Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Windy City

I ended the afternoon yesterday by the lake, watching thunderous waves produced by a full-fetch gale out of the north, getting soaked in the process.

Waves just north of Diversey Harbor inlet, 4/19/2011 (JWB, 2011)
Earlier in the day, for the first time in my four years as a docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation I ended a tour by running the last three blocks.  A great group of young men and women from Loyola Academy accompanied me on a tour of the city’s historic skyscrapers in some of the worst springtime weather I have seen. 

As we left the Roosevelt University in the beautifully restored Auditorium Building on Michigan Avenue, The Hawk was howling out of the north at 30 miles an hour and the rain was a fin away from being hail. After 86 minutes of stoically facing the weather, Maggie, the brave little girl in the Gore-Tex shell, started to run for her life.  And the group followed.  Stout-hearted and gimpy-kneed, I paced the group, as it stopped only for the traffic light at VanBuren.

Yesterday Chicago lived up to its nickname . . . it WAS the Windy City.

Waves between Fullerton and Belmont 4/19.2011.  Compare to size
of cars on Lake Shore Drive (JWB, 2011)
Interesting what a little research will do . . . for years now I’ve been telling tourists the popular myth (as it turns out) that Chicago’s nickname came from a piece that Charles Dana wrote in The New York Sun during Chicago’s lobbying effort to get the 1893 fair.  It makes for a good story . . . Chicago boosters full of wind, yakety, yakety yakking, about the merits of their city.

As Barry Popik points out in his excellent article on the subjectthe Dana story just ain’t so.  Popik's research indicates that the term “Windy City” was used as early as 1856 to describe Green Bay, Wisconsin and as early as 1858 to describe Chicago.

My favorite reference in Popik’s comprehensive study is the 1879 entry from The Cincinnati Enquirer:

There was a young man from Chicago,
It was strange how he did make his jaw go,
One nice day he did to his pa go,
Saying, “Really, father, does ma know
If for crime and deceit
Any city can beat
This windy old town of Chicago?

Wherever the nickname came from, it applied yesterday.

"Windy City Man" on the Harold Washington Library
State Street faccade between VanBuren & Congress (JWB, 2008
I stood along the lakefront between Fullerton and Belmont late yesterday afternoon with my back to the wind and waves and looked toward the tall buildings that make up this great, windy city, buildings standing grey and impassive against the roaring assault from the north.  It was a moment, as the spray from yet another wave slamming against the breakwater drenched me, that made me appreciate the genius involved in designing the tall structures that have defined this city.

There are so many ways that the wind can affect a building.  The most obvious is the sheer lateral force of the wind against the side of a building.  For the past 36 hours we’ve listened to it as our 43-story condo building creaks and groans.

But even that obvious force is complicated.  The wind is not a constant and continuous force, for one thing.  Once it slams into a building it goes nuts.  It oscillates, it tries to sneak around the corners, it goes up, it goes down.  As a result, it assaults different sections of the building at different heights in different ways and at different speeds.

Imagine shaking up a bottle of champagne and then popping the cork at the corner of your refrigerator with the bubbly spraying in all directions, including right back in your face.  The wind is a continuous series of popped champagne bottles, some unshaken, some shaken vigorously, some with a lowly pulled cork, others with the cork exploding.

2520 Lincoln Park (JWB, 2011)
Now that’s no problem for the half-completed 2520 Lincoln Park, which as yet has few windows and through which the wind can blow without much deflection.  But button a building up with windows and you’ve got a massive spire of concrete and steel that the wind can’t blow through and so must blow against and around.

That produces problems for structural engineers.  But it also poses problems for pedestrians.  Just ask our elderly neighbor who broke her nose last year when she was blown over in the middle of Commonwealth, a short street that runs between the 43-story 2800 Lake Shore building and Mies van der Rohe’s 28-story twin towers to the west. 

There’s that, too.  A high density of tall buildings in a given area means that each building is impacted by the way the buildings around it handle the wind loads. Nearby buildings deflect, divert and re-direct the wind and do it differently from hour to hour.

So buildings have to be stiff enough to resist the variety of forces placed against them.  But they also have to flex with the loads placed upon them.

That’s what Haemon was trying to get Creon to understand in AntigoneSeest thou beside the wintry torrent’s course, how the trees that yield to it save every twig, while the stiff-necked perish root and branch?  And even thus he who keeps the sheet of the sail taut, and never alckens it, upsets his boat and finishes his voyage with keel uppermost. 

Finishing a voyage with the keel uppermost would be really bad publicity for an architectural firm.

Looking south at Diversey Harbor Inlet
4/19/2011 (JWB, 2011)
As our neighbor discovered last year and as we groundlings saw yesterday, when the wind smacks into a building, it has to go somewhere and when it goes down the resultant wind shear can make it really difficult for folks on the ground. Yesterday morning on Michigan Avenue Maggie ran, I’m convinced, because she knew that if she didn’t, she would be blown backwards until perhaps a doorman at the Hilton saved her.

All of this is an oversimplification, I admit, the product of a liberal arts education and a little bit of knowledge. But yesterday afternoon, watching those massive waves slam against the brand new breakwater at Fullerton, it was enough to make me appreciate anew the men and women who designed and built this Windy City.

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