Sunday, June 24, 2007

A simple proposal for Cathedral Square

As a followup to a previous post...

Jazz in the Park, overcrowded as it is, probably isn't going anywhere. It is organized and sponsored by the nearby businesses that benefit from its proximity, and any other location would fail to bring them that business (though it's easy to imagine them providing some kind of festival-style tents at a different location, it'd also be a huge hassle.)

So if that's the case, if Jazz in the Park is going to remain a defining feature of Cathedral Square... shouldn't the park's design reflect that fact?

Shouldn't there be a permanent stage, instead of a clearly-temporary tent, which smothers the park's central design element?

Looking to the park's past, it's immediately clear where a permanent stage should be located:

Cathedral Square - Aerial view

The north end of the park once held the county courthouse. A new permanent stage could be located there without disturbing the park's basic form. The benefits would be numerous.

For one, if it was designed as a sufficiently substantial construct, it could consolidate a number of functions which are currently left haphazardly scattered around the temporary stage: storage, bathrooms, and whatever functions the mobile trailer parked behind the stage serves.

Cathedral Square - junk behind the stage.

A large number of Port-a-Potties are left sitting around in the park all summer, and it really just looks like hell. They're Port-a-Potties -- they're made for construction sites, not green space. It's not how you're supposed to treat a respectable major urban park. Even if a new stage didn't include the same number of toilets, it could include some kind of screened section where additional portables could be located for the summer. Alternately, two separate sets of bathrooms could be provided, a small set for everyday use and a larger pair opened only on Thursday evenings.

Second: a new stage at this location would allow all that space that's behind the current stage to become viewer seating, and make it much more pleasant when Jazz in the Park's not in session by getting rid of all the temporary junk. If the new stage backs up all the way to the sidewalk, the park could actually gain useful space for Thursday nights. At worst it'd be a break-even situation.

Third (and I don't know how much of a concern this is, but it's worth mentioning), it would have the audience with the sun at their backs, which is usually nicer than squinting into it.

Fourth: it would provide a badly needed sense of spatial closure at the park's north end.

Fifth: it'd be the perfect time to reconsider the rest of the park's detailing. I complained earlier about the park's unappealing pathways. Some simple additions could completely alter the feel of the park:

Path in Zeilder Park

That's Zeilder Park downtown. A few simple elements transform a plain asphalt walk into a place that invites one to linger and relax. Half-walls and permanent picnic tables could achieve the same along Cathedral Square's edges.

So what're the drawbacks?

Money, money, and money. Putting up a substantial building with electricty and plumbing is not an insignificant undertaking, nor is maintaining it year-round. Time, also -- such a construction project could shut half the park down for a year or more, including an entire summer.

Spatially, the park would lose some of its central green space where the stage would be, though what remained would be a nicer space for it. In an ideal world, we could poach ten or fifteen feet off of E. Kilbourn Avenue -- look how ridiculously huge it is! In reality, it'd probably be very difficult to make it happen. Removing the two central paths in favor of paths near the park's edges could also compensate for the loss.

As I said before, the powers that be should consider options. If Jazz in the Park is truly here for good, then the park that hosts it ought to be treated accordingly.

Sitting through red lights

Y'know what drives me utterly mad? Sitting at unnecessary red lights.

Oh, I understand that Water Street has to yield to Wisconsin and vice versa. And that such major streets, tied in to so many other major streets, are going to be impossible to synch up perfectly. That's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about intersections like Oakland and Edgewood, at the bottom of the hill as you head north into Shorewood. Oakland is a major commercial street. Edgewood's a minor residential side street; it has no other lights. Yet after sitting through the entire red light at the previous intersection (also a minor residential street), I had to sit through the entire red cycle at Edgewood, too.

It doesn't make a lick of sense! Those cross streets have nothing that they have to synch up with. If you sit through one, you should cruise through the other. You should never pull away from a fresh green only to watch a light two blocks ahead of you turn red.

It'd be a minor complaint if I didn't encounter this sort of problem all over the place. But it happens constantly, all over the city, and it's utterly maddening. It wastes gas, it wastes time, it creates extra pollution and traffic. Any gains in traffic slowing, I'd bet they're offset by people speeding away out of frustration and/or a desparate desire not to get caught at yet another red light.

I really don't know what other motivations there could be behind such a system. Some of these intersections are probably triggered by under-pavement sensors that start the change when a car pulls up at the red light. If this is knocking them out of synch, couldn't they be set to skip the green for the side streets if no cars are present? That happens at two side streets on Oakland north of North Avenue, and it works just fine.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The breakwater: still my favorite spot.

Ah, glorious summertime has descended on Milwaukee at last! After endless months of dark, damp and damnable cold, southeast Wisconsin can now savor four hard-earned months of gently warming sunshine and cooling breezes off the lake. Milwaukee's summers are as picture-perfectly mild as its winters are intolerabley awful, and I treasure every second of them.

(Yes, mild. I grew up in Louisiana. Don't even try to tell me that it gets hot up here, 'cause after six years I can tell you: it doesn't!)

The lakefront comes fully alive on wonderful summer afternoons like this one, crowded with bikers, roller bladers, people out for a stroll, sunbathers, swimmers. I love the lakefront... yet my favorite spot in the whole city is surprisingly removed from all this -- removed from the city itself, in fact.

The Breakwater of Milwaukee's harbor

The breakwater runs out into the lake for half a mile, protecting the marina and the boat launch from the lake's open waters. It's open to the public all day, and is frequented by fishermen and walkers, as well as the occasional jogger. A sign instructs visitors to walk their bikes, but I've found if you ride slowly and gently, nobody seems to mind.

The breakwater - view toward land

The views from the long concrete and steel pier are spectacular. The shoreline stretches away to the north, and due west city skyline can be seen in full, often across a harbor full of sailboats at anchor.

The skyline from the breakwater

It's a fine spot for watching fireworks as well, as dozens of boats make their way in and out of the harbor, and the skyline glimmers beyond. The enormous flashes of light disappearing into the lake's black void make one mindful of just how enormous Lake Michigan is, and the crack of the explosions echos bizarrely off the wall of downtown skyscrapers. One can clamber out onto the piled rocks near the breakwater's end and find many comfortable spots to nestle for the show.

Fireworks from the breakwater

Even in the wintertime it offers some entertainment, as the waves pounding against its vertical sheet metal pilings throws water as much as ten or fifteen feet in the air. In the cold months, the water freezes and piles up, building ice mounds that cover the entire pier to a height taller than a man.

Ice on the breakwater

It's a unique place, never mentioned in the tourist guides, and not immediateley obvious despite its central location. But it's well worth seeking out, especially with Milwaukee's grand summer now in full swing. On a fine day, it's always full of people and life.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

New Formalism in Milwaukee

It's a style that can be found in just about every American city; Milwaukee has a few scattered examples, and Chicago is flooded with them. For years I referred to it as Onassis Modern, since it seems to embody the white elegance of 1960s upper crust society, the final gasps of the guilded ages. But recently I ran across an architectural history book that gave it a more proper name: The New Formalism.

(Man, my name for it is totally better!)

Los Angeles

Whatever you call it, it was an early reaction against pure Modernism, or at least Modernism's total rejection of historical precedent, and perhaps a distant precursor to Post-Modernism. It attempted to take Modernism's simplified forms and overlay them on aspects of Classical architecture -- rich materials, emphasis on structure, symetrical and axial design. The result was an architecture of polished white marble (or more frequently, concrete painted white), buildings surrounded with arcades of white columns capped with round arches -- or a visual simulation of a columnade, if the budget or site plan wouldn't allow an actual habitable exterior space. Its most noted practioners were Edward Durell Stone and, in one of his periodic stylistic swings, Phillip Johnson; perhaps the most prominent example of the style is New York City's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

New Formalist bank in Shorewood New Formalist bank in Shorewood

There's a pretty stock example on Oakland in Shorewood, a bank and insurance building. It lacks the round arches, but it's got every other standard feature: tall, narrow piers in white, infilled with brown glazed brick and stingily thin windows. A openwork concrete brick wall. Globe lamps in the parking lot. A glass-encased lobby and stairwell, complete with a series of lamps artfully hung at varying heights.

Showcase lamps - Shorewood

Brown glazed brick! Who ever thought up such a thing? The darker materials of the infill helps it "disappear", creating the desired "arcade" effect.

Another little example stands out on on the southwest fringes of the city -- I want to say Green Bay Road, but it's been so long I don't remember for sure.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

There's another little example up on Brown Deer Road at I-43, and a whole corporate campus in the style out by Brookfield Square Mall.

Overall, it's a widely under-appreciated style, particularly as it's about four decades old -- the age at which old architectural styles always look their worst to contemporary eyes. Even I can't help seeing it as a bit dry, stiff and stodgy somehow, but it also has a certain amount of beauty as well.

Milwaukee has recently lost two examples to remodelings -- a downtown office building on Wisconsin Avenue, re-skinned in 2004, and the Amtrak station (which had a neat exterior but needed a new interior in the worst way.) It's enough to make me perk up -- it would be unfortunate if all traces of the short-lived movement vanished from Milwaukee completely.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The genesis of a crime spree

From the Journal-Sentinel back in March, a stunning closeup look at crime in inner-city Milwaukee.

It's a painful, depressing read. How can this happen here?

(And why are we spending billions on a misguided war on the other sided of the planet instead of solving this problem in our own backyard?)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Jazz in the Park Smothers Cathedral Square

(Note: it's Tuesday night. I should have some shots of the park in overload after Thursday evening.)

It's obvious to anyone who's been there in the last few years: Jazz in the Park has outgrown its Cathedral Square home.

Cathedral Square Park

The weekly summertime event has become so popular that it's virtually impossible to move around in the park on Thursday evenings. I'm all for urban events that bring people together; large gatherings are part of the excitement of urban living. But in this case, there's a downside to this overwhelmingly dominant use of the park: namely, every other use of the park, every other day of the week.

Cathedral Square, as it currently stands, is definately not one of the world's great urban spaces. Heck, it's not even one of Milwaukee's finer urban moments. Oh, it's got potential, but it needs a complete makeover to reach it.

The park is not particularly inviting or friendly; it fails to provide the sense of enclosure and separation from the surrounding city that mark the best urban parks (see: Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Union Square Park in Manhattan, and the sadly-underutilized Zeidler Park in Milwaukee.) It's not a place that people seek out because it's special, but rather simply because it's convenient. On a fine lunchtime at noon, or after 5pm on a beautiful Friday, the park generally hosts only a handful of visitors. This has been my experience with the park every time I've been by it over the past six years. Unless you've got a kid on the tot lot, there's just not much reason to hang around there.

So what's the problem? At a glance, Cathedral Square Park has no internal destinations -- no central plaza, very little permanent seating, no designed space that draws people into it and invites them to linger, no sense of circulation that tempts you to wander. Even when I have taken a walk through the park, there's no sense of entry or arrival; I just reached the other side and went on my way. And it was not till I took a close look at the Jazz in the Park stage that I realized: there actually IS a fountain underneath there.

What an apt metaphor for the reduction of the park to this single use!

The walkways that do exist are shabby -- cheap and aging asphalt paths that clearly state that this is a space nobody cares about. Instead of wasting money installing special paving at intersections, why not do something like that here -- in a space that's made for pedestrians, where a fine scale of detail will actually be appreciated?

Cathedral Square Park

A random scattering of loose picnic tables completes the picture of Cathedral Square as a space that exists soley to serve Jazz in the Park, with all other uses being an incidental afterthought.

Cathedral Square was once Courthouse Square, a half-block plaza with the Milwaukee County Courthouse at its north end. The Courthouse was demolished long ago, but its imprint remains on the park, which was never re-designed to deal appropriately with its revised circumstances. Where the Courthouse once stood is now an undifferentiated field of grass, lined with a couple of walkways. It is neither a grand promenade, nor, with its north and east sides left open and undefined, a great lawn.

The park has a a front (the north side, along Kilbourn) and a back (the south, along E. Wells), and two sides, but it's oriented completely wrong. If there has to be a front -- and there really shouldn't be -- it should face the Cathedral. The park barely responds to the impressive Cream City brick spire, however; only the placement of the fountain seems to acknowledge it, and even it reads more like a coincidence than an intentional choice.

There should likewise be a strong response to the cluster of restaurants at the southwest corner. With its cluster of old-growth trees and outdoor restaurant seating right across the street, this is actually the nicest space in the park, but it's treated like the butt end:

Cathedral Square Park

The north end of the park begs for some sense of shelter and enclosure, some protection from the street parking and the rather brutal MSOE buildings across the street, which are too harsh to be cozy and yet too short to define the edge of the park's space. This edge needs shrubs, trees, half-walls, earthen enmbankments, something. The grass field doesn't have to go away; it just needs to have its borders reworked.

Cathedral Square Park

The point of all this is to make Cathedral Square a space that's so nice, so appealing, it becomes a destination in itself, not just a platform for an event that happens once a week for three months of the year. Such is the highest and best use of an urban park -- a place that is filled with people at all times of day, there for multiple reasons.

So where could Jazz in the Park go? My suggestions would be either nearby Veterans Park, which has no shortage of open space, or the long-languishing MacArthur Park in front of the current Milwaukee County Courthouse.

The problem with both suggestions is that the event is organized by the East Town Association, which has every reason in the world to keep it right where it is. The hordes which decend on the park every Thursday evening undoubtably bring a great deal of business to the restaurants that cluster near the park. Both of my alternative locations have almost no businesses nearby, and neither is likely to develop them any time soon.

But with Jazz in the Park regularly packed to bursting, and crushing the park under its weight, it's past time to consider options.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Passing of a Quiet Neighborhood Icon

Trep-Art, the dance supply store at the corner of Park and Murray, will be closing the doors of its East Side location on June 16th.

Trep*Art window display

I have absolutely no use for dance supplies, but I will fervently miss the store's colorful and creative window displays, rotated seasonally, and always stylish. The dedicated window display is a rare art in general these days, and almost unheard of for a small neighborhood specialty store. I now feel incredibly lucky to have photographed their window displays at night on a few occasions. Trep-Art adds a spot of color and variety to the block I call home -- a bit of the spice that makes city living so rich -- and its departure is a loss for the city.

Trep-Art at Murray and Park

Hopefully the space will not remain vacant for long. A second location in Brookfield will remain open.