Chicago proud to showcase its architecture
Vancouver's urban design is also well worth placing under the spotlight
By Michael Geller, Vancouver Sun June 22, 2013
I thought about those 1970 travels during a recent trip to Chicago. Like most visiting aficionados of architecture and design, I began my visit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, a non-profit organization whose stated mission is to inspire people to appreciate why architecture and design matter.
Started in 1966 by a small group of civically minded individuals who wanted to save a historic building from demolition, the CAF today offers almost 100 city walking and bus tours, including a river tour. In 2009, it opened an exhibition called Chicago Model City, which included a scale model of the central area that was so popular it is now on permanent display.
On my recent tour, I met a local resident who told me about an event she was helping to organize in nearby Oak Park on behalf of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. She forwarded me an online link - www.gowright.org - and I booked a ticket for the 39th Annual House Walkabout.
Each May, up to 2,500 people from around the world pay between $100 and $500 for a daylong or weekend pass to explore houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and other significant architects. The pass also includes access to Wright's Robie House at the University of Chicago (recently selected by a PBS Television series as one of the 10 most significant buildings in America), and Wright's Unity Temple and Rookery Building.
At each building, volunteer docents provide information about design features, as well as stories about the people who built the homes.
For me, a fan of FLW since my student days, this tour made me feel like a kid at Disneyland. It started at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, designed by Wright in 1889 when he was just 22. It is amazing. He experimented with numerous unconventional ideas, many of which found their way into later works.
The tour included the Parker House, designed by Wright for a Chicago White Sox baseball player in 1892. The outside, with its Queen Anne styling, would not be recognized by most people as Wright's work. However, the inside, with its extensive wood banding and geometric decoration, is clearly a FLW design.
The Prairie-style Adams House, with its hip roofs and large overhangs, is immediately recognizable as Wright's work. It looks a bit like a poor man's version of the Robie House at the University of Chicago, and that is because it is. Harry Adams wanted a house like the Robie House, but had a limited budget. Although the house is modest, it proves great architecture does not always have to have a great budget.
The nearby Fricke House includes a laneway/coach house linked to the main house by a continuous exterior wall. I could envision a similar design fitting quite nicely on a larger lot on Vancouver's west side or West Vancouver.
Wright's work is significant, not just for its esthetic, but also for its numerous innovations. He designed living and dining spaces flowing into one another, rather than separate rooms with doors. He included a central vacuum system and intercom; pre-wiring for telephone (a new invention); and even an exterior sprinkler system for planters, although the Robie House system froze the first winter.
Inspired by my Chicago architectural tours and the Architecture Foundation, I decided to ask on Twitter whether Vancouver might one day market its growing architectural significance in a manner similar to Chicago. A prominent Vancouver newspaperman mocked the idea, adding that unlike Chicago, Vancouver has little of architectural significance worth visiting.
I disagreed, and offered to give him a tour.
While we do not have Chicago's architectural heritage, many recent buildings and planned neighbourhoods are increasingly worthy of international acclaim. Examples include the Sylvia Tower by Richard Henriquez, adjacent to the Sylvia Hotel. Most people do not notice, but the creative design features two buildings in one. Half of the tower's facade is a replica of the hotel, while the balance is a contemporary glass wall.
In addition to Henriquez, the work of Arthur Erickson, James Cheng, Roger Hughes, Peter Busby and a score of other local architects and planners is deserving of international attention.
A number of years ago, I was a member of the Urbanarium Society, a small group of Vancouver architects and design professionals advocating for the creation of a Design Centre, which like the Chicago Architecture Foundation, would include city models, displays, and a place to meet and discuss urban issues.
Therefore, imagine my delight on my return from Chicago, when I received an invitation from Leslie Van Duzer, dean of the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, to join a midsummer night's cruise to be held June 20 to launch a new Vancouver Urban Design Centre.
This time, I hope we might be successful, so that in future Vancouver, like Chicago, can attract "design-tourists," and bring attention not just to the high price of our real estate, but also the high quality of its design.
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