19 feb 19 | Offsite

Chicago’s Architecture Center Shines While Houston’s Waits to be Rebuilt after Harvey Flooding

By Geneva Vest

Where there is water, there is an American city’s neonatal lifeline. Chicago’s history pulsates upwards and outwards in buildings and roads from the mouth of the Chicago River much like Houston’s Buffalo Bayou. Though Houston and Chicago are only a few years apart in age, Lake Michigan and the Chicago River brought industry and prosperity to its banks earlier on. It was urbanized in a more methodically gridded way than Houston and in a less dense way than New York City, positioning it uniquely for architectural experimentation.  It makes sense then that one of the oldest American architectural engagement organizations, the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC), formerly the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), displays the city’s contributions in its new home, practically at the intersection of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

Look up to the second floor of the CAC and you’ll see people moving through a collaged skyline of architectural monoliths like globe-trotting Godzillas: OMA’s CCTV Headquarters, SOM’s Willis Tower, AS+GG’s Jeddah Tower, and others are neighbors here. Enormous 40:1 scale architecture models of a bleached white are lined up against the storefront’s floor-to-floor-to-ceiling glass wall (yes, that’s two floors), calling you from the riverfront, from the sidewalk, from the fishbowl of an Apple store to join their ranks.

The $12 entry is justified now that the CAC offers 10,000 square feet of exhibition. “The first floor tells the story of Chicago as the city of architecture,” says Lynn Osmond, President and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Center. The Chicago model made the move from their old location—a beaux arts foyer across from Millennium Park—and is now tucked away in a theater that allows interactive lighting simulations and a video recounting the city’s history.

Float up to the second level — but take your time because each step up the wood and glass staircase is another airy view of the river and its skyline — and the story shifts to a global celebration of “how Chicago developed the skyscraper,” says Osmond. There is a rotating exhibition space at the staircase’s mouth anchored by a slightly acute wall further pulling you into the exhibit, this one about a projection into Chicago 2050 after climate refugees and self-driving vehicles make their way to the Midwest. I found this dialogue most interesting, but the most popular exhibit by far opens up in the next room.

Turn the corner to the Building Tall gallery, and each of the walls is decorated with one narrative on The Skyscraper. The flat rendering seen at street-level becomes an inhabitable diorama of black steel pillars and white polymer models erupting from the ground. For me, I was drawn to the window that serves as the exhibit’s background. I breath in the bustle of Saturday afternoon in The City: tourists with shopping bags, sluggish Ubers burdened by traffic lights, a modest protest poised for photos across the river from Trump Tower. It’s here that I see what Osmond and Gill wanted me to see: the history of their city formed in gothic Tribune and  behemoth Trump towers. “Architecture is a living, breathing thing,” Osmond reminded me. Bumbling toddlers super-sized by skyscraper models just twice their size prove her right.

More than a pedestal for Chicago’s architecture and design history, the CAC sought to be a landmark and contributing achievement to that history. The CAC is a confluence of past and future, jutting out in this moment as an homage to American design while asserting itself towards the 2017 Chicago Biennial theme, Make New History. “We can overthink it,” says Gill, “but the truth is that [this little Center] leverages its own critical position on the modernist dictum;” elevated plazas with aspirations to make its building visible and open are no longer valid. Dialogue between architecture and its inhabitants is happening at the CAC through access to the space’s vivacious programming, put on display through a glass membrane that is more public than vacuous plazas of yore.

Were it not for Hurricane Harvey, we would have an architectural engagement hub in the heart of Downtown Houston, too: the Architecture Center Houston (ArCH). But that is a big “were it not for.” ArCH was three weeks away from completing its renovations to the Riesner Building, located just blocks away from Allen’s Landing and right on Buffalo Bayou, when Harvey made landfall.

Reading the ArCH $1,000,000 restoration campaign, I was again struck by Harvey’s incredible magnitude: the initial renovation plans were not naïve to their location on Buffalo Bayou. Murphy Mears Architects prepared the site for one foot of rainfall above the 500 year floodplain; Hurricane Harvey flooded the space eighteen inches above that mark. Now, ArCH is undergoing yet another renovation, this time employing extreme measures to avoid another super flood we feel in our guts to be coming. The primary exhibition space, the Boiler Room, is recessed eleven feet below the first floor, making for a dynamic viewing space but a complex engineering challenge. The post-Harvey plan includes one foot of concrete infill and aquarium glass in the front.

Like the CAC, ArCH’s position on the city’s historically significant waterway makes the Center itself historically significant. Where the CAC and ArCH’s relationship with their respective waterways diverge is illustrative of their city’s future. “It’s not ethical to abandon buildings to climate change,” says ArCH director, Rusty Bienvenue. Rather, it’s the responsibility as an architectural innovator to demonstrate ways to build resiliently on floodplains. The exhibit Chicago 2050 speculates that Chicago, land-locked on the world’s largest freshwater source, Lake Michigan, will draw climate refugees from America’s port cities. Could that be ex-Houstonians who’ve been displaced by repeated battering from decades of hurricanes? It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to me to think about how Chicago and Houston will continue to interact and diverge as the Texas coast punishes our settlement from centuries ago.

I wonder if architecture would be at the “cultural heart” of Downtown Houston if the floodgates of ArCH had held during Harvey? I wonder what it would be like to see a model of Houston’s downtown, all patchy with parking lots to lure in the rare tourist? I wonder what Houston architecture has that can captivate crowds the way the CAC does for anyone floating through Chicago?

Most of all, I wonder what it is about skyscrapers that captures the public fascination and is much to blame for my departure from Houston for Chicago? Growing up in a Houston suburb much of my life, I craved chance encounters in subways and public parks, nestled in the shadows of tall buildings. I graduated from Rice at the pinnacle of my appreciation for Houston, when things were beginning to make sense and I had demystified some of the city’s idiosyncrasies. But I felt it was my chance to try something else, something dense. That something so legible, so relatable, so intrinsically gratifying about looking up and seeing not the threat of open space but our creations reflecting us back—shimmering towers are themselves celestial beings who catch the sun before it catches you.

If you have any interest in architecture and have been to Chicago, then you probably know the CAC for their Chicago Architecture River Cruise. The CAC’s new location gets the same view as one floating under the Chicago skyline. It sits at the foot of a downtown office building, but this isn’t just any office building. It’s one of Mies van der Rohe’s fifteen projects in Chicago and his last, completed posthumously in 1970. Mies left his signature in gridded black steel, opaque glass and, lucky for the CAC, a practically uninhabitable plaza opening from the lobby. Its corporate front yard was raised on a cement slab just above street level, creating a cavernous and privatized jaunt into the main lobby. The CAC purchased this site and recruited a local firm with global influence, Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill Architects (AS+GG), to do the interior architecture.

Geneva Vest is a graduate of Rice University. Learn more about efforts to rebuild the Architecture Center Houston and donatation opportunities at https://www.rebuildarch.org/