Richard Nickel – photographer, preservationist, hero

“Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.”   –      Richard Nickel

photo by Nickel of the demolition of the First Regiment Armory

The archive of photographer Richard Nickel was recently donated to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Nickel is a hero in the Chicago preservation and architecture communities for his early and dedicated work to preserve and document so much of Chicago’s early architectural history.  Working throughout the 1950’s and into early 1970’s, Nickel tirelessly recorded much of the work of Adler and Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Holabird and Roche, Frank Lloyd Wright and others.  These were the ugly, dark days for urbanism and architecture in the US, as hundreds of magnificent buildings were demolished by private developers and public institutions to make way for “progress” and urban renewal.  What was lost was priceless buildings, glorious creations of great architecture and great neighborhoods.

photo by Nickel of the Rookery Building stair by Adler & Sullivan, via the Richard Nickel Committee

Nickel not only took countless photos of endangered buildings, but he was also an ardent campaigner against the kind of wanton destruction that some Chicagoans were attempting.  The demolition of Louis Sullivan’s work was Nickel’s prime target and his efforts included not only taking photos but saving actual pieces of soon-to-be-demolished buildings.  The interior of the Chicago Stock Exchange building is a part of the Art Institute, on permanent display, due his work and that of other zealots he recruited.  Louis Sullivan is now known as one of the greatest of all American architects and much of his body of work exists solely in Nickel’s archive.

Louis Sullivan ornament, photo by Richard Nickel

Nickel’s story ended tragically and in some mystery.  His body was found inside the demolition site of the Chicago Stock Exchange building, buried under a collapsed stair.   Under great risk, he often entered building sites where demolition was already underway, and his photos are often the only documentary evidence that exists of so many buildings.  In the case of the Stock Exchange, he returned many times after the official salvage operation was complete to retrieve and document.

demolition of the Garrick Theater, designed by Sullivan, photo by Nickel

His archive, some 15,000 photographs, prints and negatives, has been held by The Richard Nickel Committee and available for viewing only by professionals and academics.  Hopefully now that it is housed at the Art Institute, some of this man’s heroic and beautiful images can be viewed more easily by the citizens of Chicago, who have benefited so powerfully from his heroic efforts.

For more info on Nickel, I recommend They All Fall Down by Richard Cahan, on Nickel, his preservation efforts and those of Chicago architect John Vinci.

coffee shops, 2

a stroll through some old and new sketchbooks looking again at coffee shops

places in Boulder, Boston, Chicago and New Haven

sometimes a change of place can spur new thoughts and focused work. Rather than being distracting, there is nothing like a room full of strangers to help me concentrate. A quick sketch of just what is in front of you is a good warm up to imagining other spaces.

previous coffee shop post

brick, sustainability, and the places I’ve lived

Below is a series of photos of some of the places I have lived.  (Thanks to Google streetview for most of these).  Not everyplace is there – a house in Louisville when we first moved there, an apartment in Venice, a couple of places in Lexington, Kentucky – are missing.

A question came up regarding masonry houses and the West.  Most everything built here in Colorado for single-family residential work is wood frame construction with wood siding, even though the environment out here is not kind to wood (too much high-altitude sun and snow).  I was wondering how common that was in other places and decided to take an albeit bias survey of a least the places I have lived.

Of the 20 places shown here, there are a couple of brick suburban houses in Louisville, KY; a brick dorm and some brick apartments in Lexington, KY; a couple of brick townhouses in Boston and a couple of brick houses in New Haven; some brick apartments and a converted storefront in Chicago.  The lower images are from Colorado:  a small frame house in Boulder, a log cabin in the mountains above Boulder, a wood-framed townhouse and then a partial brick suburban house in Boulder.

Maybe because I was obviously drawn to apartments in old, brick houses as a young adult, they’re heavily represented.  But overall, I think my experience is probably not that different from many others, moving from suburbs to cities and back to suburbs again.  It may be a regional expression or possibly a recognition of the age of building stock, but the paucity of masonry in the West is striking.  The number of older, quality buildings in Colorado is pretty thin, but this may not be the region as much as the relative youth of most of the buildings here.  I’m afraid in an society with increasing demands to make short-term capital, the idea of creating a building to last generations has simply died away.  Even the older, brick suburban houses that I grew up in Louisville have a solidity and permanence that a wood-frame and sided house can not invoke.  So I think looking at these images, it is not the region nor the suburban/urban/rural nature of the structure, but rather its date of construction that has most influenced the use of materials.  Hopefully with a  renewed interest in the environment, we can recognize that the most sustainable building is one that lasts the longest.

brick, sustainability, and the places I've lived

Below is a series of photos of some of the places I have lived.  (Thanks to Google streetview for most of these).  Not everyplace is there – a house in Louisville when we first moved there, an apartment in Venice, a couple of places in Lexington, Kentucky – are missing.

A question came up regarding masonry houses and the West.  Most everything built here in Colorado for single-family residential work is wood frame construction with wood siding, even though the environment out here is not kind to wood (too much high-altitude sun and snow).  I was wondering how common that was in other places and decided to take an albeit bias survey of a least the places I have lived.

Of the 20 places shown here, there are a couple of brick suburban houses in Louisville, KY; a brick dorm and some brick apartments in Lexington, KY; a couple of brick townhouses in Boston and a couple of brick houses in New Haven; some brick apartments and a converted storefront in Chicago.  The lower images are from Colorado:  a small frame house in Boulder, a log cabin in the mountains above Boulder, a wood-framed townhouse and then a partial brick suburban house in Boulder.

Maybe because I was obviously drawn to apartments in old, brick houses as a young adult, they’re heavily represented.  But overall, I think my experience is probably not that different from many others, moving from suburbs to cities and back to suburbs again.  It may be a regional expression or possibly a recognition of the age of building stock, but the paucity of masonry in the West is striking.  The number of older, quality buildings in Colorado is pretty thin, but this may not be the region as much as the relative youth of most of the buildings here.  I’m afraid in an society with increasing demands to make short-term capital, the idea of creating a building to last generations has simply died away.  Even the older, brick suburban houses that I grew up in Louisville have a solidity and permanence that a wood-frame and sided house can not invoke.  So I think looking at these images, it is not the region nor the suburban/urban/rural nature of the structure, but rather its date of construction that has most influenced the use of materials.  Hopefully with a  renewed interest in the environment, we can recognize that the most sustainable building is one that lasts the longest.

Bruce Graham, architect

On March 6th, SOM’s Bruce Graham passed away.  He was the architect of countless buildings, some not so good, some among the very best architecture created in the last fifty years.  His work in Chicago was most dear to him, especially the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Tower. Both of these are thrilling buildings, but in my opinion they don’t hold a candle to his best work, designed with Walter Netsch, the Inland Steel Building.

glass reflections in the Inland Steel Building, Chicago, IL

It is notable that Graham’s work, like the best of the SOM work, was a close collaboration between architect and engineer, working in the same firm, starting projects at the same time.  The list of accomplished architects from SOM is long:  Gordon Bunshaft, Walter Netsch, Pietro Belluschi, Myron Goldsmith, etc. However, the work of engineer Fazlur Khan, probably the finest engineer of his generation is what really marked the best of SOM’s work.

As an homage to Bruce Graham, let me put here a small quote from him in an interview with Detlef Mertins, (at http://www.som.com):

“Let me describe the difference between my idea of architecture and a lot of other architects.  Number one, architecture is not painting or sculpture.  Architecture is much more like music, which has an element of time.  Architecture is about space and movement.  It’s four-dimensional.  I learned that very early when I went to Chartres Cahtedral. I walked up the hill and found the square and then the church and walked in, and this fantastic space opened up.  There was a funeral, and they were playing Mozart’s unfinished Requiem.  I had to cry.  Moving through that space with that music was unbelievable.  Space is what architecure is all about.”

Beautiful.

coffee shops

In really cold weather, the only place left to sketch is in coffee shops.

and the steamy heat fogs the windows and the only thing left to draw is the place itself.

These are from various sketchbooks over twenty years or so.  Boston had a great many spots that were a nice respite from the damp and cold, Chicago a good number, but Boulder’s 40+ coffee shops must top the latte/capita list.

Do I have anything to say about the architecture or design of these places?  Not really, I go there to take a break from it and do some mindless sketching.

different cities, different art?

This is a quick watercolor sketch I did last week of the Chicago skyline from the north side of Belmont Harbor.

this view is always interesting early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the sun is shining on either the left or right side of the buildings.  The distant view is possible because of the distance that the harbor entrance creates, making a layer of Lincoln Park trees run along below the layer of tall buildings.

Different cities inspire people in different creative mediums.  I think of New York as a writer’s town.  By far the most sketching I have ever done was a two-year stint working in Boston.

Maybe the picturesque plazas and squares in Boston establish those views for sketching in a way that the grid of streets in New York and Chicago doesn’t allow.

The watercolor above  is a bit unusual in that most of my looking around Chicago has been done with a camera.  The hard, straight rationality of Chicago’s grid of streets and the regularity of office windows may lend itself more to the shifting light and perspective best captured on film.

I’ve now lived in Boulder longer than I did in Chicago.  And so, Boulder’s medium of expression?  I guess I’m still working on that.

Crown Fountain, Millennium Park, Chicago

Millennium Park in Chicago has become a very interesting foil to the Art Institute.  The band shell/amphitheater by Frank Gehry is a bit disappointing (too 2-dimensional), but the Crown Fountain is one of the best pieces of public art in the city.  Designed by Jaume Plensa, the fountain is two 50 foot high glass block towers with video projections on their facing sides.  The projections are faces of people from the wide spectrum of citizens of Chicago.

In warm weather the fountains ‘spit’ a stream onto a slate plaza, usually filled with kids playing in the stream.

On a recent trip to Chicago, the Midwestern rain had the fountains turned off, but the reflection in the plaza doubled each image, making a kind of visual skyscraper to join the others in the city.

Crown Fountain 02

north tower

Crown Fountain 01

south tower

photos by Mark Gerwing

IIT Design Center, grad school project

I was recently doing some archive clean-up and ran into some images of a project I did at grad school.

The proposal was for a new Design Center at IIT on the campus in Chicago.   In the course of the project, I worked largely in model, with the overall design being a very long, narrow building surrounding the ‘L’ tracks as they approach South 35th.   The large model was built in a series of segments:

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It seems I don’t have a photo of all the pieces linked together, only an earlier schematic model:

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This all seemed like a slightly wacky idea in 1993 – surrounding the train and making building along it.

In the Fall of 2003, Rem Koolhaas’ new IIT Campus Center was completed, a 530 foot long complex surrounding the elevated tracks in the center of the campus.

GoogleEarthimage

KoolhaasScaledSouthboundtrain

Not that my work was that good, and a very different aesthetic, but a similar response to the same problem – how to take a massive dividing element and use it to create a unifying element – utilize the most difficult and problematic proposition of a project as the focus of a solution.

projects under construction, Boulder, Colorado

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In the midst of a dismal economic environment, we are lucky to be staying busy with a number of projects in design and five in construction.

Four of the under-construction projects are in Boulder, Colorado, with another in Chicago.  Each is a combination of addition and renovation, with clients engaged and willing to transform their current house into something more.

We are getting started on another project outside of Eldorado Springs in Colorado, and possibly another in South Boulder.  Both of these projects are in the early design phases, with each house seeing a combination of renovation and addition to better accommodate growing families.  In one case the family has young children growing out of their small rooms, in the other a family is growing as older parents move back in with their adult children.’

As usual, in all of these projects we are projecting into the future.  However, the multi-generational work of the homes highlights the transitory nature of the house, allowing a home to be a changeable, flexible space endowed with memories and dreams, not merely a fixed architectural object.

It is also good to see construction activity humming along at each jobsite.  Carpenters, masons, electricians, etc. are all busy working.  Our drawings become the conduit through which local tradespeople can thrive.  Each line on paper, each note, is a task, a livelihood.