10 most 2008

April 2, 2008 Blog, Chicago Buildings Comments (0) 1035

Today Landmarks Illinois released its 10 Most Endangered Landmarks list for the state, which includes two iconic sports stadia from two eras: Wrigley Field from 1914 and the U of I’s flying-saucer-like Assembly Hall from 1963. Wrigley has been in the news because of the endless string of trial balloons being floated by Tribune owner and 1980s real estate baron Sam Zell, who wants to sell the park and thus floated a balloon saying “Relax landmark status” which got a cold shudder from Mayor Daley and today’s listing.

The idea that you need to relax landmark status must be born of ignorance: WITH landmark status Wrigley just expanded its bleachers onto the sidewalk and it could easily dig out the dugouts, which are comically small. They could probably even wedge more skyboxes in. Has Zell seen all the Chicago Landmarks façade projects underway? Did they think this one through or do any homework?

I don’t go to sporting events much anymore, partly because I’m old but partly because they used to be about the sweaty reality of sport and the stadiums reflected that: cold, dingy forests of I-beams rank with bodily excretions and excitement. Now they are high-style, quiet penthouse suites with dessert carts, wall-to-wall carpeting and anime athletes on Jumbotrons, adopting comic book superhero poses until the ACLs pop. In contrast, I think of Lou Gehrig’s hands, a jumble of dozens of untreated fractures and a paycheck that couldn’t keep him from summer barnstorming.

There. I got romantic and nostalgic. But I know that world is long gone. So, switch to hard-nosed economics: Modern sports are segregated by class. The rich watch from suites in the park while the punters watch on TV. Stadium revenue consists of these two streams: skyboxes and TV rights. The grandstands and bleachers that defined historic sports stadiums are basically obsolete, unnecessary and perhaps uneconomic features that require monetization through devices like Soldier Field’s seat licenses.

Assembly Hall is another story all together, what with its Jetsonian modernity. Yet it is also obsolete. Yesterday we heard about Lake Meadows from the Draper and Kramer group, and those 1950s buildings are obsolete as well. This should not surprise us, since obsolescence was in fact a GOAL of all industrial production in the 1950s and 1960s, as it is today.

Preservation, the sweet science of sustainability, rejects that goal. It is our challenge to find new uses for old buildings because they give us knowledge, identity, and free materials. That old 1914 fossil is essentially the same challenge as that 1963 fossil: to beat back built-in obsolescence and craft communities with continuity.

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