A Candidate for the 'Sore Thumb' Award

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This proposed addition to the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago is definitely a candidate for my newly established “Sore Thumb" award. It's a dubious achievement award presented for new construction in historic areas that totally disrupts the character of the existing urban fabric; that is, it “sticks out like a sore thumb.”

Steve Semes’s ground-breaking new book, The Future of the Past, shows convincingly that when designing new construction for historic areas, the existing character of the place is the essential value that should be preserved. This principle applies whether it’s an addition to a single old building or infill construction for an entire neighborhood: New construction should enhance – not detract from – the existing visual features that define the place.

Unfortunately, all too often, a Modernist intervention is inserted into a historic context – using the rationale that radically different appearance makes it clear that the new work is “of our time.” Many preservation commissions advocate this strategy – even though such policies destroy the very character of the historic resources they are charged with preserving.

The proposed addition to the 1914 Fourth Presbyterian Church, designed by Gensler’s Chicago office, is just such a case. The church itself was designed by Ralph Adams Cram, while the adjacent parish buildings were designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw in a complementary Gothic style. (Shaw obviously did not feel the need to contrast his work from Cram’s.) The result is a seamless ensemble where the two buildings work together to establish a distinct character for the block.

Then along comes the proposed addition. Apologists for the new building assert – in a breathtaking burst of sophistry – that the Modernist addition complements (my italics) the historic buildings. Now "complement" means “makes up a whole, or brings to perfection.” Unless words have totally lost their meaning, there is no way that a hard-edged Modernist design “brings to perfection” the existing ensemble of ornamental Gothic buildings.

It’s nice that advocates feel they have to use the term “complement” to justify this adversarial, disruptive design, because an appropriate addition would indeed complement the original structures. Alas, this is merely another case of architects' designing what they want – and then devising rhetoric they think will sell the project – no matter how much violence they do to logic, to the English language and to the character of historic settings. This proposal is certainly a worthy candidate for the annual Sore Thumb award.