... or (Toward) A Requiem, was our winning entry to the Chicago Architectural Club's Burnham Prize Competition in 2011, which solicited ideas to reimagine and rejuvenate McCormick Place.
Given that we advocated its carefully planned, dignified death by drowning .... we were quite stunned to learn the competition results.
Effectively, our project amounted to a salute to modern architecture after Capitalism and a gentle plea for the inclusion of careful ruination as a designative category when considering (its) landmarks.
The building - an 800,000 square foot Miesian lake-front convention hall - was completed in 1970 by the then Design Director of C.F. Murphy Associates, Gene Summers, who had been Mies's right hand between 1950 and 1966. If Summers's building was originally an homage to Mies's 'almost nothing,' ours was a second homage of 'less than almost nothing.'
[Interestingly: in 1990, Summers was hired by Illinois Institute of Technology to update Mies's by then almost irrelevant curriculum. As one of our partners had studied at IIT on an exchange in that year, the proposal was also intended as an homage to the courageous, progressively-minded Summers.]
Fundamentally, yet without fundamentalism, we felt that the bravest idea for adaptive re-use would illustrate an architectonic end of life directive. So we conjured the vision of a building gently, gracefully accelerating to its end. The idea was for this emblem of High Modernism and Late Capitalism to evoke a twinned interregnum - a considered, double pause in the life of the building and the times for which it stood before their celebrated end. And so we titled the proposal (Toward) A Requiem.
Undeservedly unsung since its unveiling - its perimeter and profile crowded with the bloated mediocrity of a typical ex-urban landscape - we sensed that, if it could speak, McCormick Place would ask for an honorable, unfettered death. The derelict building would not endure or willingly survive an augmentative, program-laden assignment.
Accordingly, we proposed the transformation of this once temple of mass production and mass consumption into a stately ruin of the American Century. Such a final rhetorical act would necessarily entail its denuding to become an open-air, water-filled hypostyle hall whose ceiling was the sky glimpsed through its precise two-way lattice grid frame. This disrobing and undoing was a catalyst for assisted suicide, a harbinger of architectural euthanasia. As an open stage, McCormick Place would fittingly stage its exit, slowly towards the horizon. Gradually this stoic relic of the Ferro-vitreous phase of modernity would bravely and willfully submit to the corrosive forces of the deep body of water at its feet.
Given the reductive imperative, the will to render building to bone if you will, our primary organizational strategy was subtractive: the building would shed its envelope and almost all of its floor plates to reveal its original frame and two newly found, narrow bridges. This strategy entailed (once more, for no urban shoreline is ever 'natural') a clear adaptation of the waterfront at the east edge of the plinth to form an inlet for lake water to flow into the building. The roof cover was removed, inviting the sky to pour into the massive, orthogonal cavern of an interior. The disassembly of the floor plates created two bridges and three voids in the Great Hall, which allowed columns on the lower floor to see the light of day for the first time in decades. The newly configured bridges linked the north edge of the building and the ante-space to the north of the Arie Crown Theater. Each bridge overlooked the central void, which was emptied of all columns to create a vast, serene reflecting pool. To the east and west, the bridges overlooked column filled voids, each forming a lake-water pool with a specific restless quality. The west void was bounded at the edge by the plinth wall making for a churning, murky underworld. Conversely, the east edge of the building was marked by the beat of the column intervals framing views to the nearby Northerly Island and the distant eastern horizon.
We imagined that, in time, people might come there to swim and, buoying around its bones, some would dock their vessels. Perhaps new kinds of theater would be performed around it, and throughout it, the echoes of passers-through would ring then dissipate. And perhaps one autumn morning, we should glimpse on the unfathomable inkiness of primeval water the exacting lines of civilization trembling on its vast aqueous meniscus. Then we would be among it and it among us. There we might even resolve to go with it when its time - along with ours - would come.
On reflection: perhaps Summers, a collegiate swimmer, had shared his Aachen-born mentor’s fascination with the mesmerizing interplay between architecture and water, between perfection and the disconcertingly imperfect double of its reflection. For Mies, son of a city whose name derived from an ancient word meaning river, or stream, had on occasion devised subtly turbulent thresholds in his juxtapositions of the stable repose of frames with flickering pools nearby.
So could it not have been that many years later, Summers might have daydreamed that the building would in its final days surrender to the insistent tugging of water to become waterborne? We thought so and, poignantly for us, so too did juror Helmut Jahn, who cast the decisive vote to break the deadlocked deliberations. Jahn, who had been Gene Summers's project architect on the building, seemed to agree that the best way to hold on to it was to carefully and deliberately let it go.
We were saddened to learn of Gene's death a few months after the competition. We did not know if he had ever seen our de-saturated images, or read our 'do-not-resuscitate' commentary, but wished that if he had, he would have understood our deep admiration for him as well as the need for a silent memorial to a time of certainty and prosperity that has passed. We hoped that he might have appreciated our desire for leading his black and white edifice into a gray zone of (mis)use and eventual disappearance. At that time, we had just very recently conversed with a friend who had known Gene's son, Blake Summers, from whom he had heard a story of Mies and Summers standing at the window of 860 Lake Shore Drive. Looking out over a low-cloud covered, dimly lit Lake Michigan Mies said: "Look at those colors .... gray, all subtle shades of gray".
We dedicate this project to Gene R. Summers and Eric A. Kahn, the friend who recounted Mies's remarks on the color gray and who, sadly, very recently passed away much too soon. Both Gene and Eric were of the American Century and deeply sensitive to both the robustness and fragility of both its times and artifacts. We humbly honor them.