Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies

looking up

The project for a new building for the Spertus Institute challenged its architects with a number of requirements.  The near-century-old Institute required a multi-functioning building (including college classrooms, library, exhibition space, theatre, and so on) that would update its image with a “signature architectural statement,” all on a relatively tight budget and on a rather narrow site.  Add to that the fact that this particular skinny site was one of the very last open buildable slots in the Historic Michigan Boulevard District with architecturally significant neighbors designed by the likes of Holabird & Roche and Adler & Sullivan nearby.  And, the site is apparently in the path of migratory birds, to boot.

Spertus, with neighbors

The building designed by Krueck + Sexton Architects and opened in 2008 is, in many ways, a thoughtful and smart solution to this laundry list of requirements.  Construction came in under budget; the occupants appear to be pleased as punch with the facilities; the building’s bold style—in particular, its striking folded/unfolding, ultra-faceted all-glass curtain wall—attracts curious passersby and advertises Spertus’ presence in the neighborhood.  As a bonus, the building is silver LEED certified (and not the kind of LEED that makes a building “efficient” by leaving its occupants “uncomfortable;” on a cold January day in 2010, Spertus was very comfy inside). And, only one avian casualty has been noted since its completion.

On top of all that, architecture and popular press and Chicago institutions with awards to hand out are absolutely, wildly gaga for this building.  Whatever room it is that displays the prizes that Spertus has scooped up must glow with a brilliance matched in Chicagoland only by the glitter of Michael Jordan’s trophy-bedecked rec room, circa 1999: AIA IL, AIA Chicago, Chicago Landmarks and the Chicago Athenaeum have heaped honors on it; the Chicago Reader was so excited that it named Spertus the best building of the century (so, sorry, architects: no use trying for that one for nine more decades or so).  Critics have spilled loads of ink (real & virtual) to sing its praises (not surprisingly, this panting pack of enthusiasts is lead by Blair Kamin—the golden retriever of architectural criticism).

a facade so super-transparent, the curtain wall is trying to tear itself open

Although copious the accolades may be, deep they are not.  The critics’ panegyrics tend to reveal a surprising degree of similarity in their interpretation of the building.  First, the most attention-grabbing part of the design, its glassy curtain wall, is metaphor of the accessible, public nature of the institution; this “transparent” element easily transmits light, which is a central element within Jewish ceremony, as well as being an intellectual metaphor for Jewish intellectual traditions.  One might ask what living faith tradition does not desire an open and accessible image?  And does more glass, proportionally speaking as compared with the older structures in the neighborhood, equate with greater institutional “transparency?”

Critics would not be impressed by this unsophisticated question, and would also tut-tut any suggestion that the building is at all inappropriate in the midst of the traditional buildings that line Michigan Ave.  They point to the fact that the building’s swath of glass, arranged in angled facets, cleverly pays contextual homage to the neighbors, thusly: the wall’s 726 glass panes are, on average, the same general size of the windows on other Michigan Avenue buildings; its peeling front projects no more than the bays on Chicago School skyscrapers.  It is an achievement akin to the jeweler’s art, Mr. Kamin wrote in the May 2008 Architectural Record: “like a cut diamond” the Spertus Institute “fits seamlessly [into] Chicago’s downtown street wall.”

This is silly.  Of course it has seams: it is a patch between two extant buildings.  And rather than a “diamond-like” seamless mend, it is more like a sequined ribbon lacing up a corset—in which the thrill is never in the security and seamlessness of the lacing, but rather in the perilous possibility that it will come loose at any moment.

The lip service regarding Spertus’ contextual fit is an academic exercise, and clever justification, but it is unconvincing on the site.  Spertus sticks out like a big jagged thumb.  One might be forgiven for thinking  that Spertus looks like a particularly uptight glacier stuck in a stony cliff.  But one would not be excused for thinking so, were there a significant critic in the room; only the critics have the eyes to see.  Or perhaps, they have had the eyes to read, or the ears to hear, what the architects have dictated, for the architecture firm’s materials (including their website) seem to have set the talking points.  But their words lose some of their power when viewed within a broader scan of Kruek + Sexton’s portfolio, which is full of glassy buildings with unusual (or very usual, sometimes even dull) shapes—but that all mean different things, according to the architects.  A glass-clad speculative office building in Washington DC (1100 First Street; it looks a little bit like a Jawa Sandcrawler, but with less visual interest) speaks an “architectural language that . . . is timeless, enduring, and true to values of our nation’s capital;” meanwhile a project for a 1484-foot-tall Crystal Tower in Chicago (commissioned by Architectural Record as part of their “Futures to Come” series) now utilizes the Super-Glassy aesthetic as a “symbol of modernity.”  Office buildings (1730 Pennsylvania Ave.) and houses (the remarkably creatively titled Transparent House II, Gulf Coast) alike utilize glassy glassiness simply to maximize views, with no special attempt for metaphors or poetry.

So, which is it: easy visual accessibility from inside or from without?  A metaphor for Jewish intellectual culture?  Timeless national values?  Modern real estate?  Or is this a language that is so universally über-appropriate that it can mean all things to all people in all situations?  If that is the case, does it cease to mean anything in particular?  The possibility for multiple understandings in architectural design is not a bad thing—but it’s not a good thing to read the same monotonous unquestioned interpretation for the same building, with little to no variation, again and again.  And again.


Potential symbolism aside, the formal nature of this huge faceted wall is another thing.  More unconvincing than the argument that this building really fits its context—the talk of the “average sized windows” of the curtain wall being particularly silly—, it is the experience of the rest of the building, beyond the big wall, that is truly disappointing.  Kruek + Sexton are proudly cut of the Miesian/IIT cloth, which suggests adherence to big, bold, shining, relentless Modernist values—because if they’re not big, bold, shining and relentless, they’re not worth much. The achromatic interior announces the harshest kind of Modernist palette, forgetting that even LeCorbusier knew to break up the monotony of his “correct and magnificent [game] of forms assembled in the light” and shot a little color here and there in his work.  The white, white, white world of Kruek + Sexton is much more Logan’s Run than Villa Savoye.

gallery above, library far below, universal space in the middle

For all its nods to ultra-contemporary industry in the façade, on inspection the building as a whole fails some of the key tests of Modernism.  The building announces it is one thing on the exterior—a bold, sculptural, highly technical solution to a building problem–while its interior is highly orthodox, straightforward, even boring.  Krueck + Sexton may have done well to look a little beyond their hero Mies, to an earlier German, Bruno Taut, who knew how to sync the insides of a glassy gem of a building with its outsides.

The interior spaces are big and open, but are a huge aesthetic letdown after the façade, whose facets are referenced only one more time, and in a clunky way, by the plaster-clad butt end of the theatre that hangs into the tall lobby.  Most of the spaces are large, plain, and rectilinear, and have nothing of the crazy foldey-folds of the front wall.  There is a nice open stair, and views are open from one gallery space to the next above and down into the library.  But that’s not much sexy next to the va-va-voom of the front wall, which turns out to be just a big tease.

lobby: theatre to the right, just above the unavoidable shop

Thus Spertus does something a Modernist building is really not supposed to do: say one thing in one place, and be another thing somewhere else.  Some very old criticism seems appropriate here (differnet time, different place; oddly, same story):

The content of Crawford Manor’s implicit symbolism is what we call “heroic and original.”  Although the substance is conventional and ordinary, the image is heroic and original . . . .  We criticize Crawford Manor not for “dishonesty,” but for irrelevance today. . . .  When it cast out eclecticism, Modern architecture submerged symbolism.  Instead it promoted expressionism, concentrating on the expression of architectural elements themselves: on the expression of structure and function. . . .  Modern architecture’s expression has become a dry expressionism, empty and boring.  (Robert Venturi, Learning from Las Vegas, MIT: 1972, pages 101-103)

The really confusing thing about Spertus is that it conflates the Modernist heroic stance with Venturi’s theory of the decorated shed; but ultimately it is not really a satisfying experience of these theories or any other, for it is a regrettably inconsistent design.  Ultimately this is what is disappointing about this building: it looks exciting on the outside, but is really boring on the inside.  There is no great payoff beyond the curtain, and there really should be—not only because the façade suggests something bold and different, but because that is the only thing that would justify this building’s grandstanding cry for attention among its mature neighbors.

Michigan Ave., north of Spertus

Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies (www.spertus.edu)

the shop, which offers a refreshing break from the earnestness of the building

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