Here's a related article from about a week ago in the Chicago Tribune by Blair Kamin:
Exercises in isolationism
Tribune architecture critic
Published October 7, 2006
I don't typically take aim at houses. But I have no problem going after the mega-mansions that have invaded Burling, Orchard and Howe Streets south of Armitage Avenue. They're not purely personal matters, like most houses. They're turning what was a vibrant urban neighborhood into a collection of bloated, physically isolated, suburban-style manses.
Let's give the houses their financial due: Most cities would kill to have billionaires and multi-millionaires putting down this kind of change instead of fleeing to the 'burbs. Besides raising property values and the tax base, the homes present an undeniable sign that this part of Chicago is highly desirable. It's just that they're killing off the architectural style and urban substance that once made this area so attractive.
The obvious targets are the elephantine homes that stretch across two, three or more lots, looking like Lake Forest mansions that were airlifted into Lincoln Park. What were the architects thinking? These bloated stone masses and their decoration-slathered facades accentuate rather than de-emphasize the houses' enormous bulk. On the other hand, maybe that's exactly what the clients wanted.
Nothing could be more different from the self-effacing 10,000-square-footer (yes, you read that right) that architect Max Gordon designed for art collectors Susan and Lewis Manilow at 1900 N. Howe St. in 1991. Its simple shape, understated brick and elegant proportions whispered. They didn't shout. These multi-lot houses, in contrast, have all the gracefulness of luxe double-wides.
But you do not need to super-size your house to commit architectural sins. Indeed, some of the worst offenders on these streets are single-lot houses whose owners have draped them in all manner of frou-frou-columns, pilasters, balusters, even fake flickering gaslights-only to destroy their attempt at elegance with sunken garages reached via a curb cut and a steeply-sloped front driveway.
The aesthetic effects are tragicomic: Monumental columns are supposed to rest on a massive stone base. They are not supposed to float above a garage door that awaits the entry of the Porsche roadster or the Range Rover. This is a new low in traditional architecture: curb-cut classicism.
Yet warped style is just the beginning of what's wrong here. The real damage these buildings do is to the public realm of the sidewalk and street. That's where neighbor meets neighbor and neighborhoods really form, a fast-disappearing attitude still in evidence in the 1900 block of Howe, where lawyer Michael Condron's handsome Victorian greets passersby with bushes, a bench, and a kid's basketball hoop. Here is evidence of human activity and people with whom you might interact.
"It's not the suburbs in the city," Condron says, referring to the way many of the new houses isolate themselves.
Just look: The high brick walls along the sidewalks, the fences that reach higher than six feet, the locked gates. They all shriek "Compound!"
And then there are those sloping driveways, which, unlike the effect at Condron's place, rid the street of the civilized buffer zones between the house and the sidewalk and substitute the equivalent of concrete moats. Not only are the driveways eyesores, they cut off the house from its surroundings. If you want to come over to borrow a cup of sugar, be sure to have the guard lower the drawbridge.
Self-aggrandizing architecture, of course, is hardly new to Chicago. In the 1880s, merchant prince Potter Palmer built a now-demolished, 80-foot-tall house at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive that was said to resemble a castle inside a goldfish bowl. Yet Palmer at least had the good sense to build along Lake Michigan, where he and his wife, Bertha, could look out at the ever-changing palette of the lake and feel its freshening breezes.
In contrast, this new Gold Coast has no coast or any other alluring natural features to recommend it. The houses rise on absolutely prosaic city blocks. No mountains, as in Aspen. No ravines, as in Winnetka and Highland Park. Actually, some of these blocks are worse than ordinary. A number of houses have no alleys behind them, which is one of the reasons for all those ugly curb cuts.
How ironic: People building gazillion-dollar houses can't even park in a garage along the alley, like the cops and janitors in outlying parts of the city. Maybe this is some sort of cosmic penalty that the Great Building Inspector in the Sky exacts for architectural overindulgence. The doors to these sunken garages look like the gates of hell.
I don't mean to suggest that all these houses are terrible, just most of them. The still-incomplete modernist home that Chicago architect Dan Wheeler has designed for Penny Pritzker and her husband cleverly masks its size and can be expected to endow the neighborhood with considerable open space. It might even match the old Manilow house, now being renovated, for elegance and understatement. Maybe. But it represents the exception, not the rule.
Many of these homeowners, it appears, contemplated living in Lake Forest, but couldn't stand the hour-long commute. So they stuffed a suburban manse into the city.
As a result, the neighborhood feels crammed to the gills instead of offering true luxury, which is about the luxury of space as well as the luxury of size. How strange-and sad-that so many could spend so much and in doing so, still cheapen the public realm.
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune