ARCHITECTURE FOR THE AGES

October 12, 2012

Can you imagine a world where the extent of our built environment is filled solely with big box stores? Buildings that lack character and soul, utilized purely as a tool to fulfill our needs. Louis Sullivan famously wrote "form follows function" in his book The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered; in which he explained that how Architects design buildings' massing and shape should be based upon the function of the building. Without having function as the driving factor for the form, then Architecture fails when confronted with the reality of societal needs.

Still, human beings are in love with visually aesthetic places, some man-made and others natural. Chicago is arguably one of the western hemisphere's great architectural cities. This could be because Chicago is the birth place of the modern skyscraper, and that history lives on today continually influencing how architects' design. Walking through the streets of Chicago's downtown loop presents visitors with eye candy in all directions, from the towering antenna on glass and steel skyscrapers, down to the intimate river walk below street level. The buildings are an "open to the public" museum of architectural history.

 

Chicago's mix of new and preserved architectural treasures did not come to exist by throwing away those that no longer conformed to Sullivan's statements regarding function. In fact, most of the historic structures in Chicago still struggle to meet the power needs of today's electronic world, compliance with revised codes for handicap accessibility, and most fail in providing spaces and layouts which serve the current functions of the users. 

Yet hundreds of thousands of people flock to Chicago annually to visit and vacation among these architectural relics. They could go to the mega mall and its neighboring theme parks and attractions. It's easier to park, offers a host of impersonal or "cheap" activities, and can entertain people for at least a few days . In places like these, that offer little satisfaction beyond simple functionality while completely ignoring form, there is nothing really keeping people interested. On the contrary, people will visit Chicago many times, sitting in the parks with the beautiful skyline, walking down Michigan Avenue, and the amazing thing is... not much has changed since their last visit. 

There have been recent discussions regarding the Kankakee Court House located just an hour south of Chicago. In fact, its the 3rd courthouse to stand on Courthouse Square. The iconic limestone structure, with its copper dome, and its Beaux Arts Architectural influence and Italian Renaissance facade has stood in downtown Kankakee since 1912. It is arguably the most prominent and defining structure in the county.  

The conversations recently have revolved around the building's failure to comply with disabled accessibility requirements, and its failure to provide newer Supreme Court requirements for separation of prisoners, witnesses, and judges. For years, staff of the various County Judicial support offices have been conducting business from spaces which are little bigger or better than closets. Like many of Chicago's architectural relics, the Kankakee County Courthouse is currently having a problem satisfying the needs of it's users' functions. 

It does however provide a fantastic Architectural experience for the county. So what to do? That is the million dollar question. The fact remains that a new courthouse built to replace this structure will most likely be "big box" in these tough economic times, or in the least will fail to provide the historical iconic benefits the current building does. 

Being an architect, and loving these historic buildings both for their character as well as the aesthetic benefit, we feel the courthouse should be salvaged for its intended purpose. The disability compliance issues, the lack of space, and the failure to function as needed can all be resolved; there is always a solution. Sure, the cost might be in excess of the "big box" solution, and some compromise may have to be made, but ultimately the benefits to salvaging these great architectural relics will be witnessed by our kin. 

Once in a while, even architectural significant buildings need to go to the tailor to let the waist out a bit. 

The citizens of Kankakee need to salvage this great structure, and fully understand the value it brings to the community. It is buildings - make that treasures - like these that make a place feel like "home".

 

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