Notes from Chicago

Visiting Chicago last weekend I thought it might be a good idea to take some notes for Spacing.  This would be, I thought, in line with Matt Blackett’s 2007 post and Shawn Micallef”s two posts from 2006, and after all isn’t it always a good idea to keep an eye on your sister (city)?  So, in that spirit, here are some “do’s” from Chicago.  Originally I thought it would be good to do an urban “do’s” and “don’ts”, but … I didn’t manage to come up with any “don’ts” in the end so looks like we’ll just have to make do with a list of “do’s”.

DO:  Many tall buildings that relate to one another.  While it is hardly an original point, it is always worth pointing out the vibrancy of a compact cluster of tall buildings.  There can so much hesitancy in Toronto around building tall that it sometimes seems like we need to be reminded of the value of heightened density, even if only from a purely poetic perspective, never mind the practical aspects.

DO:  Interesting public Art that responds to its site.  Toronto has a few interesting works, most notably the Henry Moore next to the AGO, but we also have a lot of pretty horrific attempts — at any rate nothing like this great Calder sculpture, Flamingo, which engages so skillfully with the Mies van der Rohe  building against which it is set.  Chicago also boasts a wonderful Miro and a Picasso, both of which just serve to underline the point that we need to demand more from our public art.  It is an important component of the character of a city and not something to be treated lightly.  I will be interesting for instance to see what Paul Raff comes up with for the new Underpass Park.

DO: Big shiny beans.  Anish Kapoor’s sculpture acts as a kick-ass gateway to Millennium Park.  I find the incessant corporate sponsorship to be unnerving (this sculpture, called the Cloud Gate is located in AT&T Plaza, between the Chase Promenade and the McCormick Tribune Plaza, etc., etc.) but if that’s what it takes to fund an amenity like Millennium Park today then it is pretty hard to argue with.  Kapoor apparently did not like this siting for the sculpture, but I think it couldn’t be situated better and would have been kind of lost further to the east where he had intended it.

DO:  Informal markets.  This photo isn’t the best but I think the Maxwell Street Market serves as a great example of the value of informal open-air markets, where the cost of being there is not prohibitive for small vendors, as can so often happen.  Cities really don’t need to go much out of their way to provide for this sort of phenomenon, and when they do make a point of going out of their way it can so quickly becomes “precious”.  This market, for which the city’s contribution amounts to shutting down one street and part of another, once a week, is far more ruckus than precious — you can buy anything from propane heaters to socks to Mexican wrestling masks, and while there tends to be a handful of notably hipster-looking patrons lurking about, the market has resisted gentrification, even after having been around for over 100 years.

DO:  Subway entrance covers.  We could do with some of these, although it would appear that our very own covers might not be that far off in the future.  I just hope that the TTC realizes that there is nothing wrong with the sort of understated class in evidence here.  It is possible to design infrastructure, like these handsome covers, that are neither boringly pragmatic nor going out of their way to be “flashy”.

an obvious DO:  Furry bus shelters …  Enough said?  It turns out that this was just an ad campaign that was on while I was there, but it’s pretty awesome.  Why wouldn’t Toronto want one?

Photo credits: Jeremy McGregor, Chloe Doesburg, Duncan Patterson

22 comments

  1. I love love love Chicago. It is a beautiful, exciting, outgoing city that is a model for Toronto in so many ways.

    Here’s a “don’t”, though: don’t ignore urban poverty — like most US cities, Chicago’s slums are grim as hell. I feel safe almost everywhere in Toronto, but there are plenty of neighborhoods on Chicago’s south side where I wouldn’t go at night (and I’d even be hesitant in broad daylight).

  2. Not exactly Calder caliber, and those buildings are absolutely no Mieses, but your photo reminded me of this at Yonge and Queen’s Quay:

    http://bit.ly/cauezz

  3. Andrew: are kidding me? The egg beaters are horribly located. That corner is palid and grey, in great need for some life and colour. Best someone could come up with is a steel open frame sculpture. Yeesh.

  4. “Informal markets”: we need this one especially. Not that we don’t need the others, but those are sort of agreed upon in Toronto, more or less. But this one is different. Our farmer’s market here is way too much gentrified, catering mostly to the “eat organic, eat local” crowd who do not care too much about budget.

  5. Andrew brings up what I mentioned in my 2006 posts (I think – or maybe I’ve just talked about this out loud) — that the Loop and a few other places are stunning urbanism, but there are miles and miles of Chicago that are in huge decline with massive poverty levels, etc. In Toronto we “spread around the good” so our downtown is not as killer, but our slums are, well, not nearly as slum-like. Urban socialism, of a kind.

  6. There are some don’ts:
    Don’t be quick to rip down informal markets.

    Maxwell Street Market is a shadow of what it used to be. Think Kensington, but with a much greater African-American influence, with the remaining remnants of the older Jewish population. The buildings along the street were cleared (by University of Illinois-Chicago, I believe). The original (1980) Blues Brothers movie shows the market in its old days.

    Don’t ignore neighbourhoods of urban poverty.
    Mentioned above, but I could add a few points. Cabrini-Green is being redeveloped, but not as inclusively as Regent Park, and part of that was the complex was so close to downtown to be an embarrasment. The Robert Taylor homes were imploded, but the site is still a giant vacant lot.

    And here’s another do:
    Have consistent, clean, and sharp street furniture and infrastructure. Downtown, everything’s black: garbage bins, lamp posts, traffic lights, newspaper boxes. They don’t detract from the architecture around them, unlike our love of grey metallic poles (and usually full of uncleaned wheatpaste and ugly ad bills), wood poles, ugly over-engineered plastic garbage bins and ugly yellow traffic lights.

  7. I’m not really convinced that Toronto is that hesitant to build tall – I think it is more that the pattern of development of taller buildings is different betweeen Chicago and Toronto. Ours are far more numerous but are spread out over the whole city, while Chicago’s are heavily concentrated in the central city (and their tallest are taller than our tallest). The recent refusal of Giraffe excepted, there don’t seem to be many proposals in Toronto that don’t ultimately get built, and frankly, we are building far more currently than they are (around 112 u/c here, vs. 27 in Chicago).

  8. Andrew, Shawn, Sean – I definitely agree about the urban poverty in Chicago and I think it is interesting to note how Chicago pimps out the Loop and surrounding urban area in such an obvious way compared to the outlying parts of the city. Their road infrastructure then allows people from outside the city to literally drop into the downtown without seeing what surrounds it. Toronto tends to be far more generous with its underprivileged and that is something to be both thankful for and proud of. Sorry I didn’t mean to imply that there are no don’ts in Chicago.

    Sean – I think the MS Market is evidence of an interesting and often ignored phenomenon. If it had stayed where it was it would have been gentrified beyond recognition, but because it was moved it actually maintained some of its marginal quality which was an essential part of its character.

  9. There’s also a lot more of a blending of truly public and privately owned public space. Underneath millennium park is a huge privately owned parking lot and much of what is now above it was financed via private money blended with taxpayer funds. There was also a lot of corruption involved.

    Chicago was a lot more willing to build up and cluster tall buildings closer together. They’ve got better architectural variety, as well. The city here seems more intent on keeping supertall skyscrapers toned down and air rights are more prominent here. The Trump tower had to deal with the owners of Scotia Plaza quite a bit when dealing with obstructed views and building so close to them.

  10. Sometimes the comparison of Toronto to chicago is tiring and innacurate, othertimes it’s productive. as others have said, we do some things better in T-Dot than the windy city, BUT that said, it would be so very nice to have a lakeshore walking/jogging/biking system like theirs. We’re talking MILES and MILES of bikeable, walkable paths that connect the north to the south, right beside the water. it is fantastic.

    Jane

  11. I think we should not be caught up in the things that Chicago does badly, just as we shouldn’t spend our time denigrating ourselves too much.

    That said, another thing Chicago does better than us is low to midrise infill. Most of them tend to be very urbane 3 to 4 storey modernist triplexes that meet the street and mix comfortably with their older neighbours. In Toronto, infill tends to be of the same architectural quality as the dross that we build out in 905 greenfields: faux stone Victoriana with cheap shingles and sorry excuses for front porches.

  12. I prefer to think of the “eggbeaters” as testicles. It becomes a much more interesting sculpture if you look at it like that.

  13. Jane: Are we really so far behind Chicago with our waterfront trails? Toronto has conservatively 18 km of trails on the lake now and another 5 km of a kind on the Spit. Chicago has perhaps 25? The break in the trail through Harbourfront is a frustration of course but it should get fixed. let’s just hope noone sees what a good job Waterfront Toronto is doing – and decides to cut their allowance!

  14. Chicago and New York have a long running rivalry, never mind Toronto and Chicago. Back to Daniel Burnham days.

    There is a quote that goes something like (and I forget by who): “In New York skyscrapers went up because they had to. In Chicago they went up because they wanted to.”

  15. “I find the incessant corporate sponsorship to be unnerving (this sculpture, called the Cloud Gate is located in AT&T Plaza, between the Chase Promenade and the McCormick Tribune Plaza, etc., etc.) but if that’s what it takes to fund an amenity like Millennium Park today then it is pretty hard to argue with.”

    i know you guys are a long way from the TPSC that spawned you, but…really?

  16. This is a great list. The subway entrance cover is functional and beautiful in an understated way. Sean Marshall’s comment on street furniture is a good one as well. I’ll quote it here, because it’s these subtle aspects of the streetscape that Toronto has struggled with:

    “Have consistent, clean, and sharp street furniture and infrastructure. Downtown, everything’s black: garbage bins, lamp posts, traffic lights, newspaper boxes. They don’t detract from the architecture around them, unlike our love of grey metallic poles (and usually full of uncleaned wheatpaste and ugly ad bills), wood poles, ugly over-engineered plastic garbage bins and ugly yellow traffic lights.”

    We need to move towards the sleeker black traffic signals mounted lower on the side of intersections, especially in historic low-rise areas. Our intersections have massive yellow traffic signals hung across the street in every part of the city. They often become focal points on streets, distracting attention from the often interesting buildings along the street. The same goes for overhead wires and those massive wooden poles, which block views and may contribute to poorer property maintenance and worse perceptions about architecture in the city.

    Our streetscapes are in many ways unpolished, and most major North American cities have addressed these issues to greater success, including Chicago and Montreal. We need to improve faster.

  17. We surrendered the waterfront side of Lake Shore Blvd and Queens Quay to condos.
    Chicago did it right, it’s a gorgeous area to visit.

  18. I like the egg beaters, one of the few sculptures in Toronto I appreciate.

  19. “We surrendered the waterfront side of Lake Shore Blvd and Queens Quay to condos.”

    Fill in Toronto Harbour with spoil from the subway extensions/Eglinton/Downtown Relief Line, voila “new waterfront” and the condos are merely downtown rather than harbourfront.

    Hey, it’s nothing this burg hasn’t done before…

  20. To add to Mark Dowling’s comment above, we’re still doing it at the Leslie Spit I believe, though the results aren’t nearly as exciting as a wide strip of greenspace downtown at the waterfront. What I don’t understand, is why it’s so hard for all the waterfront condo haters to move several hundred metres to the west, where some of our most beautiful public spaces are on the waterfront.

  21. I misread “informal markets” as “information markets”… interesting concept. I wonder where we could go with that….

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