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Air Conditioned Chicago
David Rosenstock
8/15/2005

Maybe you live in an old building where simultaneously operating the toaster and the air-conditioner causes a fuse to blow, or maybe a mouse died in your ducts and every time you want to cool down, the smell of its rotting carcass fills the room, or maybe you can only afford fans. No matter the situation, it’s a truism that a blast of freon keeps us all sane. You could buy a movie ticket, or ride the El, or wander through a mall, but a break from the heat will cost you there. You could go for a swim in the lake, but you’d be risking a rash. These days, the best option is to reclaim the vast swampland that was once downtown Chicago. I’m talking about putting to good use the buildings that have forced us out onto sidewalks hot enough to fry an egg. The word "freon" sounds so egalitarian, like we should all have access to its chilly wonders. We may not own a condo with central air—but at least we have access to their lobbies.

The first lobbies were covered walkways in monasteries, and their early-20th century equivalent supplied the same sanctuary. University of Chicago historian Neil Harris describes lobbies during their heyday as “havens for the frantic and the footsore, their toilets and washrooms providing oases of comfort.” The glory days of the lobby fell by the wayside along with fedoras and cigarette holders. In our current state of orange alert, it’s rare that a security guard will let you loiter or use the bathroom. Most lobbies don’t offer anywhere to sit, their design having been reduced to a cattle run. You have to seek out the exceptions.

While not renowned for its air-conditioning, the James R. Thompson Center is the only building in Chicago that is all lobby, all the time. The exterior resembles a partially collapsed spyglass and is bordered by what’s been called a “Stonehenge” of masonry piers. A Jean Dubuffet sculpture, as white as tortured ghosts, appears trapped in the plaza, incongruous with the glass ziggurat behind it. Upon entering the atrium, one is met with light streaming past every strut and beam. Essentially a seventeen-story greenhouse, the Thompson Center has a bouquet of fake flowers in the entrance. Originally, the building’s climate control was only conducive to fake flowers. The ice-making system designed to keep the building at a balmy 78 degrees never got up and running  and during the summer, the atrium cooked at around 110 degrees. In the winter it was not uncommon for the employees of the 70 state agencies in the building to be found typing in gloves and a scarf. Luckily, the inherent problems of an all-glass building were solved, and today air-conditioning fills this busy hive with its drone. You’ll find that the only place to sit and enjoy the cool air is in the food court, whose selections are about as healthy as paint chips. Because it is a public building, however, security is negligible, and you can relax
unmolested for hours on end. The bathroom is something less than idyllic, though; the time I used it, it reeked of sewage and a derelict was wandering around in his briefs.



Winter Garden
photo: David Rosenstock
Two of my favorite aspects of the building are the marble mosaic on the bottom floor and the glass elevators. The mosaic is in the shape of an eye, and I like to think that it didn’t escape architect Helmet Jahn’s attention, that his design resembles the panopticon. The glass elevators, which rise in the middle of the building, afford an excellent view of the exposed offices. It’s been said that this openness is a symbol of transparent government—an alternative explanation is that it’s an exercise in control. Security guards sit sentry at each floor above level two, so there’s not much chance of exploring past the bank of elevators. My favorite place to relax is behind the elevator shaft on the second floor, where through the interstices of the pulleys and cogs you can catch glimpses of the bustle of the lunch crowd.

Usually lobbies are easy to find—they’re the first thing you see when you walk in the door. But nothing at the Harold Washington Library is easy to find. From the front door, which is flanked by a series of identical locked doors, to the books themselves, the floor plan is so labyrinthine that directions had to be written on the wall. What most people would call the lobby is in fact a sterile cavern with an elaborate kiosk. If you’re lucky, an information attendant will be standing behind the rows of brochures, none of which offer a map of the building. Ask them where the elevator is, because the escalators have as many switchbacks as the Grand Canyon. The layout of the library is in line with, say, the literary theories of Derrida. It makes you feel stupid, helpless, and lost.



Water Atrium Navy Pier
photo: David Rosenstock
The only time I’ve found exactly what I was looking for was the day I stumbled onto the Winter Garden on the ninth floor. A distant relative of Michelangelo’s Library of San Lorenzo and the Crystal Palace, this atrium merits being called a lobby. The outside is internalized by an immense glass dome, a Beaux-Arts facade, and black olive trees, making it both inviting and awe-inspiring. For all its visual pleasures, the beveled wood benches give you a backache, and the acoustics amplify every footstep. While the Winter Garden has been called one of the best interior spaces in Chicago, it can feel very cold indeed. The austerity of the design leaves one with the impression that the Winter Garden is meant to be looked at, not touched. To be honest, I prefer the more user-friendly Water Atrium at Navy Pier, with its parabolic water fountains, lush tropical trees, and wrought iron chairs (except for the fact that you have to power through the seven circles of hell, including Bubba Gump’s Shrimp House, in order to reach it). Nevertheless, the Winter Garden provides a chilly oasis on hot days.



Chicago Cultural Center
photo: David Rosenstock
The Harold Washington Library’s predecessor outstrips it in every way except for sheer size. Now known as the Chicago Cultural Center, the one-time library will shock you out of your summer listlessness. Wandering in off the dunned streets, mercilessly bludgeoned by the noise of jackhammers, your eyes alight on bejeweled surfaces. As one woman said, “It just glitters.” This “people’s palace” is adorned from floor to ceiling with the most remarkable mosaics. Climbing the stairs is pure joy as you rise to meet a dome of green stained glass. In the middle hangs a baroque chandelier, leaving you dizzy from sensory overload. The names of all the West’s greatest writers are emblazoned on the walls. The only seat in the building not behind closed doors is a lonely bench on the third floor. This bench has the gravitas of an antique and seems designed to punish you. Both The Harold Washington Library—whose exterior looks like the design team was shitting bricks—and the Cultural Center bear the sour expressions of curmudgeons on their outsides. The mosaics create majesty and magic on what would otherwise be just another Greek revival building.



Merchandise Mart
photo: David Rosenstock
The old adage, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, goes for the RR Donnelley building as well. If it had a chimney poking out of the top, this office tower would closely resemble the A-frame skyscrapers I used to draw as a child. The pediments on the 50th and 51st floors were intended to add a classical flair, but they really look more like a ridiculous hat. That said, the lobby sparkles. White marble and white walls with ultra-shiny wall sconces make any interloper feel like a grubby child. The security guards who stand beneath the two towering sculptures allow one to grasp the scale of the lobby. In counterpoint to the sculptures, a knee-high infinity fountain appears in the corner with all the mirrored intensity of a mirage. Don’t miss the Tapies painting at the Clark St entrance. There are much better designed buildings downtown (e.g. 333 W Wacker Dr), but few contemporary office buildings leave an impression once you pass through the revolving door. The welcome mat is about the only thing revived in Bolero’s neo-classical design. Some other notable office lobbies, though not user friendly, can be found at 30 W Monroe, which has a giant Christmas star hoisted by gossamer thin strings. Also check out the Deloitte and Hyatt Center, which have similar glass facades that twist along a row of shrubs and bamboo shoots, respectively.

Part of the problem with wandering a mall for air-conditioning is that unless you leave your wallet at home, you’ll probably end up spending money. At the Merchandise Mart, for instance, you’d have to take out a loan for the salespeople to even bother looking up from their computers. Commensurate in square footage to the Sears Tower, the Mart crams enough high-end furniture and potpourri into nineteen floors to quell a proletariat revolution. The showroom floors can only be accessed by interior designers, architects, wholesale buyers, and escorted visitors; however, I’ve found that if you just tie on a paisley kerchief, no one will bother you. The floors worth visiting are the residential furnishings on six and twelve through eighteen. An entire day can be spent wandering these “rainless streets”—and sunless, I might add—enjoying the refined tastes of the sellers. Ralph Lauren has some supple animal pelts they use as bedspreads; Heller’s outdoor furniture reminds me of pool rafts; and, of course, Knoll’s classic asymmetrical chairs are a must see. If an entire room brimming over with teak appeals to you, then this should be your destination of choice.



The Sofitel
photo: David Rosenstock
It’s easy to distinguish between hotels built before and after the 1940s. At one time, lobbies played a central role in the character of a hotel. Today, at hotels such as the Omni Chicago, where Oprah’s guests stay, the lobby has disappeared in favor of a hall connecting the elevators to the front desk. Many hotels, including The Peninsula (winner of the best air-conditioning award—it gave me goose-bumps), have opted to remove their lobby from street level, so as to better protect their patrons from riffraff. A counterpoint to such inhospitability is The Drake, built in the 1920s. A wide staircase guides all its guests and visitors into an opulently-decorated central sitting and gathering area. Very few contemporary hotels are willing to sacrifice exclusivity for character. The Sofitel is one of those rare delicacies. A white parallelogram with a half-donut-shaped restaurant fittingly named Cafe Des Architectes (the bar is called Le Bar), Jean-Paul Viguier’s vibrant design makes a bold statement, especially considering the proximity of varies Mies boxes. However, the bright and airy lobby is sternly watched over by a seven-foot stooge in Armani. Considering that it’s a hotel lobby and unless you walk in smoking a crack pipe, there’s not much they can do to discern between guests and street urchins like ourselves, so the security guard is more for show than anything else. The Sofitel takes itself a little too seriously for such a shapely building. From the bouncer to its Italian modern decor and preposterous French titles, I’m left with the impression that this chain hotel is trying its hardest to distance itself from Chicago’s homely Midwest sensibility (epitomized by Mike Ditka’s steakhouse down the street). Like a dirty secret, its true nature is revealed in their choice of carpet, which can only be compared to a game of Tetris played at your feet.

But it’s the bathroom that I fell in love with. Located on the second floor, up glass steps which afford a fabulous view of the lobby and the square lights embedded in its floor, the bathroom is tucked away by the elevators. I’m a sucker for opaque glass, and every stall door is fashioned out of a pane of such. Cozying up to some well-proportioned porcelain, mesmerized by the depths of the translucence, I am perfectly content for once. Even the toilet paper is velvety smooth. A side-note: the best view in Chicago can be found in the women’s room at the top of the John Hancock building, in the Signature Room (stall to stall views). Don’t ask how I know. Also, for free refreshments visit the Hotel 71, which provides lemony ice water out of spigots.



Hard Rock Hotel
photo: David Rosenstock
The best lobby in Chicago, hands down, belongs to the Hard Rock Hotel. The security guards say hi to you here, and there are plenty of seats for suits, families, and day-trippers alike. The old Carbide and Carbon Building, built in 1928, is a holdover from a more refined era. The green facade sharply contrasts against the gold details, and the resulting clash of colors is breathtaking from blocks away. The hotel lobby doesn’t quite equal the elegance of the building itself, but the decor manages to be tasteful in its chic, retro style. I imagine Bono’s home to look something like the Hard Rock lobby, with its low to the ground coffee tables, snaking couches, and reflective surfaces. What I’m most impressed by is the confluence of lines. The carpet weaves past darted fluting in the floor, while intersected by the black and white bars on the dividers, culminating in a mobile by Rolling Stones guitarist, Ronnie Wood. The sultry color scheme of purples and reds verges on a smoky lounge, and the attention to detail, like floating orchids in cubed vases, throw blankets, and back lighting, sets a noir mood. Because the lobby is so large, there are plenty of unobtrusive places to sit. Feel free to open up a book and read as you bask in the prickly tenderness of the air conditioning. No one’s going to bother you.





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