Manufacturing Consent

A worker takes a break from his shift at Finkl Steel. Photographed in 2013. (Robin Amer)
A worker takes a break from his shift at Finkl Steel. Photographed in 2013. (Robin Amer)

I have a new story out in Belt Magazine today. Belt tackles the future of so-called “Rust Belt” cities from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Cleveland to Chicago. My story is about the future of the Finkl Steel site, which up until last year was home to Chicago’s oldest steel maker. The site is enormous — 28 acres of prime real estate in the heart of the city. My piece explores how it managed to stay industrial for so long despite rising real estate prices, and what might happen now that the steelmaker has vacated the premises.

Update Jan. 30:

I was a guest on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift earlier this week talking about the story. Here’s the audio, in case you missed it.

Concrete is back with an elegant vengeance

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.

100 years of Chicago bungalows


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.

“No one talked about the f***ing Cubs curse here in the ’70s.”

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.

‘Big Pants’ wins big prize from Tall Buildings council


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.

How has Chicago’s coastline changed over the decades?

The aerial photo on the left was taken in 1925, facing south over Chicago’s lakefront. The curvy stone breakwater being built into Lake Michigan foreshadows the photo below it, taken just a few years later in 1928. By then, the breakwater had been filled with earth and Chicago had a new lakefront park.

2 - Burnham Park landfill circa Apr 1925
Burnham Park landfill, 1925 (Courtesy of Chicago Park District)
3 - June_15_1928_Filling_Operations_south_lakefront_looking_north
Burnham Park landfill, 1928 (Courtesy of Chicago Park District)

This is just one of the surprising ways Chicago’s lakefront has changed over time. Did you know that Grant Park was once a disgusting lagoon filled with dead livestock and other debris? Or that the Gold Coast was once a sandbar filled with brothels and saloons? Or that we once sold the lakefront to a railroad company? Or that Richard J. Daley wanted to build an island in the lake 20-miles long? Chicago history is full of politics, surprises — and a lot of dirt.

I’ve been reporting this subject for WBEZ’s Curious City, and my story is finally out today. Check out the story here, the rest of the incredible photos here and an amazing collection of historic maps provided by The Newberry here. Other than coming away with a much better grasp of Chicago history, and a renewed appreciation for how complicated planning and development always is, one of  the best part for me was talking to the Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic Blair Kamin, and to Lois Wille, who wrote the book Forever Open, Clear and Free. Both Kamin and Wille are Pulitzer Prize winners — and great interviewees.

I’ll also be on the Afternoon Shift with Rick Kogan today at 3:45 p.m. I’ll post the audio later, but tune in if you’re around! Miriam Reuter, the woman whose question spawned the story, will join us as well.

Update 12/13/12: If you missed it, here’s the audio from my appearance on The Afternoon Shift. Editor Shawn Allee described me afterwards as sounding “geeked.” I think he’s right!

Amplified Test 1 – Azhar Usman

Azhar Usman jokes that he looks like “that guy from LOST. Not the Indian one, the fat one!” The Chicago comedian uses humor to poke fun at racial stereotypes, referencing his own life as the child of Muslim immigrants growing up in mostly Jewish Skokie.

Usman recently did an extended set in front of an intimate audience at Chicago’s Th!nk Art Salon as part of their ongoing War & Peace exhibit.  Usman performs regularly alongside a Rabbi/comedian in a show they’ve dubbed the Laugh in Peace Tour.

The evening took a surprisingly deep and personal turn when Usman shared a story about learning to parent four young sons inquisitive beyond their age.


Click here to hear Usman’s entire set at the Th!nk Art Salon, recorded by Chicago Amplified.

Rehabbed, A Punk Rock Dive Grows Up

Depending on whom you ask, the Fireside Bowl is either simply the bowling alley in Logan Square, or the best punk rock club Chicago ever knew.

In its venue days it was falling apart. It was loud. It stank to high heaven, and the men’s bathroom had no doors and no seats. It was punk rock to the core.

In 2004 it shed its punk rock past, ceasing shows in favor of recreational bowling. Fans of the space thought they’d never see another show at the Fireside.

But in June the venue began a trial run of shows, attempting to cultivate patrons during its slow summer season.

I went to a recent show with the Chicago News Cooperative’s Meribah Knight to ask what made the Fireside a punk rock legend.

Read Meribah’s print piece and see a gallery of photos at The Chicago News Cooperative or at The New York Times!

Editor’s Note: Hooray! I am EXTREMELY happy about this piece. It’s my first freelance multimedia piece, period, and it’s for the CNC and the freaking NEW YORK TIMES. I am really pumped. Also it was fantastic working with Meribah. She’s such a great writer and reporter, and was so easy to work with. I’m doing the happy dance at my desk right now.

I also want to thank everyone we interviewed, especially John Benetti, who connected us with so many great folks; Martin Sorrondeguy, who is an incredibly inspiring guy; and Annie Strong, who gave me a ton of old photos and music files which were invaluable in making this piece. Rebecca Ann Rakstad and Patrick Houdek also made their photo collections available, which again, was amazing and much appreciated. Thank you so much!

More Barbershop

The barbershop project continues. I’ve been back twice more now to shoot b-roll, take a lot of still shots (which I plan to “animate” and set to music) and to interview Bert. On Saturday I was joined by the awesome and talented Siri Bulusu, who I learned has a great eye for photography.  She also took some cool behind-the-scenes type candid shots of me filming. Here are some of them.

Bert is never without his blue tooth.

Barber Dan’s feet in the foreground. I learned that he’s been at Carter’s pretty much since the beginning, and came to Chicago from Greenville, Mississippi in 1954. Wow. Talk about old school.

This is Farah, age 30, who has been coming to the barbershop since he was 2 years old.  He boasted that percentage wise, he thinks he’s been coming here longer than anyone else. (A claim some of the other customers loudly contested.)

And here’s Siri, photographing Bert with a customer! Thanks Siri! You’re invaluable. And of course, thanks as always to Bert & co.