by Jennifer Wehunt
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GROPIUS IN CHICAGO FOUNDATION
It’s an hour before twilight on a dreary day in October, and gusts of wind and a halfhearted rain are whipping through cavities newly carved from a collection of buildings at the decommissioned Michael Reese Hospital on the Near South Side. Grahm Balkany, 30, an architect and Illinois Institute of Technology grad with a history of preservation activism, doesn’t seem to notice. The weather is the least of his worries.
“See how the grid is shifted?” he asks, pointing toward the offset wing of a buff-colored building known as the Serum Center. “That’s classic Gropius; you see that even in the Bauhaus. And that,” he says, gesturing toward the building’s west end, “is where the beautiful pergola used to be. That’s just been ripped off.”
For Balkany, signs of Walter Gropius—the architect who founded Germany’s world-famous Bauhaus school—are everywhere at Reese. Architectural historians had long assumed that Gropius, who immigrated to the United States before World War II, had a hand in planning the hospital campus. But through independent research, Balkany has proved that Gropius was actually the lead designer of eight buildings on the site. These studies in steel, glass, concrete, and brick—Gropius’s only known works in Illinois—reveal a period of evolution, through the 1940s and 1950s, of one of the most important architects of the 20th century.
“It’s generally seen that Gropius was one of the four great masters of modernism, along with [Frank Lloyd] Wright, Mies [van der Rohe], and Le Corbusier,” says Kevin Harrington, a professor of architectural history at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “What Grahm has done is give the city the opportunity to add another jewel to its crown. Having three of the big four here in Chicago would make this the place to see 20th-century architecture.”
Balkany’s identification of the eight Gropius buildings, accomplished through extensive research in Chicago and on the East Coast, was an amazing achievement. Unfortunately, at least seven of those buildings have been razed or are slated to come down. Had Chicago won its bid for the 2016 Olympic games, the city planned to construct the Olympic Village on the Reese property; although no alternative plan for the property has been announced, the city has proceeded with demolition. “It’s jaw-dropping,” Balkany says of the loss. “It’s like holding a Picasso over the fire.” (City officials argue that they need to clear the property in order to sell it quickly.)
Apart from Gropius’s involvement, Balkany argues, these buildings illustrate a historic moment in Chicago’s development. The main hospital, its surrounding buildings, and its landscaped green spaces—as well as the neighboring elementary school and high-rise apartments—were conceived as a postwar vision of urban renewal: a healthcentric, integrated community. Balkany calls the greater Reese campus the most extensive example of such planning in Chicago. “All really good architecture is motivated by a determining force, not just whimsical design,” he explains. “Gropius was probably the first truly humanitarian modernist; you can see that in these buildings. Architecture, for him, was always in service of the people.”
In 2008, with the encouragement of several supporters, Balkany founded the Gropius in Chicago Coalition, an alliance of local and international organizations dedicated to saving Gropius’s works at Reese. At presstime, the group had managed to secure a stay on one Gropius building, the Singer Pavilion, a prime example of the architect’s signature but subtle “bent” form and the winner of an award from the American Institute of Architects.
It’s a bittersweet victory for Balkany, who was still fighting as the bulldozers rolled in. “The best things that have happened in Chicago [architecture] were from architects who were principled—people who fought for what they believed in and didn’t back down,” says Balkany, placing Gropius among that group. “I’ve really just fallen in love with him. He’s a hero.” We might say the same for Balkany.
Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp