MPLS (4 of 12)

A shot from my work-in-progress about housing discrimination in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis.

I’m only a few weeks away from completing my master’s degree at Medill. My thesis story — what at Medill we call a “capstone” — will deal with housing discrimination in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. That’s about all I can say for now, but stay tuned for more in just a few weeks.

A quick look at the new boom Loop apartment construction, and whether there’s really enough demand to justify all this supply.

This Saturday Feb. 15th I’ll be contributing to a unique walking tour of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The event is organized by Chicago Detours, an unconventional touring company run by my friend Amanda Scotese. I first met Amanda when I wrote about her company last year. I really liked the way she combined high-concept urban theory with a kind of entrepreneurial spirit, and I’m excited to have the chance to collaborate with her.

Here’s Amanda’s description of the event:

FEBRUARY 4 – CHICAGO, IL — In collaboration with Azimuth Projects, Chicago Detours offers “Saturated Landscape,” a special afternoon event of an art exhibition and tour in Logan Square on Saturday, February 15. This two-part experience, held at the Azimuth Projects apartment gallery from 2pm-5pm, combines an intimate exhibition of landscape-inspired works with a creative walking tour of the everyday landscape of the neighborhood.

“Saturated Landscape” is the first “Detour” of 2014, which are Chicago Detours’ series of one-off events. Both the tour and exhibition address the metamorphosis of landscapes and the emotional and social ideas we attach to nature and the built environment. The tour around regular side streets in Logan Square will spark consideration of the everyday features of the neighborhood landscape, such as lawns and Milwaukee Avenue.

Not exactly a historical or architectural tour, the one-hour-long tour will explore the ways we overlook or interpret the unseen processes and messages of our everyday Logan Square landscape and its vernacular architecture, from the habitat of rats to the social function of lawn ornaments and window arrangements. Chicago Detours Executive Director Amanda Scotese and collaborators will also talk about the profit-motivated perspective of realtors, the intricate engineering underground, and why the Midwest landscape is considered so boring.

For the exhibition portion of the event, which has been curated by Azimuth Projects Director Helen Maurene Cooper, artists Peter Cardone and Madeleine Bailey will show their works. Cardone will exhibit pairs of large format photographs that show a two-part process of first photographing an overgrown lot, and then clearing the location for a second image. Bailey’s new body of mixed media work has layered paper, photographs and paint to manipulateimages into complex abstractions that capture subtle shifts in location and time.

Because the walking tour is already filling up, Chicago Detours has added an additional time slot. Two limited groups of 18 can experience the walk at either 2:15pm-3:15pm or 4:00pm-5:00pm. The tour requires advance reservations through Guests meet at the Azimuth Projects apartment gallery at 2704 N. Whipple St. for the tour. The $12 ticket includes Katherine Anne Confections hot chocolate for the walk, hand warmers, post card gift, and a $20 gift card for a future tour of interior architecture or historic bars. Attendance to the art exhibition is free.

Chicago Detours‘ one-off “Detours” are a new approach to a tour, so that beyond a tour guide sharing stories, guests have entire experiences designed around a particular theme and often taking place at exclusive locations. In addition to Chicago Detours tour guides leading these special events, this creative tour company will often partner with organizations and experts in cultural fields will share their passion and knowledge for niches of Chicago happenings and history.

For my portion of the tour I’ll be addressing the notion of “wealth” — how landscapes are often seen as a means of generating money. Basically I plan to talk about the real estate market in a neighborhood that’s often seen as the poster child for Chicago gentrification, and what the broader implications of that phenomenon are.

I know the weather has been brutal of late, but it’s supposed to be in the high 20s on Saturday. So basically it will feel like a picnic. I hope you can join us!

Graham Thompson, owner of Optimo Hat Co., ordered a custom concrete countertop for his shop in the Monadnock Building. Concrete floors, countertops and home wares are popping up in chic homes and shops all over town. (Photo by Robin Amer)

Once maligned as ugly and utilitarian — or worse, associated with out-of-vogue architectural Brutalism — concrete is back. The bulk stuff is popular again with hip builders, architects and craftsmen, and being put to use in upscale residential and commercial interiors all over Chicago.

New feature. Read the rest here.


I’ve just wrapped up a big project for WBEZ about the history of Chicago-style bungalows. There are more than 80,000 bungalows in Chicago, which means they account for nearly one-third of the city’s single-family housing stock. And this year marks the 100th anniversary of the first great wave of bungalow building.

I created virtual tours of three bungalows in different parts of the city. You can see the inside of homes that belong to a Latino firefighter in Jefferson Park, a Polish-American couple in West Ridge and an African-American family in Morgan Park (near Pullman). That last one is especially amazing, I think, because of the owner’s story. Ingrid Sanders is the fourth generation in her family to live in the house! (Her five-year-old son is the fifth!)

I’ll also be on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift Monday afternoon at 2pm talking about the story and taking calls from homeowners.

Billy Goat owner Sam Sianis behind the register of his famous tavern. ‘We’re not going to move,’ he said Tuesday. ‘We’re not going to look for another space.’

Back on the home page of WBEZ today with my story about the potential demise of Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern. Click here to read.


CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. The Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat named this unusual skyscraper ‘Best Worldwide’ Thursday. (AP/Vincent Thian) 


Beijing locals know the building that houses China’s state-run television station by its affectionate nickname: “Big Pants.” From certain angles, the skyscraper resembles a pair of shiny silver trousers straddling the capital city.

Architecture fans the world over recognize the structure, too. The building, properly known as CCTV Headquarters, and its architect, the maverick Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, took home top honors Thursday night from the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

In awarding its annual prize for “Best Tall Building Worldwide,” the council said that Koolhaas’ creation had “singlehandedly paved the way from the height-obsessed, set-back skyscraper of the past to the sculptural and spatial skyscraper of the present.” 

The 768-foot-tall building became an instant icon when it was completed in 2012.

CCTV had to stand out, Koolhaas told an audience of nearly 600 council delegates Thursday, because Beijing’s ongoing building boom could mean an excess of 300 skyscrapers in the next few decades.

“It didn’t make sense to do a needle or to go for height,” Koolhaas said.

Instead, he and his team at the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture created an unpredictable geometric loop that shifts at every angle. From some vantage points it looks like a sleek glass “Z.” From others, it resembles a towering, angular Mobius strip.  

Koolhaas said the building’s most well known view was his least favorite, and that the structure’s unpredictability was its greatest achievement.

“Its versatility is its most modern contribution to Beijing,” he said.    

Koolhaas won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, sometimes called architecture’s Nobel Prize, in 2000. His other buildings include Seattle’s Central Library, Portugal’s Casa da Musica concert hall and the McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology. 

CCTV beat out three other noteworthy skyscrapers Thursday to win. Each had earned council honors for its respective geographic region:

At 1004 feet and 73 stories, the Shard in London is now Europe’s tallest building, collapsing 30 acres of space into a single acre of land. It took Italian architect Renzo Piano, who also designed the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, and British developer Irvine Sellar to devise a building that Sellar said would help stop the previously anti-tall building city “from becoming a museum.” 

The Bow in Calgary was so named for its shape, which is something akin to a cross-section of celery stalk. British architects Foster + Partners clustered core uses in the center and surrounded each floor with small offices, giving cubicle-dwellers access to a stunning view of the Rocky Mountains. 

Sowwah Square, the home of Abu Dhabi’s regional securities exchange, features climate control measures like a double-paned exterior glass wall that helps cool and recirculate air, and blinds that raise and lower automatically depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun, to manage temperatures that can be in excess of 115 degrees.

“I thought [making the decision] would be pretty straightforward, and it was not at all,” council executive director Anthony Wood said in a statement Friday. “It went through four rounds of voting before we decided on the winner.” 

The Council on Tall Buildings is the world’s arbiter of official skyscraper height, and also conducts research on sustainable building practices. 

The group also gave awards Thursday for innovation and lifetime achievement.

Innovation awards went to Kone Corp., a Finnish company that created a super strong, lightweight carbon-fiber rope they hope will replace traditional steel cables in high-rise elevators, and the BROAD Group, a Chinese company that has developed a modular building system that enables construction workers to snap one pre-fabricated piece into the next, almost like Legos.

Henry Cobb, a founding partner along with I.M. Pei of the international architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, took home one of two lifetime achievement awards. The other went to Chicago geotechnical engineer Clyde N. Baker Jr., who had a hand in designing the foundations of seven of the world’s 16 tallest buildings. 

Baker, who retired from the Chicago offices of AECOM in July, discussed his work on the foundations of buildings ranging from the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the never-built Chicago Spire.

“It’s ready for a building, if someone comes up with the money,” Baker said Thursday. 

The Council on Tall Buildings holds its next Chicago event, a symposium on the future of cities, Feb. 14-17 at IIT. 

Follow Robin on Twitter @rsamer. 


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