Taking the Stairs

All Photos by Temple Shipley

When I suggest to Bill Michel, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, that we walk and talk, he hesitates, fiddling with the cuffs on his lilac dress shirt and glancing at his watch. But, in the end, he agrees. My first question is simple–what are you most excited about for Logan? As we sweep out of his office and into the second-floor common area, bustling with preparations for the night’s dedication ceremony, he says that he’s most excited about the space itself, as a creative place  for the  UofC community. But also as a meeting point–physical and abstract–for the arts at the UofC with arts in the surrounding neighborhoods and throughout the city. “The opportunity to bring a variety of different arts…together in one space,” is how he summarizes his careful reply.

I ask about the public workshop program the Center piloted this summer. He attests that it “went very well,” and that visitors from Hyde Park, Kenwood, Woodlawn, and Washington Park participated in storytelling and movement classes, a sustainable arts workshop, and a filmmaking course for teenagers. We pause at a stairwell checkered with large windows facing west. He puts his answer on hold to call my attention to the “great views” of Washington Park. And it’s true–the tops of ochre trees bristle against the wind, ushering the cars zooming up and down Cottage Grove.

 

 

We turn up another set of stairs on the north side of the building, past an audiovisual piece by an MFA student, a part of the ongoing “Wall Text” exhibit. A projector casts a purple glow on the opposite wall, while soft instrumental music flows through speakers tucked in the corner.  I notice that Michel is careful to thank and introduce himself to the facility’s staff as we walk–here, a man named Richard laying electrical wires, warning us of the hazard. Oddly, Michel knows Richard’s name, but Richard does not seem to recognize Michel, though he graciously shakes Michel’s hand and smiles at me.

“The building provides us opportunities to build partnerships with the neighborhood,” he continues after we have stepped delicately over the wires, citing the University’s Arts and Public Life Initiative and the Center’s involvement with the Washington Park Arts Incubator. He says that the Center will be a “portal,” “dedicated to engaging the community and amplifying voices.”

 

 

Over the course of our stroll, I come to realize that Michel is a walking index of arts management vocabulary: dynamic verbs like engage, enrich, and amplify are commonplace throughout his speech, which he crafts scrupulously in response to my questions. He paints the center as a living hub for action, which is an appealing image, but further complicates asking (and receiving straightforward answers to) the hard questions.  Such as, what precisely is the role that arts play in public life? Does the construction of a specialized structure somehow legitimize the arts at an institution renowned for its research, and operating in a world that increasingly emphasizes quantitative and scientific skills?

Another hard question: where does Michel see the center, and himself, in five to ten years? He dodges the latter part of my inquiry deftly–by not answering it. He’s happy to relate where he hopes the Logan Center will be in that time, though. “I hope we can look back at really wonderful art that has been created here, and a wonderful group of scholars and artists.” He adds that he hopes the center will become a testament to “the power of collaboration between an urban university and its neighbors.”

It was difficult for me to gauge whether or not that comment was made more for my benefit–by this time, our conversation had taken a decided turn toward the involvement of non-university affiliates with the new center.

At one point, we found ourselves standing silently in a south-facing stairwell. We can see the green roof, and the triangular tops of Logan’s studio skylights; beyond, brick apartment buildings, wooden balconies, a great length of alleyways sprinkled with trashcans and wires. To the southeast, neat packages of buildings fit together in the landscape, their arrangement curving with the land around Lake Michigan.

The Logan Center has been called a skyscraper, a behemoth, a blemish. One of the immediate criticisms of any new building at the University of Chicago is its apparent gleaming, shameless superiority to neighbors to the south. The implications of its presence also loom: the heightened security is a reality, and the ivory tower is an inevitable interpretation, a building as a gesture of wealth and influence.

 

 

The stairwell, graced with floor-to-ceiling windows, is anything but a “miserable place to be,” in the words of one of the architects, Tod Williams, lamenting the dismal second-class status of fire stairs. They ascend in the shadow of elevators–hydraulic people-movers summoned by the touch of a button–enticing people to traverse stone with muscle.

After our interview, Michel walks me back to his office, stopping along the way to consult with a young man wearing a roll of measuring tape and cradling an iPad, and when he thinks he sees a stray piece of painter’s tape.

When I return to the Logan Center on the following day for an open forum with Williams and his partner Billie Tsien, Michel is in the audience, suit jacket pressed, glancing keen-eyed around the performance hall at the crowd as he walks in a side entrance to take his seat. Referencing an earlier project in New York, Tsien says that she and Williams were “trying to make a holder for people’s lives, rather than a statement about our design.” Tsien goes on to liken the Logan Center to a container with many compartments, which Williams echoes, his fingers wiggling  in a scramble that begins at chin-level to illustrate the movement of people through the building.

I return once more to the Logan Center on the day after that, mid-morning, to refresh my memory of the view facing south. It’s grey outside, just beginning to rain, and as I walk in, a family skips ahead of me, holding the door. I can see a young man reading a newspaper on the second floor, feet up on an ottoman, surrounded by windows. The entrance is a burst of saturated hues on a crisp white backdrop–a colorful schedule of events for the dedication celebration on an easel; white desks, white chairs, white walls. People are sitting and talking in the lobby beyond the gallery, perhaps waiting for something, but in a quiet, weekend sort of way. Up on the sixth floor, by the stairwell, I can hear the echoes of voices and the ripples of a playing piano. It sounds like someone is tap-dancing around the corner.