Unconventional McCormick

Courtesy of Mohamed Sharif*

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McCormick Place East is in a difficult position. The building’s opaque rectangular faces emphasize its awkward, ominous beauty and its massive overhanging roof gestures towards its peculiar environment. Immediately before its northern façade stand some of Chicago’s greatest cultural landmarks, and one of the most lauded skylines in the world arises to the west. Just beyond the parking lot, miles of uninterrupted green space unfold from its southern elevation, packed with runners, picnickers, and tourists. In 1836 it was mandated that the lakeshore would be “forever open, clear, and free,” but McCormick Place East violated this promise. To the east, waves on Lake Michigan break on the outer edge of Northerly Island, a reminder of the once natural state of the building’s site.

For forty years, the imposing edifice of McCormick Place East has loomed in this context. But now, amid concerns of structural problems and inadequacy as an event center, the future of the structure is now in question. For the architects, environmentalists, politicians, and everyday people who have long disputed the building’s merits, the chance to decide what will become of the exhibition space has been a long time coming.

The first iteration of McCormick Place was a source of contention from the moment the foundation was laid in 1960. Chicago’s first permanent exhibition hall, the original McCormick Place aggravated tensions between those in the convention business and the Near South Side residents living nearby. Robert McCormick, the Chicago Tribune editor for whom the convention center is named, was the biggest advocate for the building’s Chicago lakefront location. Using his wealth and influence, McCormick, nearly single-handedly, pushed the issue with politicians and civic groups.

McCormick died in 1955, before he could ever see his dream of a Chicago conference center realized. His campaign was taken up by other Tribune figures, including longtime editor George Tagge, who combated both Chicago Park District Board officials concerned for the lakeshore and other interest groups attempting to slow the project’s progress. In his memoir, Tagge remembers the Tribune’s influence on the the development, as its major opposition. “It was a controversy of major size…the basic rock-hard opponents, if they could get nothing else, they sought to delay, delay, delay, delay because if it was delayed long enough the millions of dollars piling up in the State Treasury would, over a period of years, find some other outlet,” notes Tagge. “The Exposition Authority was essentially under our control…One of the main battlegrounds was of course the Chicago Park District Board itself. They had to make available the requested 40 acres of land with all kinds of hell breaking loose around them…And horror of horrors that [McCormick’s] widow…Marilyn McCormick was aiding the objectors. She had been quietly enlisted by the people protecting the lakefront.”

Despite the host of detractors, and perhaps with some degree of coercion by the building’s main champions, the hall was ultimately constructed in 1960. The original building, just as massive and rectangular as the modern version, was constructed primarily of steel, with stark concrete faces interrupting the formerly unadulterated view of the lake–much to the chagrin of those in favor of maintaining an open lakeshore. When the building burned down just seven years later, critics and open space advocates had barely begun to dream up alternative locations before Richard J. Daley had settled on the construction of a new convention center to be built atop the ashes of its predecessor.

The task of designing the structure was given to Gene Summers, a former associate of Mies van der Rohe, the Chicago-based legendary pioneer of minimalist architecture. The new hall was erected in just a few months in1971, primarily thanks to the massive amounts of money funneled into the project from cigarette and horse-racing taxes via the creation of the Metropolitan Fair and Exposition Reconstruction Fund. Stylistically a far cry from the its forerunner, the concrete monolith, the second, and current, McCormick structure is a gargantuan column-less exhibition space enclosed by glass and steel.  An undeniably commanding meditation on postmodernism and a reflection of Chicago’s architectural heritage, the austere structure was once the most sought after exhibition site in the nation.

But according to the Metropolitan Pier and Exhibition Authority, the building is now in need of 150 million dollars worth of repairs and systems upgrades. Complaints against the current space range from routine maintenance to systemic updates needed to stay competitive against rising event destinations like Orlando and Las Vegas. In December 2009, the Sun Times reported a $36,000 difference in the cost of electricity for one booth at one trade show between Chicago and Las Vegas. This is just one of many reported incidences of price gouging due in part to the building’s structure, as well as the unions that maintain it. And though McCormick Place’s four interconnected buildings still make up one of the largest convention centers in the U.S., the East building itself may no longer be able to maintain its attractiveness as a conference location, considering its relatively small size and the recent overturn of labor law reforms that had enabled low operational costs and attracted conventions to the lakeside center. Furthermore, by virtue of its location and size alone, the structure is considered to be an environmental blight by many Near South Side residents for interrupting the once open lakeshore, with some calling for outright demolition. Mayor Richard M. Daley has been a strong detractor as well, echoing that McCormick Place East ruins the city’s skyline. During a press conference in December 2009, he commented, interestingly addressing both the price controversy, and the physical state of the buiilding, “You have to get away from gouging people. If you gouge ’em, they’re not going to come back.”

With these concerns bearing down on McCormick, it seems that change is on the horizon. Precisely what that change will be, however, is still very much unclear. Like the pre-1971 building, the current structure has drawn a lot of flak, though many Chicagoans stand by its architectural value. As current problems with the state of the building and the rising costs of the space worsen, the Chicago Architectural Club (CAC) has taken up the task of stimulating debate about what should become of the deteriorating exhibition hall.

Along with the American Institute of Architects Chicago (AIA) and Landmarks Illinois, the CAC elected to use its Burnham Prize competition this year as a forum to decide the theoretical fate of McCormick Place East. An “international ideas competition,” one of the oldest and most prestigious of its type, this year’s Burnham Prize was intended to initiate a candid conversation about the building not just among architects and those in the events business, but anybody with a vision for McCormick’s future. “We’ve usually tried to choose a topic that was provocative or on the table, to try to start some new conversation on the issues,” said CAC president Tim Brown. “We tried to write a proposition that would elicit designs from all kinds of people, from landscape design and policy people, to firms with a dog in the fight.”

On Saturday, April 16th, a panel of nine architects shuffled about the airy interior of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Crown Hall (a Mies van der Rohe modernist masterpiece), meticulously examining the anonymous submissions and flagging those that seemed worthy of the $3,000 top prize. The nearly 50 designs varied radically in their trajectories and underlying messages, and ranged from a “Chicago Speedway” racetrack to a floating stadium. But among the eighteen selected as the most “provocative” by the judges, there seemed to be a shared recognition of McCormick Place East’s fall from grace. As it stands today, McCormick Place East is ultimately a symbol of decay despite its undeniable aesthetic power and history. The commonality is interesting, especially considering that many of the designs were submitted from firms based abroad.

However, the winning proposals suggest strikingly different interpretations of how the building should be used. In third place, the “Horto in Urbs” design by San Francisco-based architects Matt Hutchinson and Brandon Pace posits turning McCormick into an open-plan indoor forest, with an aviary roof intended to “synthesize natural habitat and architectural ambition.” Slovenian competitor Srdan Nad’s “McCormick Square” design, which incorporates a shopping mall and Barack Obama’s presidential library into the current structure, took second place. After viewing Nad’s proposal, one judge remarked, “That’s not going to save the building.” Another, more appreciative judge lamented, “Why can’t we just have a tie?”

The first-place proposal, Mohamed Sharif, Felix Monasakanian, Efren Soriano’s “(Toward) a Requiem” is the most visually arresting and poetically moving submission. Intriguingly, this Los Angeles based group has a strong tie to Chicago–Mohamed Sharif studied architecture as an exchange student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, on the very campus where the judging took place. The group’s plan proposes stripping McCormick Place East down to its bare steel structure and allowing lake water to flow into the convention center floor, thereby allowing it to realize its “[longing] for an elegant and graceful end” by “becoming waterborne.” Essentially a proposal to turn the building into a testament to its former vanity by obscuring its function as an austere exhibition space, “(Toward) a Requiem” was undoubtedly the most poignant submission. “For a competition, it’s all about the visual image,” one judge commented. And though the panel was concerned with the fate of the space, the judge explained, “We’re not looking for a solution, and [Sharif, Monasakanian and Soriano’s design] has the most powerful idea and attitude.”

What is the purpose of an architectural competition that was not intended to generate viable practical answers to McCormick’s dilemma? Some dismiss the competition as a mere intellectual exercise or far-flung dream. The day after the competition was announced, Metropolitan Pier and Exhibition Authority trustee James Reilly sent an email to Chicago Tribune architectural writer Blair Kamin, stating, “Unless someone wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to replicate that space somewhere else on the campus, we will have to keep the building, at least the top part of it, in the trade show business.”

If it’s purely a money issue that’s stalling the transformation of McCormick Place East, however, good news may be in store for those hoping to change the colossus that dominates the lakeside. On April 26, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority transferred all operations at McCormick Place to SMG Management Inc., the same company that operates Soldier Field. And whether or not this change will have any bearing on actual plans to modify McCormick Place East, those in the design community are nonetheless determined to keep imagining. Tim Brown, for one, is currently working on a plan to turn the building into a “climate-tempered, year-round, indoor winter garden; a very strange indoor park.” Perhaps these wacky visions of McCormick Place East are exactly what the building needs: in their eccentricity, the proposals open up the possibility of real, meaningful change.

And though Tim Brown and the Burnham Prize competitors all seek to mitigate past wrongs without destroying an artistically significant structure, their shared aim is neither a self-serving ambition nor an act of reactionary damage control. Constructed with Chicago’s financial growth in mind, McCormick Place East has, according to one of the design proposals, long been a sign of “money mattering more than people.” In bringing this issue to the forefront now, the Burnham Prize competition poses the question to Chicago: how should this structure, space, and extraordinary location work for you? Though this call for renovation has yet to be heard, there is only really one way to keep the possibility alive. As AIA executive vice president Zurich Esposito puts it, “We’re not responding to a crisis here, but that’s all the more reason to have a dialogue now. Be prepared for the ‘what if’. That’s what this discussion is about.”

*Mohamed Sharif is a member of the faculty at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc).