Ben and Zaha and Frank in Chicago

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Okay, after all the text-heavy posting of last week, a rambling picture-heavy post today. I was in Chicago two weeks ago to appear on a panel and to catch up on developments since my last visit in May. One of those developments was the completion of two temporary pavilions in Chicago’s big outdoor showroom, Millennium Park. One is by Ben Berkel’s Amsterdam-based firm UNStudio…

UNStudio Pavilion, Millenium Park, Chicago, 2009/all photos: Lacayo

UNStudio Pavilion, Millenium Park, Chicago, 2009/all photos: Lacayo

…the other from the London-based firm of Zaha Hadid…

Zaha Hadid Pavilion, Millenium Park, Chicago, 2009

Zaha Hadid Pavilion, Millenium Park, Chicago, 2009

So I went over to take a look.

The pavilions were commissioned by the city to mark the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s famous Plan of Chicago, which mapped out the future for the city, its waterfront and spaces like Millennium Park. What I like about temporary pavilions is their uselessness. They’re basically big thought balloons, a chance for architects to think in three dimensions about unconventional forms that may or may not find their way eventually into the built world. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the way Frank Gehry’s pavilion last year outside the Serpentine Gallery in London included bleacher-style seating, so it worked as a hangout, not just a spectacle. But in the end I don’t need these things to be much more than eye candy.

And in that department Hadid’s was a bit of a letdown. She performs brilliantly when she cares to. But this pavilion? It’s ok. It consists of multiple panels of white fabric, zippered together over a ribbed framework that was sufficiently complicated to build that the first fabricator gave up and the pavilion was delayed by seven weeks. This is usually a good sign. Hadid is a big admirer or Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese fashion designer behind Commes des Garcons, and her zippered pavilion definitely had an architecture that seems to be playing games with certain kinds of ingeniously constructed clothing. It’s another of Hadid’s coiling “liquid forms” that brings to mind urban street patterns, but also in this case seed pods, pontoon fenders, jet engines and, oddly enough, one of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Cars. But…

I’ve seen pictures of it at twilight, when it’s lit from within and functions as a little theater for a video about Daniel Burnham by the London artist Thomas Gray. It looks a lot more enticing in those pictures than it does in daylight. But the real problem on the day I visited was the presence of chain barriers and a uniformed guard inside the relatively small interior space, which was something of a buzzkill.

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They were both there to keep people from climbing the walls or slashing the fabric — there have been serious maintenance problems at both pavilions. (I would credit Gehry again for understanding that his London pavilion was a public space, so it would need to withstand ordinary wear and tear, which its wooden bleachers did nicely.) And though the guard in Hadid’s pavilion was perfectly polite to everybody, it’s a small interior space, and with him taking up a good part of it, you got the feeling you were in the world’s most avant-garde guardhouse, a sort of 21st-century sentry post.

Though it has to accommodate the same chain barriers, the Ben Berkel/UNStudio pavilion, which is also lighted at night, looks pretty interesting in ordinary daylight…

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Despite being made from harder surfaces, it has more voluptuous sight lines…

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With the way it plays its billowing middle forms against its rectilinear roof and platform, like a two-sided cookie with a marshmallow center, it also seems to be a commentary on the two main kinds of architectural form — straight lines and flowing ones. And especially because of that all-white palette, the color associated with Le Corbusier, I thought of it as a hybrid of Corbu’s right-angled Villa Savoie period and his later, much more swelling Ronchamp moment. Then again, with its big creamy udders it also seemed to be playing games with Surrealist bio-morphism and maybe even the idea of sensuality squeezed by rationality.

Whether any of this was on Ben Berkel’s mind I don’t know. What are critics for if not to go out on a limb? What we do know is that in a statement that appears on a sign at the site, Berkel credits a Chicago inspiration — the cantilevered roof of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House that’s located on the campus of the University of Chicago.

This reminded me that I hadn’t been to visit the Robie House since 1999, when it was in a state of serious disrepair. Since then there’s been a long, $10-million-and-counting effort to restore the place to its 1910 appearance in anticipation of its centenary next year. So I grabbed a train down to Hyde Park to take a look.

It was obvious right away that the exterior was much improved over the last time I was there. The elegantly exterior brickwork had been cleaned and repointed.

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And the plaster on the underside of Wright’s famous cantilevered roof had been cleaned up.

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Right now they don’t permit interior photography at the Robie House, which is still a work in progress, particularly on the lower level. At the Robie House website they have an interactive page that fills you in about what they’ve done so far, though the pictures of the interior are about a year out of date.

If you get to Robie House yourself, notice that the relatively new building that’s now across the street, the University of Chicago business school designed by Rafael Vinoly, rears its head up in deliberate tribute to Wright’s cantilever.

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