Monday, August 23, 2010

33 N. LaSalle- Grille Detail

Elevator surround detail at 33 N. LaSalle
When I first started to work downtown I was fascinated with the decorative metal elements found on so many of the buildings.  I did a series of close-up images of some of these, without much concern about the surrounding context or the decorative influences at work.  The drawings were 1" x 1".  I think I was more interested in testing my crosshatching ability more than anything else. 

But recently I've started to rediscover these grilles, screens, and elevator doors. And I find that I'm interested in going a bit more in depth, particularly in regard to the skyscrapers of the 1920s.  And where better to start than my own office building?  Well, I guess it's not really mine...

I had to get special permission from the building management to take some reference photographs of these air return grilles in the lobby.  I think taking photos is harmless, but apparently I don't think like a terrorist.

Air return grille

Anyway, this is one and a half modules of the pattern used for the air return.  It's amazing how a few simple elements can give the impression of remarkable complexity.  The best of this ornament creates a tension between the use of geometric and naturalistic themes.

Unlike many earlier eclectic-style buildings, these are unashamed of their height and seem to acknowledge that their design lends itself to mass production.  This can been seen in everything from the decorative spandrels, thin limestone veneer, and machine-fabricated interiors.  At the same time their decorative elements benefited from the work of artists and sculptors who adapted their work to accomodate mass reproduction.

These buildings may seem quaint now, but they represent the apex of technology and economy for their day.   Their stepped back form and height aren't the result of a whim.  They incorporate what can be built (permitted by zoning and technology) and what should be built (profitable with a minimum of risk).  While the major tenant usually had rights to the name of the building, no one organization could fill every floor.  The developers had to provide adaptable office space for a range of users.

Most of these offices have been cut up, and the natural light  has been drastically reduced by new mechanicals and drop ceilings.  But they still retain enormous functionality.  And in my opinion, quite a bit of charm.  Many have been given new life through careful restorations, often utilizing tax credits through government programs.  In Chicago LaSalle Street has the best colletion of these buildings, including the Field Building, the Chicago Board of Trade, and One North LaSalle.

 Interestingly, the same floral elements used to create the air grilles were modified to become light fixtures throughout the lobby.  It's a good way to retain some continuity in a space which has been greatly altered since its time as the Foreman Bank Building.  And looking at the old photos displayed in the lobby, I really miss the grand staircase that once led up to the banking floor.

That said, I'm not positive that the brass air return grilles (and light fixtures as well) are original to the building.  The more I compare these with the elevator ornament the more it seems like the work of a careful modern designer.  But even if they're not original, I enjoy how they key into the general decorative vocabulary of the building.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect that a sculptor named Geza Maroti might have worked on this building. Did you see any architectural sculpture here?