Municipal Feng Shui


Completed in 2015 and self-billed as “a new civic, educational, and social hub for Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood,” American architecture, urban planning, and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s (SOM) recent 16,370-foot Chicago Public Library (CPL) branch is already being celebrated by architectural writers and critics as a wild success — one that, as the Chicago Tribune (the Trib) would have you believe, “breaks [the] cookie cutter mold” of what a library has always traditionally both been and intended to be. The CPL branch is the only public library in the area, too, a shiny new post-Daley dynasty gift from the City of Chicago that was purportedly designed and built in consultation with Feng Shui experts and principles, as well as the general Chinatown public. But whether or not the building truly, effectively reflects the ancient Chinese philosophy, in conjunction with the ever-evolving demands of civic and public urban space utilization, is the central investigation of this essay. SOM’s evolutionary history and international portfolio will be contextually considered as groundwork research for understanding its approach to the program. And the Chinatown neighborhood’s past, present, and projected socio-geographic makeup will contribute to understanding the needs and demands of such a unique community.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has long been considered one of the foremost architecture firms in the world, pioneering advancements in urban planning, architectural design, and structural engineering since their formation in Chicago in 1936. The firm began branching out the following year, with the opening of a second office in New York City, and it has since established regional offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai. The home office in Chicago rose to initial prominence in the 1950s, when SOM began undertaking primarily the design and execution of predominantly high-end commercial office buildings, still the specialty of the firm today. The majority of these projects were stylistically minimal and structurally innovative buildings done in what would come to be known as the International Style. An offshoot of Miesian-era Modernism, the International Style emphasises volume over mass, favors the use of commercially-produced materials, rejects ornamentation over transparency, and often allows the engineered structure of the building dictate the outward aesthetic of the building.

This legacy of forward-thinking design solutions is owed largely in part to the diversely skilled leadership of SOM’s architects and structural engineers. Of the leading forces behind the firm’s success, one of the most prominent was Walter Netsch. Netsch, who was with the firm from 1949 to 1979, was responsible for introducing Field Theory — an architectural design principle rooted in the rotation of the cube to create complex structures — to SOM’s practice. Netsch also masterminded the initial plan for the Inland Steel Building (30 West Monroe Street), the first skyscraper to be constructed in Chicago after the Great Depression — though sadly his design was later heavily revised.

Many of SOM’s architects come from this Modernist tradition, including Myron Goldsmith. Goldsmith, a student of Mies van der Rohe and Pier Nervi, was with the firm from 1955 until 1983, a time during which he executed nearly forty projects. Bruce Graham (with the firm from 1951 to 1989) helped create Chicago’s iconic skyline, with work on the Sears Tower, as well as the John Hancock Center. Lucien LaGrange (at SOM from 1968 to 1985)  introduced theories of New Urbanism and New Classical Architecture to the firm’s practices. Fazlur Kahn, who joined the firm in 1955, became one of the most renowned structural engineers in the industry, pioneering the method of tube construction still in common use today, and he was an early adopter of computer modeling. Adrian Smith and Bill Baker, more recent partners at the firm, are both responsible for the significant advancements in recent years in the construction of supertall skyscrapers.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill also showed themselves to be progressive in the cultural and gender-based diversity of the associates under their employ. In 1973, they named Brigitte Peterhans an Associate — and later, in 1979, an Associate Partner, at a time when the architecture industry was almost entirely male-dominated. This forward social thinking remains with the firm today, as we’ll touch on later.

SOM has continued to take on prominent clients and innovate theory and methodology in their applied practice. To date, the firm has completed projects in over fifty countries with over ten-thousand projects completed in the continental United States alone. Their landmark 2017 exhibition, Engineering x [Art + Architecture], produced in partnership with Mana Contemporary on the occasion of the second edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, showcased these innovations through the application of hand-drawn sketches, interactive sculpture, immersive video, and more than thirty handbuilt structural models at 1:500 scale, addressing physical and environmental challenges with concise and plainly expressed solutions.

For their work, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill have received over seventeen-hundred individual awards, more than any other firm currently operating. SOM is also the only firm to receive the Architecture Firm Award, given for overall excellence by the American Institute of Architects, twice — first in 1962 and then again in 1996.

It is through their highly skilled and diverse staff that Skidmore, Owing & Merrill built their reputation, and their drive for experimentation has allowed the firm to maintain that reputation, leaving the firm at the forefront of an industry that demands innovation at every turn.

Best practices for civic and public space utilization have changed along with the evolution of architecture. Today, effective civic space is seen as “precondition for accountable governance and social justice.” Libraries have undergone rapid change over the last thirty years, following the advent of the Internet, the mass digitization of texts, and the rise of handheld electronic devices. Libraries have become symbols of not just knowledge but community, as well-designed ones now “enable all members of society to contribute to public life by empowering them to exercise their fundamental rights of information, expression, assembly, association and participation.” New approaches to civic space and architecture have been shown to be “‘win-win’ from both a strategic/political and practical perspective, including benefits related to cost-effectiveness, increased leverage, enhanced objectivity and greater credibility” for the communities that they serve by functioning as neutral gathering grounds for localities. These spaces in turn function as ecologies of architectural practice.

What’s more, “public libraries are in fact some of the few public places and spaces left in most cities” today. This is because, on a metaphorical level, “information is a fundamental element of the public sphere.” You can’t go stand inside the Internet. And, for a bilingual library like the CPL Chinatown branch, the additional function preserving cultural heritage, where the “identity of society is both constituted and questioned.” This posit is of particular interest in Chicago’s Chinatown, which holds unique historical significance.

It is the second oldest settlement of Chinese in the United States, established circa 1915. But it has few well-known structures, despite so being architecturally rich. Only two-or-so buildings predate its socio-geographic designation. In 1912, “when Chinatown moved south to its present location from Chicago's Loop, the [now Chinese-American Museum of Chicago] housed the Chapman Manufacturing Company's medicine factory,” the neighborhood’s first Chinese presence. Buildings in the area exemplify mostly architecturally symmetrical Chinese-Modernist blends, gabled roofs that give way to International Style-esque pylons, materials, these sorts of things.

The area is demographically comprised of about — according to the 2010 census — 22,000 individuals of Chinese descent, although the number today is likely much higher as Chinatown’s population had “ballooned by 26 percent between 2000 and 2010.” This population explosion was also a major contributor to the demand for an effective civic space, as SOM’s CPL branch replaced a smaller and aging structure farther away from public transportation. The emphasis on Feng Shui was initially driven by community input, as the people of Chinatown had, around this time, assembled a comprehensive Community Vision Plan for Chinatown whose future development mission statement read:

“The community will work together and in partnership with its neighbors to identify and evaluate the opportunities for future development within Chinatown’s core and in adjacent areas, determining wise priorities that will improve the function and enhance the character of the neighborhood and surrounding area.”

The plan mentions the upcoming SOM library an exciting twelve times and emphasizes the need for a “public engagement process” during planning phases of all future projects.

But Chinatowns across the country differ significantly from the prevailing trends of progressive politics and civic space utilization — viz., in that the goals of social integration are all but rejected on a cultural level. Specifically in Chicago, Chinatown is expected to “continue to exist as a ‘symbol’ of voluntary segregation.” Although change may be in the air. The coming 2020 census is likely to reveal that the area has grown more diverse. And this is certainly aided by the CPL Chinatown branch, now a must-see destination for Chicago architectural aficionados, one that just so happens to also house rare Chinese and bilingual texts on its shelves.

The main components of Feng Shui, an ancient Confucian and Taoist philosophy concerning the flow of life energy, include chi, yin and yang, and the Five Elements and Eight Directions. Feng Shui was developed and “influenced by China's geographical configuration. This configuration of natural landforms became a model for almost every type of Chinese architecture.” This fact is particularly interesting concerning Chicago’s landscape — both natural and manmade. To this day, with 8.5% total acreage dedicated to parks, the official motto of the City of Chicago remains Urbs in horto, “city in a garden.” The Chicago Parks District is the nation’s largest municipal parks management organization, and it considers itself “the nation’s leading provider of green space and recreation.” If any city in the country mirrors the conditions for capitalizing on Feng Shui principles in architecture, it’s absolutely the City in a Garden.

The 1909 Burnham and Bennett Plan of Chicago was tenaciously devoted to parks; in echoing Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen, it asserted the lakefront — the most valuable land in the whole of the city — be reserved for parks, for spaces that would bring openness and vitality to urban life. Daniel Burnham, who worked with Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmstead on Jackson Park and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, shared the belief that nature was not just good for the human soul but necessary. In fact, Grant Park is arguably the entire core this 1909 vision, and it is now one of the most cherished parks in the country. Situated just southwest-west of this beloved lakefront — and bordered on the northwest by the southern branch of the Chicago River — Chinatown lies uniquely in the Windy City between these two bodies of water. In fact, Feng Shui translates literally to “wind-water.” Additionally, its northern border is capped by the 17-acre Ping Tom Memorial Park, established in 1991, which rests on the river.

Chi, which lies at the heartbeat of Feng Shui, is the “subtle flow of electromagnetic energy which links all things in the universe,” a concept that is additionally closely tied to emotional health and said to be carried through environments by “wind, water, the sun's solar energy, light and sound.” This life energy is said to penetrate solid matter, and in physical structures, chi “flows in and out of buildings mainly through the doors and windows.” But it isn’t only arterial arrangements and environmental contexts that affect the flow of chi. Materials play an important role, too. Sometimes, chi “can enter and leave through the walls.” And as such, buildings can dramatically alter the flow of chi: “[c]ertain building or decorating materials have a negative effect: synthetic fibres, synthetic building materials, artificial lighting and air conditioning all add their own artificial chi energy.” Stagnation of positive flow “is produced by dark corners, cluttered rooms and dampness,” while undesired rapid acceleration of positive flow “moving quickly in a straight line can destabilize the flow through an entire building, so long corridors, straight paths or several features in a straight line should be avoided.”

Combined with the Five Elements — fire, earth, metal, water, and wood — each individually and respectively associated with different color, shape, material, and meaning, principles of Feng Shui architecture emerge from the forms of natural world. For instance, “[b]uildings, be they tombs or towns, should if possible be constructed on sloping or well drained land;” or, how the “north of any built site should possess a mountainous shield or screen of trees protecting it from malevic” chi. The list goes on. It is, however, vitally important to isolate one specific value-additive ontology governing these architectural applications: that the Five Elements, “which figure prominently in Chinese cosmology and the practice of Feng Shui, is a classification system for all things occurring in the universe. For the purposes of architectural application they may be categorised according [to a system of] decreasing order of perception.” From most important to least important, this hierarchy goes: form, orientation, placement, color, material, texture, and numbers. What this means, essentially (and practically), is below.

“Such an order gives the planner/architect a high degree of flexibility in conforming with the five-element aspect of Feng Shui, allowing the application of another manifestation down the hierarchy if the most preferred one is inadmissible owing to the urban and planning constraints or otherwise, i.e. if ideal form cannot be fulfilled then colour follows and so forth.”

This ontology prioritizes the flow of chi through a built site, which is itself subject to the natural landscape and environment surrounding and penetrating it — of which Chicago is an ideal American case-study. With this basic understanding of Feng Shui, its key components, and its systemized application to architecture, we can now adequately analyze the effectiveness and appropriateness of SOM’s Chicago Public Library Chinatown branch.

Situated on a triangular 24,109-foot site, the two-story structure measures forty-two-feet high and is located just a stone’s throw from the Cermak CTA Red Line stop at the acute intersection of South Archer Avenue and South Wentworth Avenue, with its official address being 2100 South Wentworth Avenue. It cost about $19.1 million and has attracted approximately 1,500 people a day since its opening in the summer of 2015. Designed by SOM under principal Chinese designer Brian Lee (another socially progressive gesture), development of the project was overseen by Wight and Company, architect of record selected by the Public Building Commission of Chicago (PBC). And the structure has enjoyed praise since its completion. The Trib points this out dutifully: “‘I get lots of thumbs up,’ said Brandy Morrill, the branch's first assistant, explaining that many Chinese-speaking patrons use that gesture, rather than English words, to convey their appreciation.” The building has already received over ten prestigious awards, many of them related to engineering innovation and sustainability.

Its exterior features a south-facing entrance punctuated with thinned-out modernist typography. Elevated, bronze-colored vertical fins that envelope the building are doubly intended to contrast against its primary, high-performance glass curtain wall. The intention here is the maximization of natural light. During the day, sunlight flows into the building and increases interior visibility; at night, the library illuminated from the inside resembles a glowing lantern. In Feng Shui, it is believed that “vertical stripes will bring more uplifting tree chi energy, making the ceiling appear higher and the room more spacious.” This effect is certainly in full swing, as from merely standing across the street, the building feels much taller than it actually is.

As the day progresses, “the sun moves from east to south and charges up the south of [a structure] with radiating fire chi energy.” When the day is winding down, “the west of [a structure] will take in inward-moving metal chi energy.” So far so good. The direction of light flow (and so purportedly the direction of life energy flow) is continually exchanged, inhaled during the day and exhaled during the night by the structure — while, conversely, exhaled during the day and inhaled during the night by the sun. The aluminum façade fins (which are also sunscreens for patrons sitting on second-floor benches along the windows) emphasize inspiration connoted as “uplifting,” as the solar-shading screen integrated into the outside glass walls diffuse natural light throughout the structure itself, inviting and reflecting its immediate environment. SOM claims this solar-shading helps the building consume thirty-percent less energy than a normal library while providing a seventy-percent increase in vision glazing. The entire structure rests on a perimetered concrete plinth that blurs the floorplate and gives the library an impression of just having sprouted up from the ground. The extended plaza is peppered with greenery, although there is inadequate outdoor seating. Only one semi-circular bench opens to the north.

Its interior is centered around an amoebic, triangular court. Actual spatial programming was developed in conjunction with CPL officials, who helped maximize dimensional flexibility and usability. The community area and children’s zone are located on the ground level, while the teen and adult zones are located on the second level. SOM states that “[l]ike a traditional Chinese courtyard plan, all spaces connect to the central atrium room, providing clear orientation and spatial cohesion.” It is painted primarily white and red with black ceilings, a traditional Chinese favorite. Red is, of course, the color of fire and blood, which represents life and vitality and so is associated with summer (when the library opened) and the south (which the library’s entrance faces). To achieve balance against all this intensity, the branch’s furniture is softened and rounded. Much of the furniture is mobile, as well, which further lends the space to adaptability. In Feng Shui, “if chi energy passes a sharp corner it begins to spin and swirl,” an undesirable effect called cutting chi occurs, which leads to mental instability. On the other side of the spectrum, “[r]ound shapes boost mental energy, making [a space] feel more complete and finished.” On any average day, a library patron can experience children openly playing with books and toys, teens diligently studying for school, and adults relaxing and reading new books. When open later on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays (its most popular day of the week), the library throws a variety of community events and gatherings, many of them bolstered by CPL’s increasingly envied programming initiatives.

On the sustainability front, in addition to consuming less overall energy, the CPL Chinatown branch has achieved LEED Gold status with features like radiant cooling and heating, in-ground seasonal thermal storage tanks, a green roof (although an slightly incomplete one (for budgetary reasons)), and an in-ground stormwater retention system. In 2016, the structure won the United States Green Building Council's Emerald Green Building Innovation Award. One contemporary definition of Feng Shui is put forth by philosopher John Mitchell. It states, in part, that the system enables “the art of perceiving the subtle energies that animate nature and the landscape, and the science of reconciling the best interests of the living earth and those of all its inhabitants.” Put even more simply, Feng Shui tells us that “humans should live in harmony with nature and human acts should be designed with nature in mind.” These Taoist ideas exist separate and apart from economic and aesthetic concerns, although forms of Feng Shui do now possess the capability to discuss such evolved concepts. With respect to SOM’s Chinatown branch, the team was able achieve increased sustainability by spending “only about five percent more than a comparable prototype library, according to” the PBC than the standardized Daley library approach. Which, extrapolated, comes out to about $950,000 in excess upfront. The average annual energy consumption for a building of this end-use and sector in the State of Illinois costs roughly $316,595.80 to sustain. At an annually reduced rate of thirty-percent, the CPL Chinatown branch can expect a cost of $221,617.06 instead — which ostensibly means the building breaks even in just over four years. Over a fifty-year lifespan, state taxpayers will have collectively saved about $3,798,937 million, or about $76,000 a year, a comfortable salary for any human being. So I would not be so shy in suggesting the sustainability factor here really is a balancing force between human beings’ livelihood and the state of the environment. There is, however, no discernible Feng Shui justification for having a living roof beyond energy cost reduction, and the roof is not accessible to the public as a civic green space.

So, the $19.1 million question: does this structure perform as intended? If we descend down Feng Shui’s ontology of form, orientation, placement, color, material, texture, and numbers, the CPL Chinatown branch actually aligns strikingly well. Its softened triangular form not only influences the entire building’s design, but it mimics the shape of the site in the way a typical recta-linear structure would not. Its orientation is situated southward, activating the structure’s dynamic chi flow with vitality, while its placement in the heart of Chinatown, flanked by bodies of water and capped by a northern park, is fairly ideal — not to mention the site’s greater context in the landscape-rich City of Chicago, SOM’s home. It is color-coordinated to underscore its intended purpose, and its materials smartly innovate on its energy sustainability. Texturally and numerically there isn’t a whole lot to be said, but Feng Shui would find this acceptable; SOM’s core pedagogy and praxis takes over where Feng Shui leaves off: concrete, aluminum, glass, and steel all come into International Style play both in- and outside.

The firm’s earlier innovators’ theories and trademarks (structural engineering prowess, advancements in urban planning, &c.) are also all present here. Yet SOM’s mythic stature does not conflict with its sensitivity to the site and the demands of its stakeholders. This was the impossible balance SOM had to strike: on one hand, International Style (at times accused of being a force of cultural suppression) had to describe an all-inclusive public space as an extension of the increasingly important Chicago Public Library system. On the other hand, the people of Chinatown assembled and petitioned for a culturally specific, symbolically driven civic destination.

Despite all of my initial impressions, I’m pleased to conclude that the CPL Chinatown branch truly is a sincere success. On all fronts, it delivers. And it is perhaps already the architectural crown jewel of Chinatown despite having no physical Chinese-architectural features. It strikes the impossible balance. Perhaps only a firm with such a finger on the Chicago pulse as SOM could have achieved this. Perhaps it’s not so hard to point a door a certain direction and round some corners. But everything from its placement in the Windy City to the axiomatic thoughtfulness of its exterior fins just philosophically and architecturally works. And, to top it all off, the structure and its functional capacities appeals to the public. What more could we ever possibly ask for.


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Sevy Perez