Architect Dan Wheeler thinks bad buildings are worth a closer look. For example, "There's a building at the corner of Congress and Dearborn that's just a pure exhibition of commercial gluttony. There's no ground-floor level. It does nothing to engage with the street; it sprays granite about to make up for its lack of design." The new Dearborn Center on the northeast corner of Dearborn and Adams is equally dismal. "Its heavily tinted glass appears lifeless," he says, "making the structure into a deadweight, preventing the transparency [of the] Inland Steel Building nearby, or Mies's buildings."
This Saturday, as part of the city's "Great Chicago Places and Spaces" event, Wheeler's giving a walking tour of downtown that will include "some of the disasters as well as things I absolutely love." Among the latter are the alley sides of some buildings, which he finds are often "far more expressive than the front." The alley facade of the Plymouth Building at 417 S. Dearborn was "basically built out of pieces from a foundry that did a lot of work for Sullivan. It's covered with cast metal panels derived from his designs. Pieces like those can be found up and down streets like Wabash."
Some architectural features elude the untrained eye. Harry Weese's Metropolitan Correctional Center, a high-rise of cast concrete at 71 W. Van Buren, has "trapezoidal indentations on the facade that reflect the reinforced structure within. In most contemporary concrete buildings the lines of force are hidden from view." By making the internal supports visible, Weese echoed many of Chicago's famous older buildings, "which exhibit an honesty in terms of their structural expression."
Wheeler's one-and-a-half-hour tour will proceed according to a game he played as a child in which coin flips determined the direction of a walk. While he's not going to be rigid about it--"if we don't like the way the coin flips, we'll go somewhere else"--there are reasons for his approach. "So often we think of Chicago as being a series of important monuments, and bypass some of the intriguing things along the way, just as many people make beelines from point A to point B. It's becoming rarer and rarer to experience the chill of the air, or a drop of rain. Sometimes by purposely introducing some randomness into your walk, you'll find something unexpectedly invigorating."
"A Penny Walk: Unexpected Thrills" starts at 1:30 PM at the Fisher Building offices of Wheeler Kearns Architects. Some of the 150 other free tours offered this Saturday and Sunday are engineer Stan Kaderbek's inside view of the operation of the Lake Street bridge, architect Jeff Bone's tour of his firm's affordable-housing rehab at 14th and Morgan, and author Heather Becker's look at murals in the Chicago public schools. Registration is required and begins at 7:30 AM at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 S. Michigan, on the day of the tour. For complete schedule information call 312-744-3315 or see www.cityofchicago.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.