After School Matters

The last two weekends, I have been a guest instructor for After School Matters, substituting for Dan Splaingard.  ASM is a program for teens in Chicago, trying to connect young folks with art, design, and architecture.  There are various branches, run out of various high schools, and I was asked by Nina Cherian, the lead instructor, to fill in for two Saturdays while Dan was out of town.  Nina's program runs out of Kelvyn Park High School, and is the only ASM program focused on architecture.  Students meet two days a week after school, and for a few hours Saturday morning, learning about design processes.  At the end of the semester, they tackle a design-build project for the community.  

Saturday is field-trip today, fortunately.  Last week, we met at the Voice of the City Studios a little before nine a.m. (kind of rough for our teenage comrades . . .), and then headed down the Blue Line to the Illinois Institute of Technology.  There, we participated in a workshop with other architects and students from across the city.  Sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, it was a great opportunity to learn about drawing, composition, and form.  Each student drew a fragment of a larger image with charcoal, then put the pieces together into meta-images.  They seemed to enjoy themselves, a judgement made mainly from the number of cellphone pictures taken of the finished products.  

Waiting for the train . . .



Lately, there's been some national discussion about shutting down the postal service.  5.5 billion dollars in the red as of this November, the USPS faces massive legacy costs, declining usage, and competition from private carriers like FedEx and UPS.  Both legislators and private bloviators think that the agency is a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy.  In keeping with the conservative desire to privatize everything (including wars), many argue that the private sector can deliver mail and packages faster and cheaper.  

I spent a lot of time in post offices this winter mailing packages for my Etsy store.  Anachronistic as this may seem, I also use the mail to pay some of my bills, send personal thank-you notes, and mail portfolios to certain firms.  The retail postal locations I have been to in Chicago have been terrible.  Just the other day, on a random Tuesday morning, the wait was over a half-hour for no reason other than understaffing.  Only two people were serving a counter that had six registers.  The transactions take awhile, because the computers look to be fifteen years old, and several of the debit-swipe stations were covered in tape, out-of-order.  Tape, in general, is a recurring theme all over, holding together countertops, cabinets, cubicles, and trashcans.  Light bulbs are out, floors filthy, carpets torn (and taped), and location after location is out of basics, like stamps and boxes.  

Abandoned post office, Mojave desert.  From Matthew High's photostream.  


Outside Lies Magic

For Christmas, I got an amazing book:  Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, professor at Harvard.  He has written a number of books on coastal communities, railroads, and the American landscape.  Outside Lies Magic explores exploration -- the now uncommon practice of going for a walk and observing what you see.  Stilgoe is a big fan of alleys, railroad tracks, forgotten rights-of-way, and the meandering urban streams that pay little attention to man-made distinctions of property.  He is fascinated by many of the same things that have animated my own interests in architecture and the city -- the gaps and seams in the urban space, forgotten snatches of landscape, straitjacketed remnants of the wild world, and the resilient hand of nature reclaiming ground.

In the first chapter, by way of introduction, Stilgoe writes: "Bicycling and walking offer unique entry into exploration itself.  Landscape, the built environment, ordinary space that surrounds the adult explorer, is something not meant to be interpreted, to be read, to be understood.  It is neither a museum gallery nor a television show.  Unlike almost everything else to which adults turn their attention, the concatenation of natural and built form surrounding the explorer is fundamentally mysterious and often maddeningly complex.  Exploring it first awakens the dormant resiliency of youth, the easy willingness to admit to making a wrong turn and going back a block, the comfortable understanding that some explorations may take more than an afternoon, the certain knowledge that lots of things in the wide world just down the street make no immediate sense. . . . It sharpens the skills and makes explorers realize that all the skills acquired in the probing and poking at ordinary space, everything from noticing nuances in house paint to seeing great geographical patterns from a hilltop almost no one bothers to climb, are cross-training for dealing with the vicissitudes of life." [p 11]

A slightly better cover design than the edition I have.


The Pedway

In this space, I've written before about my fascination with the gaps and seams in the city fabric, urban exploration, and alternate paths through our world.  Recently, I was fortunate enough to find my way into the mysterious world of the Chicago Pedway.  Similar to other systems in Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Calgary, Cedar Rapids, and other cities where the climate makes walking outside unattractive, the Pedway is a system of tubes and tunnels that allow one to move around downtown under cover.  It connects the ballet, the Metra, several subway stops, Millenium Park, the Art Institute, the Aqua Tower, Macy's, and dozens of other buildings.  

On a rainy afternoon, eager to get out of the wet, I found the first entrance at the intersection of Michigan and Monroe downtown.  A great map, found here, identifies this as the beginning of a segment of the Pedway known as the Millenium and North Grant Park Garage Walkway.  It leads down to a sprawling parking garage serving the parks, Art Institute, and businesses along Michigan Avenue.  

The first portal to the underworld.  Photos in this post courtesy of Amanda Buck.