An unnecessary Olympic loss

Michael Reese demolition removes a valuable contribution to architecture.

By Samantha Lee

I was one of the many disappointed when our city’s 2016 Olympic bid failed so pitifully last month. Chicago hadn’t been this excited for anything since the 1995–1996 Bulls’ season! As a Chicago native, my parents were saddened at not being able to make money renting out my room to visitors from afar, although I think they were secretly relieved that I-94 will not be reduced to extreme congestion come 2016. While many of us are still in a state of anguish over the results, we often lose sight of the sacrifices that the city has made in its assumption that the 2016 games were ours to lose.

The city is now in the process of demolishing 27 buildings on the Michael Reese Hospital campus, which was originally set to be the home of the Olympic Village. Unfortunately for us, all Olympic aspirations evaporated as soon as Chicago was knocked out of the first round in the bidding process. Now the city has decided that it has to recover the $91 million it invested to purchase the property. However, this demolition should be one of the final straws in a series of unplanned, irrational decisions by the city government to make lavish Olympic preparations at immense cost to Chicago.

German-born Walter Gropius is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern 20th-century architecture. His biography on the Gropius in Chicago Coalition’s Web site states that the only place in Illinois where you can find his Bauhaus-style buildings is on the Michael Reese campus, the very one that the city of Chicago is demolishing. The Bauhaus style was developed in Germany in the 1920s by Gropius and is identified by its unique adherence to functionality and asymmetry, as well as a tendency to view architecture through spatial dimensions. In addition to its architectural value, the hospital campus symbolizes a breakthrough in progressive city planning. Gropius not only designed the hospital campus, but also incorporated a plan to revitalize the neighborhood for the residents of the area. Plans included housing for residents and hospital staff, schools, and shopping malls. Moreover, Gropius utilized open and green spaces to combat the density that characterizes American cities.

Demolishing the buildings on the Michael Reese campus amounts to destruction of an important cultural contribution by one of the most prominent architects of the early 20th century. Chicago’s city government was completely inept at creating backup plans in the (likely) event that it wouldn’t receive the Olympic bid, in effect partaking in cultural destruction for absolutely no reason. And to add insult to this explicitly shameless destruction of an important part of Chicago’s architectural history, the city has decided to spare two of the Gropius-designed structures on campus. This is the equivalent of someone openly eating another’s cookie and leaving the crumbs behind.

The director of the Gropius in Chicago Coalition, Graham Balkany, states that the Michael Reese Hospital Campus is a “Christmas stocking, sitting there hoping that [it’s] going to get Santa to fill it up with presidential museums and other goodies.” He’s absolutely right; the political opportunities are endless. Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, for example, entertained the idea of replacing these historic buildings with “an expansion of McCormick Place, a hotel or entertainment district, or a high school.” What a great chance for city politicians to return the favor to their donors by giving them a vacant lot to develop! And they could attach their names to the projects, which they could later tout during election season as evidence of their commitment to the betterment of Chicago!

The demolition of 27 buildings on the Michael Reese Hospital Campus is a small part of a bigger pattern of irresponsibility by the city government in eagerly making plans at the expense of the city for an unattainable dream. It makes us wonder whether we were right to be so excited in the first place.

— Samantha Lee is a first-year in the College.