Battle to save Chicago's Gropius architecture has preservationists and city at odds
Marked for demolition, the modernist buildings sit on a site pegged for the 2016 Olympics.
(Page 3 of 3)
But he and others say that the buildings have increased importance because they belong to a larger group of buildings on the South Side that illustrate in a small space the birth of modern architecture. These buildings include nearby works by Wright; Louis Sullivan; and Mies van der Rohe, who designed the IIT campus, an acknowledged masterpiece of modernism.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
To Harrington, Gropius's buildings also hint at an effort more subtle than simply bringing Bauhaus to Chicago. Views of Lake Michigan and careful attention to orientation and landscaping suggest that Gropius was trying to adapt an architectural style conceived in Europe to the conditions of America. "The response to the natural world is, I think, somewhat more American than European," he says. "It's an understanding that nature is there first and we insert ourselves. The European model is that we're in a cultural landscape and adjusting it to our purpose."
Balkany had hoped to write a book about the buildings. Instead, since winter he's been leading the fight to save them. Even as the city prepares for demolition, he's still trying to rouse public opinion, organizing meetings, handing out leaflets, and appealing to architectural preservationists for help. He's succeeded, at least in part. A growing number of architectural preservation organizations have come out in defense of the Gropius buildings. But his efforts have produced no outpouring of sympathy from either city officials or the public.
That doesn't mean everyone is indifferent. Adrienne Stanley was walking her dog recently through the shade-covered grounds when Balkany approached and handed her a leaflet. "It's so sad," she says. "I loved coming over here and looking at the buildings. Why can't they use them?"
A security guard sitting in his car on the far edge of the campus echoed her sentiments. "Nobody wants them torn down," he says.
Recently, Illinois Landmarks, an organization that tries to save important buildings from demolition, offered a compromise plan that would preserve eight of the Reese hospital buildings, including four "codesigned" by Gropius. Balkany's own Gropius in Chicago Coalition plans within the month to advance a compromise of its own that would save all the Gropius buildings.
The city has talked to architects and preservation groups, but so far it has shown little willingness to compromise. Publicly, at least, it has not wavered from its contention that the requirements of an Olympic village demand the destruction of all the Gropius buildings. Molly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the city's planning department, says the city has had to move quickly to prepare the site for new construction because "we were dealing with a tight timeline."
Indeed, contractors have already cut down trees around the buildings. They have begun demolition of the interiors. On Aug. 6, the city's Landmarks Commission, while expressing support for the preservationists, voted down a proposal that it recommend placing the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
"We want to be supportive of the city," says Balkany. "But time is running out."