Washington Library was the end of a long, sad saga where the greatest
priority wasn't making a great building, but risk management.
In the mid-70s the
central library had been exiled from the Shepley,
Rutan & Coolidge palace on Michigan Avenue it had occupied since
1897, with an explanation that the collection had outgrown the building.
But the mad rush
to vacate bore all the marks of a land grab to demolish the building and
replace it with a skyscraper, since there was no new library - more capacious
or otherwise - to move into. The books were boxed up and sent to a "temporary"
facility, the old Mandel Building warehouse behind and south of the Tribune
Tower. (The story goes that it was only at Sis Daley's urging
that her husband, Mayor Richard J. Daley, decided not to discard the ornate
old library, but restore it as the current Chicago Cultural Center.)
The temporary warehouse wound up being the library's home
for 13 years,
until 1988, when its owners decided to demolish the Mandel Building to
make way for the new NBC Tower. Once again, the 4,700,000 items in the
library's collection were packed up and hauled to yet another temporary
facility, a loft building behind the Merchandise Mart. Administrative
offices were set up at 1224 W. Van Buren, almost two miles away.
In 1981 Mayor Jane Byrne held a design competition for a new library only
to scuttle the results in favor of carving a library out of carcass of
Goldblatt's store, now the DePaul Center, on State between Jackson and
Van Buren. That idea was killed by Mayor Harold
Washington. There were concerns that the floors of the 1912 building
might not be able to bear the weight
of the books, but ultimately, people - and the press - were starting to
rally around the idea that the city deserved something better.
A second design competition was launched in 1987, with a set of rules
that almost guaranteed mediocrity. Most design competitions are won on
the quality of architectural design, but that wasn't the "Chicago
The city, anxious
to end the embarrassment of a temporary central library that had the persistence
of a cockroach, was committed to to opening its replacement by 1991, less
than three years away. It wanted to ensure not only that the job would
be finished on time, but that it would also avoid the kind of massive
cost overruns the city had suffered on recent mega-projects at McCormick
Place and O'Hare. Entrees to the competition would follow the design/build
model, where the architect is a part - sometimes little more than window-dressing
- of a team where the contractor, not the architect, was the primary player.
The quality of the design became less important than the quality of the
document that detailed how the contractor would be able to construct the
proposed building within the $140,000,000 budget. All extra costs would
be the responsibility - not of the city - but of the team behind the winning
It's quite possible
to get good architecture out of the design/build model, but it's even
more likely the result will be the kind of bargain-basement dreck like
the plug-ugly condo towers that have risen in the last several years like
toxic weeds in River North.
Unlike Seattle, Chicago
relegated its librarians and library board to a
secondary role. The rules of the competition were so unappealing that
first stage became amazingly simple: having expected to have to narrow
hundreds of entries to five, the jury received only six submissions. (By
comparison, the competition for the new Ford
Calumet Environmental Center and the Graham Foundation competition
the lakefront north of Hollywood Avenue each drew more than 100 entries.)
The five library finalists were put on display at the Cultural Center.
(You can still see models of the four runner-ups in far southeast corner
of the Harold L. Washington library's 8th floor; the model of the winner
can be found in the "Called to Challenge" exhibit on 9.)
Public comment was solicited. Within the first several days more than
people filled out cards. Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp favored
design by Dirk Lohan, grandson of Ludwig
Mies van der Rohe. The public was
reported to have favored a modernist if impractical design from Canadian
Erikson. A design by Helmut
Jahn that leaped the el
tracks was the last to be eliminated before the 11-person jury decided
the entry submitted by Hammond
Beeby and Babka, the firm of Chicago
the time architecture was still in the throes of postmodernism, which
was less about creating a valid new architecture than about indulging
(anything-but-Mies) reaction to the profusion of brain-dead knockoffs
of his sleek glass towers. Skyscrapers were sprouting ironic versions
pediments and arcades, creating an architecture that was based more on
parodistic commentary than original thought.
Beeby, the highly capable architect of the Sulzer
Regional Library on North Lincoln and the new Harris
Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium
Park, presented a design that in some ways stripped postmodernism
of its excesses. It was restrained to the point of torpor, its brick facades
ponderous, its elegant glass curtain wall relegated to the side facing
the alley. In 1993, Beeby's restraint received a deliriously goofy counterpoint
with the installation of gargantuan owls
on the roof that looked like they'd
just flown in from a Batman movie. Contradictory
and confused, the library was a clear reflection of its time.
For all of the building's bulk, "There's no there there," as
once said of Oakland. The interior is unrelentingly gray. Even the great
hall on the ground floor, with its mezzanine and central opening to the
floor below, is so square and colorless that it feels not so much invitingly
spacious as uneasily claustrophobic. You have to travel up a sequence
of three escalators just to get to the main entrance floor, and even there
many of the shelves have had their books replaced with potted plants.
The six middle floors that hold the books are spacious, open and bright.
alcoves, one of the design's strongest inspirations, line the east wall.
There's no central reading room.
The graceful, light-filled
Garden, one of the city's great interior spaces, is curiously disconnected
from the library proper. It seems more like a separate banquet hall, designed
primarily for revenue-producing rentals, than a library amenity. The escalators
that link the book floors don't reach it - it's accessible only from a
separate escalator and set of elevators buried deep in the building. The
rich forest depicted in Beeby's original rendering is today a handful
of lonely trees. On
a recent visit, the Winter Garden's only occupants were a single pair
of men sitting at an isolated table. If you start wandering around admiring
the features of the faux classical villa facades that make up the walls
(a restrained tribute to John Eberson's atmospheric
movie palaces of the 1920's?), a kindly security guard may come over to
ask if you've gotten lost looking for something else.