Lee Bey: Interview
“Modernism has a complicated history in this city. It took the tenets of what Mies and Le Corbusier were trying to do, which was create light and air, and was used to build buffer zones to keep us from them, and them from us.”
TCD: Especially over the last several months, with the proposal for the Lucas Museum that involved tearing down Lakeside Center, you’ve staked out a position in defending modernism, even when other critics have been dismissive. For people who aren’t completely familiar with the term, can you define what modernism is, and what you think it has to offer?
Lee Bey: Roughly speaking, modernism would be architecture that, from a time frame, would include art deco, starting in the late 20s and 30s, and concluding in 1980 or so.
Its tenets are that it looks to the present and future for design cues—it doesn’t have any historical precedent. There are columns, and that sort of thing, but there isn’t this kind of applied ornament. The beauty of the building comes from the structure and the mathematics. But behind the steel and glass—which is typically what’s built, although there’s also brutalism, which gets overlooked—there’s often very interesting things happening to get open space on the inside, or a glassier front on the outside. There are smart things happening, engineering-wise.
You’ve written about the heritage of modern architecture on the South Side in particular. Is that just an interest because that’s where you live, or is there a special link between modernism and the South Side of Chicago?
It’s a little bit of all. I grew up on the South Side, and except for twelve years, I’ve spent all of my fifty years here. So these are the buildings I saw first.
What’s interesting is that in many neighborhoods, you have this interesting juxtaposition of old and new. So on 79th St., 87th St., you have buildings from the 1910s and ‘20s, and then everything stops with the ‘30s because of the Depression and the ‘40s because of the war. And then in the ‘50s, everything picks up again. So you get this mix of buildings that’s an old classic streetscape, and then a modernist building right in the middle of it.
My favorite example is Pride Cleaners on 79th and St. Lawrence. Seventy-ninth is principally a street of brick and stone and terra cotta, and then there’s this crazy modernist hyperbolic parabaloid concrete roof. It’s like, what is this? That’s what I like.
I also think that modernism in neighborhoods, South Side or North Side, is overlooked. We catalog downtown modernism: Mies, SOM, we got that. But you get into the neighborhoods, even the suburbs, great stuff is happening there that’s almost uncatalogued at all.
Is there something about modern architecture that has prevented it from “coming back”? It felt like there was a moment with Mad Men where midcentury furniture became cool again, but with homes or buildings, we’re not quite there yet.
It’s not, you’re right. I think it has two problems.
To many people, the buildings are still seen as new. I’m fifty years old. If you’re sixty, the buildings don’t register as old yet. It’s the fifty year mark where we tend to see landmarks seen as being landmarks. And these buildings are starting to do that now, but only recently.
But I think there’s also this sense that these are the kinds of buildings that replaced the Victorians, and other kinds of more friendly architecture, so to speak. There’s still resentment. So it may not be that particular modernist building that replaced a Victorian house, but there’s still latent resentment that that stuff pushed the other stuff out of existence.
I also think that the preservationist movement nationally hasn’t brought these kinds of buildings to our attention the way they should have. I was talking about this fifteen years ago in the Sun-Times. Talking about googie architecture, that these are our landmarks tomorrow. I think preservationism was slow in getting into that.
It’s a weird thing, right? I mean, they’re under threat, but the ones we know are not. Like a Louis Sullivan building, sixty years ago, was under threat whether it was at 43rd and Lake Park or downtown. Now, the downtown ones are mostly protected, and there’s a sense that it’s not an emergency.
Because no one’s tearing down Federal Plaza or whatever.
Exactly. But they are tearing down—there was this great building I found by accident in Park Ridge about six years ago. It was featured on my blog recently, I posted pictures, saying, “I wonder what happened to it.” And Frank Butterfield, the director of Preservation Illinois in Springfield, said, “I saw the demolition permit for it.”
So now you have these buildings that are both uncatalogued and demolished.
Do you think that’s starting to change, that the preservationist community is trying to get more involved? Was Prentice Hospital a watershed moment?
The thing about Prentice—it’s a great building, but it’s still the old mode in some respects. In that it’s a significant building in the city center by a significant architect. And so it’s great that they went after it, but it’s these outlying buildings, and there are tons of them, that are really in danger. And we don’t have a champion for them.
A couple things have to happen. They have to start landmarking buildings, creating landmark districts, in these neighborhoods. Places like Pill Hill, Calumet Heights, Marynook. And you know people know what they’ve got, because they keep cutting the bushes into geometric shapes. They know what they’ve got. These are potential landmark districts.
This is the kind of thing that gets people interested in the history of these places. The tax benefits help the people that live there maintain these houses. That has to be the next step. And it could happen in the north, too. The modernist business districts along Peterson or Lincoln—those are really cool, and honoring those goes a long way towards raising awareness of modernism, getting people out to see these places, and keeping them together.
So I wanted to talk about two campuses of modernism that are kind of high-profile but feel like they don’t have huge followings the way they might. A couple years ago, I went to Crown Hall at the IIT campus, and I was practically the only person there. And then in exploring that are of northern Bronzeville more, you have the IIT campus, and you have the whole Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores complex, which is also a really important early modernist development. It’s relatively close to downtown, but it seems off the radar in an odd way. Does that impression seem right?
Well, it depends on what way you look at it. Certainly the people who live in those communities, they understand what’s there.
When there was talk about Draper and Kramer adding to the buildings that were there, to fill in some of the spaces between the buildings, there was a lot of talk from people in the neighborhood about the scale and distance between the buildings. It wasn’t that they didn’t want density, it was that they didn’t want the buildings crowded out so you lost the original feeling.
Now if the larger community forgets about these buildings, that’s a shame.
But some of that is a failing of how we don’t teach architecture, not just in this city, but in this country. We don’t teach an appreciation of modernism. I’m a kid who grew up in the ‘70s, and you could still read about the Empire State Building, built 50 years before. You’re eight years old, and you hear, “That’s a great building.” Or you could hear about buildings like the Merchandise Mart. That’s taught.
But we don’t do that with modernism. We should. If any city should be doing it, it should be us. But we didn’t, and that’s part of the problem.
Chicago has such a civic culture of architecture—even if you’re not an architecture buff, you know that’s an important building, or whatever. And those sorts of modernist buildings just don’t seem included on the roster of things an average person who doesn’t live around there would know.
That’s true. And maybe you’re getting at another question, which is: Is it because they’re in black neighborhoods? If Crown Hall were on Fullerton, on the DePaul campus, it might be a different story. I think that could be the case.
It was certainly the case with Michael Reese Hospital. The modernist buildings of that campus were of a national class, and it was demolished for the Olympics. Might there have been some care taken if it were someplace north?
I pass it on the Metra every day. It’s like someone set fire to it and all that’s left are rock and ash. Would that have happened at 3300 North Lake Shore Drive? I doubt it.
It’s out of sight, out of mind for the rest of the city, and therefore it’s a problem. It’s something that needs to be improved. As opposed to saying, No, this is an asset that needs to be saved.
You sort of mentioned this before, when you said that part of the issue with modernism is that people associate it with having displaced more popular kinds of architecture. It occurs to me with IIT and Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores—both what makes them really interesting and important, to me, but also really fraught, is the social history that they carry with them.
Lake Meadows was one of the first massive scale federal-led demolitions of black neighborhoods. IIT largely expanded its campus under Mies’ plan to create a “safe zone” between it and the rest of Bronzeville. How do you celebrate that these are important and beautiful buildings in isolation, but also attached to this really awful history of how they came into existence?
That’s a fantastic question. You do that by teaching both histories.
We tend to have histories like cowboy movies. Somebody has to be the victor, and you know it’s not going to be the Indian. We shove things aside that are distasteful, and only play up the other things.
But the real history is that complex history. Mecca Flats was allowed to fall into ruin, IIT owned it, it fell further into ruin, and IIT tore it down and built Crown Hall on that site. You can’t appreciate that building without knowing all of that. Whether that’s a good thing or not, that’s for us to talk about while we’re drinking beer. But we’ve got to talk about it.
Modernism has a complicated history in this city and in all old urban areas. It took the tenets of what Mies and Le Corbusier and all the others were trying to do, which was create light and air and not have the buildings all crammed up against each other, and was used to do just that: to build buffer zones to keep us from them, and them from us.
But that’s all part of the history. Now that these buildings are of a certain age, that can be looked at and talked about maybe a little freer than it could be at the time.
The whole way we look at architecture, the way we critique and study and talk about it, needs to be—if not blown up, then dismantled into its parts. We still think of the lone genius architect who from his brow pops something, and we don’t study or push the fact that there are teams of people doing this. We look for a pristine history.
But as a result, people don’t care as much as they should. We haven’t made it relevant.
If I were to advertise a lecture on the 1968 Democratic convention and how it changed history, I bet I could fill any room in Chicago. We see complexity there because it’s taught that way. You tell a story about the glory days of Richard J. Daley, and you can’t tell that story without bringing in how it excluded people, how they got the votes, and how it made room for corruption. That’s all part of the story, and people understand that, and it makes the story richer.
That’s what we have to do with architecture. Tell it with the lumps and all, and make the story richer.
In the US in general, and in Chicago in particular, modernism is so tied to the legacy of public housing. The whole “towers in a park” is more associated with highrise public housing than anything else. And that whole model has had a kind of official rebuke, with the Plan for Transformation tearing down all those buildings and replacing them with more traditionalist developments. How does the city get past that, or does it not?
You incorporate that into the history. As the history is told, at some point we’ll see that maybe the Plan for Transformation and the desire to tear down all those buildings—which I supported at the time, and wrote about in the Sun-Times—it wasn’t as black and white as “towers are bad, let’s get rid of them.”
Because people who live in Sandburg Village live in towers, and they’re not killing and shooting each other. Why? Because they have jobs, and there are stores, and a fabric to the community that the government didn’t rip out.
Again, it goes back to the fuller story of urban planning and architecture in this city. In some respects, the Plan for Transformation—I wish it could have put into these communities the things that were missing, and kept the towers. Or kept many of them. And just enabled those things to operate better, instead of tearing them all down.
That density, those people, are gone from the State Street corridor. Twenty years on, it still hasn’t returned in any form. It isn’t middle class people moving there yet, and the people who were there are all gone.
It goes back to the same argument about what architecture is. If someone had said, the same firm that designed those towers designed these towers on the lakefront that we like, and minus the materials, they’re almost the same thing—so what are these communities missing that the other community has? If we’re going to spend billions upon billions of dollars, what can we really do to fix this?
It’s the same superficial understanding of what architecture is. Oh, people are acting bad in those buildings? It must be the buildings. When there’s more to the story than that.
And you can’t undersell the hand the city played in making those buildings as uninhabitable as they were. Maintenance was cut and contracts were awarded to people who didn’t do the work.
If you were to manage those other places the same way, at some point the same thing would happen. The people who could get out, would get out, and the people for whom it was housing of last resort would be there with other people for whom it was housing of last resort. You’ve turned the building against its occupants, and you wonder why it didn’t work out. It’s crazy.