You'll lose the blues in Chicago

I can tell you this is true. Chicago is almost plumb in the middle of the USA between the Atlantic and the Pacific, but it has its own great mass of fresh water, Lake Michigan. I know it’s fresh - I tasted it!

It’s where the skyscraper was born, and still lives, where the great architects Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe were nourished and flourished and living architectural giants Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano and Helmut Jahn are revered.

Millenium Park has been developed, over the last 10 years, in the centre of town and on reclaimed land in an area ‘for the people’. Many schemes were mooted and the final result is superb: completely contextual, tied into its place and dynamic. For me the cherry on top is the soaring Pritzker Music Pavilion, pictured below, and submitted to the municipality as an art piece because, as a building, it exceeded permitted heights! With fixed seating for 4,000 people it connects to the park with a great lawn’ where a further 11,000 people can sit and attend concerts. The sound system is fed overhead with a tubular trellis, which defines the area.

There in the back row one sees the spaces for wheelchair users; a seat and a space, a seat and a space. Easy to get to but, during a standing ovation, the wheelchair user is at a disadvantage. I am being picky in this criticism. Millenium Park has won a prize in the US as the most accessible music venue in the country. The toilets are well signed and there are no safety issues in the case of an emergency. All concerts are free so the obligatory turnstile is absent. Where seating occurs there is a concrete paved floor with a broad apron of paving on all sides and the aisles are ramped. There are NO steps.

Access to the art Institute to the south of Monroe Street is via a pedestrian bridge. No one calls it a ramp but it actually is ramped at about 1:24, and leads from the 2nd floor of the Modern Wing to the grounds of the great lawn. Not shown on the map the bridge is at right angles to the street and in line with the west side of the music venue. Architecturally this bridge is the critical connection, gently embracing the two spaces, both exciting prima donnas, but far enough apart not to compete.

Mies van der Rohe is the “Less is More” man. This is where he had the greatest influence, as he was the head of the School of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology, on the South side of Chicago. One of his first commissions here was the Campus itself in the period 1938-1958. I had a chance to look at this again. The simplicity is stunning. It has all been recently refurbished and is looking fresh. To this campus has been sensitively added two buildings by famous architects which respect the Mies buildings and, in addition, are accessible.

These days America uses the phrase “ADA compliant”. I don’t favour this approach as it smacks of condescension. It certainly isn’t Universal Design. Mies van der Rohe’s buildings, though mostly not equitable, are absolutely flexible, simple to use, perceptible, tolerant for error and requiring low physical effort.

One of the buildings that complies with all Universal Design principles on this campus is the chapel. It is commonly called “The God Box” because it can be used by all religions, or even as a secular building! It is, as usual, a simple rectangle. It has open ends west and east with entry on the east. There is a simple top-hung screen at the “altar“ end with a cross on it that slides out of the way to make it a single space.

It is deceptively plain with light coloured facebrick, English Bond, inside and out, no visible buttresses, flat roof, dark terrazzo floor with stainless steel jointing, an acoustic ceiling and is carefully positioned in relation to the other buildings, so that it is anchored. There were chairs designed for the space, but they are not there now.

Good aesthetics, which include all the principles of scale, proportion and balance make people tolerant of design problems. As they say ”More usable but less aesthetic designs may suffer a lack of acceptance that renders issues of usability moot.” For myself, Universal Design should not tolerate sacrifices or compromises. One hesitates to touch these pieces of architecture to advance our promotion of Human Rights.

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