Post #249: Chicago back alley

Posted on April 23, 2019

In my Post #245, I compared the unadorned brick faces of the proposed Marco Polo building, complete with bricked-up windows, to “a Chicago back alley”.

A colleague has taken me to task on that statement. As a former resident of Chicago, he found that to be grossly unfair to Chicago alleyways.  After the Great Chicago Fire, the city was rebuilt, largely using brick.  And the typical Chicago building, he claimed, has much more interesting brickwork than the plain, flat faces of the proposed Marco Polo building.

In fact, owing to Chicago building code, Chicago developed its own, unique brick — Chicago Common.  His argument is that the rough, irregular and multi-colored surface created by Chicago Common is more visually interesting than the uniform, flat brown faces of the proposed building.

You can’t argue about taste.  But you can argue about what is or is not masonry.  Masonry is brick, block or stone, laid up with mortar, by a mason.  Masonry is hand-made and, as such, it will contain irregularities owing to the imperfect skill of the mason. If you look it closely, you can see the small variations in an actual masonry wall.

Much of what you see on new buildings may look like brick, but it isn’t masonry.  It’s pre-cast panels made to simulate masonry.  (Google precast brick panel, or see here, here, here, here or here for examples.)

To me, those panels are always “too perfect” to pass as real masonry.  Nobody, it seems, ever thinks of casting in random imperfections to make these panels pass as actual masonry.  And one of the things I dislike about modern buildings is that they may try to look old — they may try to make something look like a masonry wall — but they don’t even try to disguise the machine-made look of their imitations of traditional construction materials.

The lack of actual, random, real-world variation leads me back to the building in question.  In general, a bricked-up window is a mistake.  It’s an ugly after-the-fact fix for some unique change in situation in the use of a building.  But at least you can say, a genuine bricked-up window shows that a building is old.  At least, it’s old enough that the use of the interior space has changed since it was built.

The bricked-up windows in the illustration above are exactly what I mean by a lack of actual, random real-world variation.  Word is that a bricked-up window gives the impression of age to a building?  Great, each face shall have exactly two such windows, located in exactly the same place.   Built into the pre-cast concrete imitation masonry siding.

I suppose that the precision and regularity of those panels appeal to some people.  Some people just like buildings to look neat and tidy.  And so they actually prefer the imitation of masonry to the real thing.  And prefer that each unit have its precise allocation of exactly two bricked-up windows.

But to me, when I see those precisely placed and perfectly replicated planned irregularities, my only reaction is “surely you could do better than that”.  But maybe my ideas are shaped by actual masonry, and within the context of precast panels — maybe they can’t do any better than that.

I have no idea what the BAR will do, or even can do, with the current plans for Marco Polo.  But any improvements would be appreciated.