The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

How's that open-plan house these days?

The Atlantic's Megan Garber looks at how the popular floorplan can make people crazy, which is what you get when architecture follows dudes liking TV shows with sledgehammers:

The popular open layout, for example, eschews walls and other spatial divisions in favor of openness, airiness, “flow.” (“Look how everything flows!” Brian Patrick Flynn, the designer of HGTV’s Dream Home 2020, says in a promotional video.) On the plus side, an open floor plan allows for constant togetherness. On the minus side … an open floor plan allows for constant togetherness. The style meant to reject domestic confinement can end up replicating some of the very flaws it was meant to mitigate, precisely in its eagerness to sacrifice privacy for openness.

“In general, it’s wonderful,” [Architect Susan] Susanka said of the open-concept approach to living spaces. “But when it’s done to an extreme, it makes it very difficult to live in the house, because your noise, whatever you’re doing, goes everywhere.” When the home involves kids, that borderlessness becomes even more acute. A child might need to be entertained or fed while her mom is on a conference call. An older sibling might be playing video games or watching a movie while her dad is trying to cook dinner. Another sibling might need a retreat from his co-quarantiners, and have no place to go. In an open space, one person’s activity becomes every person’s activity. Alone together, all the time: For many, that is the current state of things. The “See Also” section of Wikipedia’s “open plan” article cites only one related page: “panopticon.”

Last year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the launch of HGTV, the journalist and design critic Ronda Kaysen gave an interview to NPR. As she talked with the host Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the impact HGTV has had on American home design, Kaysen mentioned one of the design elements most readily associated with the network: the open-concept living space. “I spoke with HGTV executives,” Kaysen said. “And the reason that they are so big on open concept is because it gets the male viewers. Like, guys like to watch sledgehammers and, like, taking out walls.”

“Wait a second,” Garcia-Navarro replied. “Are you telling me that the open-plan concept, which we are all prisoner to, is because dudes like to watch HGTV and sledgehammers?”

Yes, was the answer. “Dudes will only watch HGTV if there’s sledgehammers,” Kaysen said. That assumption makes it way into the architecture. Openness remains the trend.

Me, I like my 1910s-era flat walking distance to just about everything. I've got real rooms!

Something to do when the sun's out

Chicago Tribune architecture critic offers an alternative to sitting on your couch and bingeing Netflix:

Here’s a suggestion: Go out for a stroll and take in some architecture.

Walks are allowed under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. You just have to be sure to maintain the social distancing that public health officials say is essential to halting the spread of the deadly virus.

If you know where to look, you might come across something fabulous. Not too far from where I live, for example, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Frank J. Baker House, a Prairie style head-turner in the 500 block of Lake Street in Wilmette.

There are minor gems out there, too, like the Chicago Transit Authority "L" station in the 1000 block of Central Street in Evanston.

To get you going in the right direction on your walks, it helps to have a good guide. The one I highly recommend is the American Institute of Architects’ “AIA Guide to Chicago,” which, despite its 550-page bulk, is easy to tuck into your coat pocket.

I have this book, and I may go for a walk later today. Because my office, as entertaining as it is, has begun to feel cramped.

Pile-up on the Link Highway

I was busy today, and apparently so was everyone else:

I'm sure there was other news today. But this is what I have open in my browser for reading later on.

Lunchtime reading

A diverse flock this afternoon:

Your coder will now resume coding his previously-coded code.

Things I don't have time to read right now

But I will take the time as soon as I get it:

Now, I need more tea, and more coding.

The mechanical voids that make billionaires' erections bigger

Developers have learned to game New York City's zoning laws to construct buildings far larger than the plain meaning of those laws should allow:

Now, in a Second Gilded Age with magnates looking to park their millions in Manhattan real estate, developers stop at little to deliver the high-status goods, which these days are calculated in height and views.

As a result, New York is facing the “mechanical void” problem. It may sound like an embarrassing medical condition, but the voids are actually just air above floors occupied by equipment (mainly heating, ventilating, and cooling systems). That air becomes extraordinarily valuable when it can boost apartments higher above view-blocking neighbors. Raising the ceiling of mechanical spaces (which usually need only 10- to 15-foot ceilings) to as high as 350 feet becomes not absurd but savvy.

New York City does not generally limit building heights, but instead controls bulk and density by what’s called the floor area ratio (FAR). This means that a residential developer can build nine times the square feet of the lot area in an R-9 district. Depending on how the building bulk is arranged, the usual result is a building of about 15 stories.

Ridiculously tall mechanical spaces, which are not counted toward FAR, are not the only abusive (though ostensibly legal) tactic developers use to push buildings to ever greater heights.

If you think this through, however, these developments still go through the zoning board. So yes, the legal interpretations twist the law into painful shapes for the sake of bragging rights, but also a city agency lets them do it.

This reminds me of one of Chicago's ugliest buildings, at 2314 N. Lincoln Park West, which juts out from the rest of the buildings on the block (some of them historic) and looks like someone measured wrong. I haven't confirmed this, but I think the error was measured in thousands of dollars, and involved an alderman or two.

No one wants McMansions

People who thought moving to far suburbs made economic sense in the 1990s and 2000s can't seem to sell their ugly, too-large houses:

"For most of the 1990s, if you looked at the geographic center of jobs in the Chicago area, it was moving steadily northwest, out from the city toward Schaumburg," homebuilding consultant Tracy Cross says. Like the corporate campuses that popped up in that era, the houses were often built big.

A generation later, tastes for both have faded: Corporations have shifted their offices to downtown Chicago in unprecedented numbers, and once-stylish suburban luxury homes are derided as McMansions. Affluent people now show a well-documented preference for living in or near the city, a preference that's fueling the vigor in the high-rise condo market downtown as well as in Bucktown and in Wilmette, among other places.

Phil Chiricotti felt the double-barreled blast when he sold his home in Burr Ridge. Chiricotti, who was a retirement-planning executive, built the four-bedroom, 6,800-square-foot home on 77th Street in 2002, "when Tuscan-style homes were what everybody was doing," he says. The house has arches, columns and balconies made of stone.

"I had murals painted in that house, I had exotic Romanesque stenciling done," Chiricotti says. "Everyone told me my taste was spectacular. But the operating costs to live in that house were $25,000 a year." He put the house on the market in 2009, asking just under $2.7 million, and sold it almost six years later at a real estate auction for $1.47 million.

("Exotic Romanesque stenciling?" Yes, that would qualify as spectacular taste, just not good taste.)

Schaumburg, Ill., is about 50 km northwest of the Loop in western Cook and norther DuPage Counties. It spreads west from I-290 along a spiderweb of ugly strip-mall-encrusted stroads, and contains a giant mall and a huge IKEA. The village adopted, without irony, "Progress Through Thoughtful Planning" as its motto when it incorporated in 1956, and then thoughtfully planned winding residential roads without sidewalks that appeal to people who drive to their mailboxes.

I've joked before that "Schaumburg" is German for "Why would anyone live in this town." (It actually translates to "foam town," which amuses me.) Schaumburg epitomizes Suburbistan to me: a place that tries to take the best parts of rural and urban life and, missing the point entirely, creates something entirely horrific instead. A place where no one really wants to live.

These sad people paid millions for houses so ugly they don't so much rebuke good design as represent the antithesis of design itself, in suburbs so soulless just writing about them makes me want to clap on one and three. So this news fills me with a feeling described by another German word: Schadenfreude.

Landmarks Illinois lists most-endangered sites

Many are at risk of demolition:

“A troubling trend with this year’s most endangered sites is the number of historic places that face demolition despite strong and active community support for preservation,” Bonnie McDonald, the group’s president, said in a news release.

No one should be surprised that the James R. Thompson Center made this list for a third straight year, especially because pressure on the building is ratcheting up. Gov. J.B. Pritzker just cleared the way for Illinois to sell the Helmut Jahn-designed state office building in downtown Chicago.

But lesser-known sites are also on the list of 12. In the Chicago area, new listings include a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed cottage in north suburban Glencoe; a Tudor Revival estate, also in Glencoe and once owned by a vacuum cleaner magnate; and a neoclassical bank building a mile west of the planned Obama Presidential Center.

I'm not actually a fan of the Thompson Center, but I'd hate to see it go unless something manifestly better replaced it.

Quick links

A couple stories of interest:

OK, back to being really too busy to breathe this week...