor. The east and west facades are marked by a gabled roof profile and a fenestration pattern which mimics the adjacent neo-gothic towers of Belfield Hall. This explicit contextual gesture mixes somewhat incongruously with the north facade, a modernist curtain wall that seems to buckle under some invisible pressure—is this a nod to the deconstructivist fold, or simply a flex of the firm’s digital muscles? Either way, the historicist references and not-so-subtle collage of architectural styles suggest the building belongs to a strain of contemporary-corporate design, a neo-postmodernism, where modern architecture is no longer the primary mode of expression but rather one among many styles to reference, mimic, and embellish.
In his new book, Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury, author Larry Millett reminds readers: “Midcentury modernism was more than just a style. At its heart, it offered the prospect of a world unchained from the past. Behind the movement lay a whole way of thinking about how to live, work, and play in the new suburban communities that sprang up after World War II.”
Perhaps never more so than in Minnesota, where a burgeoning, postwar population in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul began to sprawl beyond city boundaries across the fields and prairies, in large part because of the tract houses built quickly and inexpensively by Orrin Thompson Homes. Young couples could afford to marry and raise families in the new ramblers and drive their new cars on new highways connecting their cookie-cutter suburbs with new shopping malls and office buildings.
In fact, Millett opens his book with a 1953 image of Minnesota’s first cloverleaf highway interchange, built in 1937 just outside of Minneapolis in a soon-to-be first-ring suburb. There’s an argument to be made here: that midcentury modern—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is suburban. In his book, however, he covers not only modest suburban ramblers, but also how the reach of midcentury modern encompassed a remarkable array of architectural typologies in locations (rural, suburban, and urban) throughout the state—consider Marcel Breuer’s church at Saint John’s Abbey and University (Collegeville); Eliel Saarinen’s Christ Church Lutheran (Minneapolis); Eero Saarinen’s IBM Building (Rochester); the Northwestern National Life Insurance Building by Minoru Yamasaki (Minneapolis); and Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center (Edina), the first enclosed shopping mall in the United States. Midcentury modern also encompasses Ralph Rapson’s Guthrie Theater (razed), along with such no-less-venerated venues as the Terrace Theatre in Robbinsdale (mothballed), the now-iconic Dairy Queen in Roseville (still dishing up soft serve), and St. Paul’s Porky’s Drive-In (razed).
In addition to the square, affordable rambler, midcentury modern birthed other housing types, from the long, one-level ranch house, to compact metal Lustron homes, to the flat-roofed, glass-walled, open-plan, architect-designed residence. Millett includes 12 such “high-style” homes throughout Minnesota—by Frank Lloyd Wright and Twin Cities’ architects Elizabeth Close, Ralph Rapson, and Gerald Buetow, among others. But his investigation goes even deeper.
As Millett also points out, midcentury modern, which dominated architecture and design from about 1945 to the late-1960s, “penetrated like oil into the social, political, and cultural machinery of the times.” So while delving into these projects and more in a nearly 400-page book rich with photography and illustration, Millett also places Minnesota’s love of midcentury modernism in a broader context.
He traces Minnesota’s development and practice of midcentury modernism to three sources or “strains.” One was the work of such European architects like Adolf Loos, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, the Saarinens, Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier (“who was very fond of American concrete grain elevators, a building type invented in Minnesota in 1989”). Millett describes how these architects’ work and influences, combined with elements of art deco and art moderne, produced such Minnesota architects as Rapson—a proponent and practitioner of the International Style.
California’s ranch houses (even though their emphasis on outdoor living didn’t translate well in Minnesota’s tough winter climate) and the corresponding commercial version (affectionately named Googie) were the second source of influence. A third strain apparent in Minnesota’s midcentury modernism was the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, particularly his Usonian houses. Millett goes on to add that materials developed during World War II—laminated wood trusses that were used instead of steel, as well as prefabricated structures and prestressed concrete—also influenced the design and construction in midcentury modernism in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Despite these influences, Millett stresses that, “midcentury architecture in Minnesota was mostly a homegrown product.” Today, many of buildings designed by local and regional architects are sorely in need of preservation. The former architecture critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Millett is an architectural historian whose previous books include Lost Twin Cities and Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities. Both books, as their titles suggest, discuss the architectural treasures Minnesota has lost to the wrecking ball.
Millett’s new book concludes with a call to action. Though the “architectural legacy of the midcentury era in Minnesota is decidedly mixed,” he writes, citing instances of “drably utilitarian” public buildings, “excesses of urban renewal” in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and ill-planned suburbs, “the time has come to look at ways to protect significant works of the period.” Many of these works are now eligible for National Register of Historic Places designation.
What need to be saved, Millett continues, are not just individual “high-style homes” and the churches that have become “masterpieces of American architecture,” but entire neighborhoods of midcentury residences. The problem, he continues, is that “architectural modernism, especially in its high-style manifestations, has always had an elitist aura, and the general public has never really warmed to it.”
Minnesotans, with their no-nonsense approach, nonetheless cultivated a singular midcentury sensibility worth saving.
The UN Plaza Hotel Ambassador Grill and Lounge, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo and completed in 1975, cleverly uses mirrors and lighting to create faux skylights that help transform the basement space into a theatrical yet tasteful dining room that feels surprisingly spacious. If Mad Men aired for another few seasons, we surely would have seen Don Draper brokering international ad deals in its velvet banquettes. Maybe that would’ve helped cultivate some romantic attachment to the spaces, which are now under threat.
The hotel was renovated and rebranded as One UN New York in 2012 by owners Millennium Hotels and Resorts, who announced the second phase of their renovation last November, promising “the debut of a new restaurant and bar concept.” It was a call to arms for preservationists, who were further alarmed by reports that exploratory demolition was underway in the Ambassador Grill despite a lack of permits. The reports were disputed by Millennium, who closed the restaurant last year and said that no decisions have been made.
Opponents of the presumed renovation are seeking to protect the restaurant, as well as the hotel lobby—a decidedly postmodern hive of reflective glass and marble completed in 1983—by having them designated interior landmarks. In early January architecture advocacy group Docomomo US filed a Request for Evaluation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission and have created a petition to raise support for an expedited public hearing. To qualify as a landmark, an interior must be 30 years old, publicly accessible, and have a “special character” or historical import that gives it cultural value. Those against landmarking call the spaces ugly and dated; those in favor argue that they are some of the most intact and significant late-modern spaces in the city and an exemplar of Roche’s use of mirrored glass, which he pioneered in 1962 while working on Bell Laboratories for Eero Saarinen.
Of the 117 interior spaces that have earned the landmark designation since it was initiated in 1973, only four are restaurants, including the Four Seasons, which has been threatened despite its status. Currently, the “youngest” interior landmark is Roche and Dinkeloo’s 1967 Ford Foundation, so the actions of the commission are particularly important because they’ll set a precedent for the preservation of late-modern and postmodern architecture in New York.
In lieu of a Draper-esque pitch to inspire careful action moving forward, the comments from the 1982 Pritzker jury seem apt: “In this mercurial age, when our fashions swing overnight from the severe to the ornate, from contempt for the past to nostalgia for imagined times that never were, Kevin Roche’s formidable body of work sometimes intersects fashion, sometimes lags fashion, and more often makes fashion.”
A new exhibition, "Atomic Fusion: The Zen Artistry of Michael Yurkovic," showcases the work of Michael Yurkovic, principal at Park Ridge, Illinois–based Atomic Miniature, who creates 1/12th scale models of midcentury modern (MCM) design classics.
Yurkovic, who is a a member of the International Guild of Miniature Artisan, offers select works from his portfolio of MCM and Atomic Age furniture and design at the D. Thomas Fine Miniatures in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Inspiration, Yurkovic says in a press release, comes from the work of Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, and his own career as a successful toy and game designer.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9THrTmoYis
Using thermoform plastics, high quality hardwood, molded plywood and vinyl, Yurkovic makes all his models by hand. His creations embody the lifestyle associated with MCM design which Yurkovic openly embodies, while additionally, they act as inspiration for further projects, contributing to the meditative space Yurkovic uses to work in.
This results in a Zen-like ethos with a focus on simplicity. Consequently, Yurkovic seldom revisits projects to tweak or make modifications, relying on his intuition rather than, as he says, "fixating on a goal or conventional thinking."
Darren T. Scala, a fan of Yurkovic's work since they met at The Guild School and miniaturist and owner of D. Thomas Fine Miniatures said: “I am excited to showcase Michael’s unique interpretation of the MCM movement. His creation of classic MCM features are rarely seen of this quality in the world of fine scale miniatures and I am so pleased to showcase his work in my gallery.”
The exhibition will run from March 5, 2016 through May 1, 2016 and on the opening day, an all-day Master Class will be on offer to those who want to learn about period design and create their own MCM shadow box. The day after, on March 6 from 3-6 p.m., Yurkovic will also discuss his vision and creative process at a special Open House.
One of the oldest art institutions in the United States has just been given a makeover. After nearly six years of planning and two years of reconstruction, the reopened 125-year-old Milwaukee Art Museum has been completely remodeled and reconfigured. New and reorganized galleries, a reopened entrance, and closer connection to Lake Michigan completely change the museum experience. Most recognizable for its Santiago Calatrava–designed Quadracci Pavilion, which opened in 2001, the museum also boasts a 1975 David Kahler wing and the 1957 Eero Saarinen War Memorial Center. The remodel focused on the two older structures.
Included is a new 20,000-square-foot addition, informally referred to as the “East End,” designed by the Milwaukee office of Minneapolis-based Hammel, Green and Abrahamson. Clad in copper and zinc panels, the addition extends the roof top terrace, on which Saarinen’s War Memorial sits nearly on the edge of Lake Michigan. From its cantilevered upper level, the interior includes floor to ceiling windows that provide an uninterrupted shoreless view of the lake immediately below. This relationship to the lake was lost when the Calatrava wing was added, and the windows of east facade of the Kahler wing were removed. Along with reintroducing a lakeside entrance—also lost at that time—the all-glass lower level includes a small-plate cafe just steps off of the lakefront walking path.
“We wanted to fundamentally change the experience,” remarked museum director Daniel Keegan at a press conference before the opening. “We have turned the museum on its head.” While maintaining much of the exposed concrete work of the Kahler building, nearly every gallery wall in the museum was repositioned and every piece of art rehung. The new configuration allowed for 1,000 new works to be put on display, upping the number of overall presented works to 2,500. The design untangles the circulation of the formerly labyrinthine space and created new galleries for Photographic and Media Arts and 20th and 21st century design out of former administration offices. The result is a museum that is hardly recognizable to anyone that has visited in the past.
Like so many other Rust Belt cities, Milwaukee is in the process of reinvention. Considering the $34 million spent on this new investment in the museum, it would seem that Milwaukee is placing its bets on architecture and the arts as a way to attract tourists, as well as locals, to its downtown.