Does a good cause inevitably lead to good architecture?
It's a touchy subject, especially when you're taking the measure of a building, like the new Ronald McDonald House in Chicago, which provides convenient, caring lodging for families that have a child in the hospital. Criticize anything in such building and you're bound to sound insensitive, as if aesthetics mattered more than cancer. Yet all urban buildings, no matter what their purpose, are obliged to appeal to a broader constituency — namely, the people who pass by them every day.
So here's my split verdict on the new Ronald McDonald House: It's enormously attentive to the families who use it, wrapping them in a sense of normalcy at a time when their worlds have been turned upside down. But it's no prize-winning work of architecture. To say so isn't to deny the good that's done there. It's to wish that the building excelled equally at raising the quality of the cityscape.
To put this in Siskel & Ebert terms, a thumbs-up on function can coexist with a thumbs-down on form.
Located at 211 E. Grand Ave., just east of Michigan Avenue, the $39 million, 15-story building was built to serve families whose children are being treated at the new Lurie Children's Hospital and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, both a few blocks to the north. Provided at little or no cost, its 86 guest rooms are reserved for families who live at least 10 miles away. The idea is to provide them with a home away from home — a high-rise inn, as it were. Indeed, reflecting Chicago's penchant for architectural superlatives, this is said to be the world's largest Ronald McDonald House, making it an appropriate match for Lurie Children's, which bills itself as the world's tallest children's hospital.
The problem with bigness is that it can be intimidating. The architects of Lurie Children's dealt with that (rather awkwardly) by making their high-rise evoke a pile of children's building blocks. The architect of the Ronald McDonald House, Joe Antunovich of the Chicago firm Antunovich Associates, took a different tack. He's a contextualist, not a cutting-edge modernist, and his design reflects his desire to make the building a good neighbor even if it dwarfs the two restaurants that flank it.
In that spirit, Antunovich sheathes the concrete superstructure of the Ronald McDonald House in human-scaled, hand-laid brick. Stacks of bay windows signal the building's adherence to Chicago vaunted design traditions. The east and west facades, which could have been eyesores of party-wall brick, are nicely softened by horizontal bands of glass that draw light into the family lounges on the building's east side and corridors throughout. An aluminum cornice simultaneously evokes the lid-like tops of Chicago's 19th-century skyscrapers and gives the building a modern flourish.
While the intentions are noble, the exterior outcome is less so. The brick cladding looks flat, like wallpaper, as though it were a veneer on preassembled concrete panels. The brick lacks depth and texture, a shortcoming that is particularly irksome at street level, where articulation might have appealed to passersby. Street-level aluminum storefronts are equally banal. The east and west facades, resemble stacked layer cakes, putting them at odds with the appealing verticality of the bay windows.
This isn't a bad building. It's just mediocre, a neither-fish-nor-fowl design that lacks the sleekness of modernism or the richly animated surfaces of traditional architecture.
But it redeems itself by being thoroughly attuned to the needs — practical, emotional and social — of the people who use it. For that, credit goes to Antunovich; Doug Porter, the CEO of Chicago-area Ronald McDonald House Charities; and Chicago-based Gettys, whose interior designers gave the building its furnishings.
This attentiveness begins at the building's main entrance, which is not along busy Grand Avenue, but off an alley to the south, providing an appropriately secluded entry for families arriving by vehicle and shuttle buses from Lurie Children's. The entrance is recessed, enabling visitors to stay out of the rain, snow and wind. There's little artful design here, but glass walls offer a glimpse of a reassuring symbol in the foyer, a life-size likeness of Ronald McDonald sitting on a bench. (A secondary entrance, for pedestrians, is off Grand.)
The repetitive sameness of the building's exterior masks a variety of functions within: The private guest rooms are stacked above a series of communal zones, including handsomely appointed kitchen and dining areas on the third floor, a collection of comfortable living rooms on the fourth and a reception area on the fifth. Interestingly, there are no TVs in the guest rooms. The idea is to discourage people from cocooning in their rooms so they'll bond with — and support — other families.
A glassed-in roof deck, with a serene healing garden on one side and an active play and cookout area on the other, furthers the aim of building a community of healing.
The interior isn't about uber-chic modernism. Instead, it offers a middle-brow palette of warm colors, comfortable seating and representational artwork. Some of the moves, like the tiny, colorful mailboxes in the reception area, offer playful reminders of home. Others, like an internal stair that links the third and fourth floors, enhance the building's domestic feel and are enlivened with interactive sculpture that's a hit with kids. Others, like the easy-to-reach plugs in the bases of table lamps, are refreshingly commonsensical. Still others, like the family lounges, provide homelike venues for gathering or checking email late at night.
As important as these tangible features are, the most important amenity is intangible: abundant natural light and views, which are present throughout, though not, sadly, in the building's chapel. For families buffeted by a child's life-threatening illness, such expansiveness may help them hold on to hope. While the concrete superstructure of a David Hovey-designed residential tower now rising to the south is cutting off some of the building's openness, Porter says he has not received complaints from families. They obviously have more important things to worry about.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun