A Soundwalk Idea for Chicago’s Bauhaus District by the Michael Reese Hospital Campus

Many recent developments have occurred regarding the fate of Michael Reese Hospital located in Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood. The group leading the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, Chicago2016 is planning to demolish the hospital, but the Gropius in Chicago Coalition, Preservation Chicago, Chicago Bauhaus and Beyond, and other organizations have been campaigning to preserve those buildings. Many of the buildings at MRH were designed by architects with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and the The Architects Collaborative. The landscape architecture designed by Hideo Sasaki and Lester Collins that mitigated traffic noise around MRH’s psychiatric institute.

Two public hearings addressed the plans to demolish MRH. The first was on Monday, July 20th, at Daley College. The following night a public hearing was held in Bronzeville. To find out more, please visit www.gropiuschicago.org.

Buildings on the Michael Reese Hospital Campus
Buildings and landscape of Michael Reese Hospital Campus

It would be interesting to see if a soundwalk could happen by Michael Reese Hospital. Earlier this week, demolition bids were issued to several local companies. Abatement (removal of asbestos, etc.) has already begun. I’m not sure if it would be appropriate to have a soundwalk happen in the direct vicinity of MRH, later this summer… Apartment complexes and other properties border the hospital campus. If a soundwalk happens during the abatement process, the soundwalk participants would be hearing what the residents of that neighborhood would be hearing. A soundwalk could possibly happen there at the end of August / beginning of September.

map of Michael Reese Hosptial Campus and surrounding neighborhood
map of Michael Reese Hosptial Campus and surrounding neighborhood

I have visited the MRH campus to look at the buildings up close before the construction site fences go up. The architecture is stunning, and the landscape architecture contributes to the buildings’ effect to create a remarkable aesthetic whole. The building’s structures are unique, and in my opinion the architecture is warm. The architecture is suffused with striking characteristics which are distinct to Gropius’ style; in that way the buildings remind me somewhat of the famous Dessau Bauhaus building which Gropius designed. Chicago2016’s current plans are to save only MRH’s Main Building — the big, ugly building which was there for several decades before Gropius was commissioned to designed many of the other buildings. It seems that their plan to raze the buildings undermines their own promotional statements on the value of Chicago arts and culture — ironically including the city’s architectural marvels.

Toni Preckwinkle (alderman of Chicago’s 4th ward) and Chicago2016 officials have said that actual demolition (wrecking balls, etc.) would not commence until after the announced decision about which city will host the 2016 Olympics. That will happen on October 2. However, this is Chicago, and it is not quite clear exactly where the fuzzy line between “abatement” and “demolition” actually exists. Already things have begun to disappear from the property, including a plaque thanking Walter Gropius for his contributions with designing the buildings, a statue [UPDATE: Richard Hunt sculpture located], and uniquely crafted hand railings.

debris dumped from interior of Michael Reese Hospital building, photo: a href=During the public meeting on Tuesday, July 21, a General Environmental Manager addressed the crowd (maybe more than 200 people). He said, “I am the General Environmental Manager, but you can call me GEM for short.” He mentioned that as GEM he and his firm will be “getting samples of ambient noise” during the abatement & demolition process. I am not sure what they will be doing with those “samples of ambient noise.” The man who addressed himself as a GEM also said there will be a “well-managed wrecking ball demolition.” (I am not sure how they intend to manage the wrecking ball.)

This process is happening in what many people are calling Chicago’s Bauhaus district. (A short historical note: after the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus, many Bauhaus artists fled to the U.S. Some, such as Anni and Josef Albers, were invited to teach at Black Mountain College. Many other Bauhaus artists — such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, came to Chicago. Mies and his colleagues were a driving force in Chicago’s architecture and design communities, and Chicago’s skyline has been deeply influenced by the “Chicago Bauhaus.”)

Looking at those buildings made me think about some things I’ve read in Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter’s excellent book Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?. It would be great to go on a soundwalk inside some of those Gropius buildings, but that won’t be happening anytime soon…

How does all of this pertain directly to the field of acoustic ecology? It seems that what is currently happening at MRH relates to key concepts that R. Murray Schafer articulates in The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, as well as research, writings, and other efforts by the the World Soundscape Project and by other individuals and organizations around the world. What is happening now at MRH could be of interest to people in the acoustic ecology movement / field because:

  1. This is an example of what is happening and can continue to happen in cities like Chicago — as well as in other cities.
  2. This draws attention to how soundscape studies and acoustic ecology relate to public policy, urban planning, and other related fields.
  3. This draws attention to how the soundscape in that vicinity will be affected in the near future — throughout the summer, into this fall, and beyond —

a. How will people in that neighborhood be affected by the changes in the immediate future — as this abatement process continues, accelerates, and amplifies?

b. If Chicago doesn’t get the 2016 Olympic bid, I doubt that there will be a rush to develop on that property. In which case, Bronzeville residents and Chicagoans as a whole might have to deal with a huge piece of property razed of buildings which is devoid of trees and other beautifying effects of nature.

c. How will habitat be affected by this process, and how will the people who have been enjoying nature there be affected, if trees on the property are cut down, etc.? The property has hundreds of trees, lots of shrubs, and other kinds of foliage, and birds and other animals live there. The remarkable Sasaki- and Collins-designed landscape architecture could be demolished too, to make room for Olympic village housing for athletes. (Once that two-week-long Olympic party is over, then the Chicago2016 plan is to convert all of those buildings into residential housing — more apartments. This seems bizarre, considering there is already a glut of empty storefronts and residential spaces because the the current economy is still struggling.) During the meeting on Tuesday, a number of Bronzeville residents brought up the point that if the trees on the property are cut down, it will take decades for new trees to mature.