CHARACTER STUDIES - Design for Center on Halsted inspired by prototypes of potential community members
By Blair Kamin
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published June 24, 2007
When the annual gay pride parade streams by Chicago's remarkably transparent new gay and lesbian center Sunday, some characters who were an essential part of its creative process will be missing.
One, Deron Dixon, is a married TV sports editor who has yet to reveal that he is gay. Another, Pilar Bartolemeo, is a flashy "fabu-lesbian" who loves to party. Then there's Ian Larkin, a once-fiery campus activist who expresses his passion on gay issues these days by writing checks for AIDS charities.
But these characters won't be at the parade because they aren't real people.
They were invented by the architects and designers of the $20 million center, who borrowed a page from television script writers to personify the diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities -- and to sell their vision to their clients. The innovative approach, which entails modeling fictional characters and tailoring a building's interior to their counterparts in reality, was one of the unusual steps that shaped the three-story, 135,000-square-foot center, the most comprehensive building of its kind in the Midwest.
Intriguing as this technique is, it would be meaningless if it had not contributed to the satisfying architecture and urban design of the structure known as the Center on Halsted. This beacon of a building, with its see-through exterior, offers a telling reflection on the shifting state of what it means to be gay in a nation where same-sex marriage and other gender issues remain sharply divisive. Nothing could be more different from the smoke-windowed gay bar, a symbol of the once-closeted gay community.
Located at 3656 N. Halsted St. near the heart of Chicago's "Boystown" and built with city, state and federal dollars as well as private donations, the center is filled with facilities such as a handsome multipurpose theater, an expansive gym and a secluded counseling center. Its designers are with the Chicago office of Gensler, a San Francisco-based architecture and interiors firm. Gensler's other Chicago projects include the retail, entertainment and transportation portions of the long-jinxed Block 37 mixed-use project now emerging on State Street across from the old Marshall Field's store.
Gensler is not the first design firm to emulate the methods of the entertainment industry. Other architects have done "storyboards," like those with which movie producers sketch the shots needed for a film. (The architectural storyboards show how people will use a building.) But the Gensler team appears to be adding a new wrinkle to a type of design that sees buildings and their interiors not just as mute piles of steel and stone, but as tellers of stories.
"When a pilot is being produced for TV, there is a lot written for each character that is in-depth. It lets the writers think about the character in a deep way," said Gensler designer Carlos Martinez, who worked on the project with architect Grant Uhlir and designers Jay Longo and Elva Rubio. In thinking about the people who would use the gay and lesbian center, Martinez explained, "we wanted to be sure they were real people, not superficial."
Longo describes the technique as a way for the designers to detach from their own personal tastes and those of their clients, a point whose ramifications extend far beyond this particular project. "We had to step out of our own shoes and put ourselves into the personalities of these characters. What would they want?"
A dose of irreverent humor also helped the designers win over their clients. They mocked up a drawing of the center's facade, complete with a photo of the Queen Mother looking down on the gay pride parade. The Queen Mother decorously waving at the queens! "The board loved it," Martinez said. "They were like, 'Oh, my God. They really get it.'"
Translating the abstract
And so, based on the designers' interaction with the gay community, nine fictional characters were born midway through the process as the architects struggled to find a way to translate an abstract overall plan into concrete aesthetic reality.
Among them: Angela Franklin, the nurturing, recently divorced suburban mother of two; Al Ricci, the Bridgeport-born flower-shop owner who lives by the slogan "Be yourself"; and Ashley "Buzz" Johnson, the pierced, tattooed punk with the shaved head and the shocked parents, David and Marta, who are still struggling to cope with the reality of their daughter's sexuality.
Each was described in two or three paragraphs written by the designers and assigned a stock picture. They were then introduced to the clients and took on a life of their own, their stories told and retold -- even though they existed only on paper.
"Those are the people coming through our doors," said Modesto Tico Valle, the center's executive director.
In truth, the characters played little role in shaping the sophisticated exterior of the center, which forgoes facile solutions such as a rainbow of colors. That would have mimicked the exuberant sidewalk pylons of the North Halsted "Boystown" district. Instead, the center offers a restrained but lively neo-modernism that projects a civic identity but still manages to fit comfortably with the area's residential scale.
That is no small achievement because the 450-foot-long center easily could have overwhelmed its surroundings. The architects cleverly broke down the building's mass with setbacks and by incorporating the playfully decorated facade of a 1924 commercial garage (complete with winged spoked wheels) as the front for a Whole Foods grocery store, due to open July 25, that is an integral part of the center and will be served by the building's two levels of underground parking.
Because the Whole Foods will likely draw a broad spectrum of customers from the surrounding Lakeview neighborhood, it should boost the center's goal of becoming a bridge between the gay and straight worlds rather than simply being a haven for gays. At street level, an interior doorway will connect the store and the center. Not coincidentally, the doorway also will provide a path into the center for gay people who are not ready to declare their sexual identity by passing through the center's front door and into its highly visible lobby. (A side door on Waveland Avenue also permits a discrete -- and discreet -- entry for younger people into the building's youth center.)
"I remember the first time I walked into a gay bar," said Martinez, who is openly gay. "I walked past the place three or four times to see that no one was following me. And then I sneaked in."
While the preserved garage exterior is "facade-ectomy" that only saves the skin of an old building, it nonetheless preserves the human scale of the cityscape, creating the welcome illusion that you are walking by two buildings, not one. It is perfectly balanced by the center's new glass and concrete block facade, which manages to have a rich texture and pattern of its own. Gensler achieved this effect with projecting aluminum mullions and an irregular window pattern that subtly suggests the AIDS quilt.
Spectacular at night
If the overall impression of all this is a tad corporate, as if the center were the headquarters of Gay Inc., it is nonetheless skillfully handled and close to spectacular at night as light emanates from the transparent walls of the main lobby and translucent clerestory walls that ring the upper levels of the gym.
That same lack of edginess is also apparent in the center's spacious, light-filled lobby, which is nicely framed by the layered interplay of the exterior glass and exposed steel-reinforced concrete columns. But again, there is a reason that the lobby doesn't remind you of the outlandish gay bars and clothing stores of North Halsted.
Aided in part by the fictional characters, the architects were conscious that gays and lesbians wouldn't be the only ones using the center. Same-sex couples would be bringing in their children. The straight parents of teenagers who had just come out might be coming in for information and counseling. Even straight Cubs fans might wander in from Wrigley Field, three blocks to the west, which, in fact, they've already started doing.
The building, Martinez said, "reinforces that there's nothing sordid about a gay community center."
Yet it is hardly bland, gaining energy from simple but well-designed spaces that do the basics right with good proportions and lots of natural light. Most pack plenty of personality, an effect the designers achieved through finishes inspired by the identity of the characters.
The bright red walls of the center's computer and technology room, for example, reflect the outspoken personality of Ian Larkin, the former campus activist. The vibrant blue chairs and still-to-be-installed bean bags in the building's youth center are meant to appeal to young people like Ashley Johnson, the pierced punk character. "It's a place that I wouldn't like to be in, but that young people love," Martinez said.
The architects caution that they were less interested in literally representing the characters than in using them as metaphors to express the identities of the broad range of people who would flow in and out of the building. Though this connection isn't always persuasive -- the center's environmentally green roof, for example, could just as easily have been designed without any reference to Al Ricci, the fictional flower-shop owner -- it nonetheless produces an appropriate hybrid look, one that is customized to a diverse group of people rather than blandly universal.
This hybrid quality promises to rise to the level of poetry in the lobby, where the architects have specified a mix-and-match group of chairs and other pieces of furniture around a fireplace. The furniture, still to be installed, will represent eight of the nine fictional characters, suggesting a community of diversity. Deron Dixon, the closeted TV sports editor, is intentionally left out.
"He's represented in the balcony [looking down on the ground floor]," Martinez said. "He's looking down. He's part of it, but he's not visible. There are a lot of people in the gay community -- they are not 'out' yet, but they are participating in the community."
The designers proved equally clever in devising a way to furnish the center, which, like most buildings for non-profits, was built on a tight budget. They dreamed up a "furniture shower," an online registry based on the tradition of the baby shower and bridal shower. It lets people order pieces of designer furniture for the center, some of them deeply discounted. Designers of other low-budget buildings are sure to emulate this clever approach, if only because it will allow them to eliminate ugly folding chairs and cast-off couches from their high-style creations.
It speaks volumes about the state of the gay community that concerns such as these are being addressed today, a dramatic shift from two decades ago when resources were being poured into addressing the AIDS epidemic. Significantly, the center does not have an AIDS medical clinic, though it is home to the Illinois AIDS/HIV & STD hotline and offices for a dozen allied community groups -- such as the Chicago Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and others -- that reflect the community's diversity.
The center aptly expresses that diversity even as it teaches lessons that transcend the building itself. For years, star architects have brought to the table an attitude that could be summarized thusly: "My way or the highway." But the characters who informed the design of this building speak to another way -- less arbitrary and more humanistic -- even if they were nothing but a fiction.