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December, 2019

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Best In Architecture In 2019: Notre Dame Saved, Wright Honored, Old Post Office Revived

It was a year of stark contrasts in architecture: The burning and near-destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral versus the revival of once-decrepit buildings like Chicago’s Old Post Office. A group of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings finally achieved global recognition yet the world lost several noted design figures, among them I.M. Pei and Chicago’s Stanley Tigerman.

Building boomed. Quality was hard to find.

Here are the projects and events that stood out in 2019. Plus some notable losses.

Wright buildings take their rightful place: In a step that was long overdue but still welcome, eight buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright were named to the United Nations’ list of the world’s most significant cultural and natural sites.

Located in six states and completed between 1909 and 1959, the buildings placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List include the bold concrete structure of Unity Temple in Oak Park and the Prairie style masterpiece of the Robie House in Chicago.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a Chicago-based non-profit that seeks to preserve and protect Wright structures, spearheaded the nomination in cooperation with the U.S. Interior Department.

Separately, the Robie House reopened to the public for tours after a meticulous $11 million-plus restoration by Chicago’s Harboe Architects. Credit for that transformation also goes to the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, a Chicago-based non-profit that conducts tours of the Robie House and other Wright sites.

Unity Temple in Oak Park in 2017. It was one of eight buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright named to the UNESCO World Heritage List. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Heroic firefighters save Notre Dame: One of the worst days of the year was April 15, when fire ravaged the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, toppling its delicate Gothic Revival spire and destroying its wood-supported roof. But there was a bright spot: The courage of French firefighters, who saved the great medieval monument.

“Some, at the peril of their own lives, went inside the (Cathedral’s) northern tower to protect it from flames at a moment when it could have collapsed at any time,” the New York Times reported. “The decisive moment saved the structure.”

French President Emmanuel Macron gave the firefighters the medal of honor for their courage, a fitting reminder that buildings have many protectors.

*** 2019 News Year in Focus *** PARIS, FRANCE – APRIL 15: Smoke and flames rise from Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, collapsing the spire. The cause is yet unknown but officials said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images) ** OUTS – ELSENT, FPG, CM – OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD ** (Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Images)

New life for Chicago’s Old Post Office: After sitting empty for more than 20 years — an eyesore that straddled the Eisenhower Expressway — the Chicago’s Old Post Office welcomed its first tenants after an $800 million-plus redevelopment.

Headed by Chicago office of the global firm Gensler, a team of designers turned the hulking structure, built in 1921 and the early 1930s, into hip office space without sacrificing its historic character. They restored the building’s once-crumbling art moderne facade and its elegant main lobby. They even retained corkscrewing mail chutes.

It remains to be seen how well the giant building works as an office space, but kudos are nonetheless in order for the designers and the developer, New York-based 601W Cos.

Skylights span the multi-level atrium at the Keller Center at the University of Chicago. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

At the U. Of C., an architectural oddball is revived: In another successful transformation, the Chicago firm of Farr Associates remade an exotic 1962 building by Edward Durell Stone at the University of Chicago. Now the vibrant headquarters of the U. Of C.’s Harris School of Public Policy, it’s been renamed the Keller Center.

The $80 million project buffed up the once-decaying exterior of the temple-like structure and rendered it more welcoming. Inside, the architects tore out floor slabs and inserted skylights to make once-constricted spaces into expansive spots to study and exchange ideas. Farr Associates worked on the project with Chicago’s Woodhouse Tinucci Architects.

A happy marriage of public housing and a public library: In Chicago, public housing has rarely been associated with good design. But there was a notable exception in 2019: three new structures that combined affordable housing and Chicago Public Library branches.

The best of them, in the Irving Park neighborhood, was designed by Chicago architect John Ronan and developed by Evergreen Real Estate Group. Brightly colored and crisply geometric, it proved the value of the concept called “co-location,” which joins a library with another type of building to lower construction costs and boost library attendance. (The other co-location projects were designed by Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Perkins+Will.)

Independence Library on Elston Avenue is part of a building with both a Chicago Public Library and public housing. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

A moving memorial to victims of gun violence: One of the highlights of the third Chicago Architecture Biennial was a memorial to victims of gun violence around the U.S. Designed by the Boston office of the MASS Design Group, the memorial consisted of four house-like structures that displayed in the biennial’s Beaux-Arts headquarters, the Chicago Cultural Center.

The design was a crystalline beauty, its glass walls covering wood honeycombs in which mementos of gunshot victims were displayed. The project poignantly made the point that the victims should be remembered as people, not anonymous statistics. The architects hope that the design, a prototype, will evolve into a permanent display. It remains on display as the biennial continues through Jan. 5.

A new look for old lobbies: Among the many remakes of ground-floor lobbies in downtown Chicago, some of which are hideous, one stands out: The redo of the south-facing lobby at the twin-towered CME Center office building, 30 and 10 S. Wacker Drive.

Shaped by Chicago’s Krueck + Sexton Architects for the building’s New York-based owners, Tishman Speyer, the project transformed a mausoleum-like 1980s lobby into a socially vibrant gateway. Distinguishing features include undulating perimeter glass walls and petal-inspired ceiling. An expansion of the project is due to be complete next year.

The new beach house at Gillson Park in Wilmette is a small building with a big impact. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Small is beautiful: Another modestly-scaled project, a public beach house in Wilmette, showed why Chicago’s Woodhouse Tinucci Architects has been able to make a specialty of little lakefront buildings.

The serpentine beach house offered a case study in how a small building can achieve a distinctive presence yet disturb as little precious land as possible. The resolutely modern design was highlighted by a peaked trellis of Siberian larch that sweeps over five small concrete structures. The beach house and new landscaping dramatically enhanced the suburb’s Lake Michigan shoreline.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery at 646 N. Michigan Ave. In November in Chicago. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

The cathedral of caffeine: The world’s largest Starbucks, which opened in the old Crate & Barrel store on North Michigan Avenue, didn’t just appeal to Chicago’s appetite for being the biggest and the tallest. It delivered a shot of retail theater that made it one of the finest flagship stores on the Mag Mile.

Designed by an in-house team led by Starbucks Chief Design Officer Liz Muller and Vice President Jill Enomoto, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery Chicago, as this emporium is known, respected the modernist Crate & Barrel store by Solomon Cordwell Buenz yet gave it a fresh identity. Here, the playful industrial spirit of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” met the sophisticated Scandinavian modernism championed by Crate & Barrrel’s founders, Gordon and Carole Segal.

At 896 feet, with 76 occupied floors and 800 apartments, NEMA Chicago (center) is the city’s tallest rental tower and a major new skyline presence. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

A bold addition to the skyline: Chicago’s high-rise building boom has yielded more architectural quantity than quality. A notable exception is the new NEMA Chicago tower, which, at 896 feet, isn’t just Chicago’s tallest rental skyscraper but also gives the Near South Side a new landmark. New York architect Rafael Viñoly’s design creatively reinterprets the muscular setback style of Willis Tower while clean-lined interiors by New York’s David Rockwell draw inspiration from Chicago’s street grid and the building itself.

Finally, too many goodbyes: The design community lost an unusual number of major figures in 2019. In Chicago, notable deaths included Stanley Tigerman, a leader of the “Chicago Seven” architects who challenged modernist orthodoxy and opened the way for a more inclusive view of Chicago architecture. We also bid farewell to Lois Wille, the trailblazing reporter, editorial writer and author who wrote the influential book, “Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront.” And we lost Franz Schulze, the prolific art critic and author who wrote biographies of architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.

Other notable architects who died were New York’s I.M. Pei, the globe-trotting modernist who brought new life to the Louvre with a giant glass pyramid; Cesar Pelli of New Haven, Conn., who designed the Malaysian twin towers that took the world’s tallest building crown from Sears (now Willis) Tower; and Kevin Roche of Hamden, Conn., whose credits include New York’s Ford Foundation headquarters and Chicago’s Leo Burnett Building. Pei and Roche were winners of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field’s highest honor.

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