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Lillian Daniel


Let Us Build Ourselves ... a Tower

It was a sparsely glamorous loft apartment, where the garage door was mounted inside, artfully separating the guest nook from the rest of the open living space. I peered out of the window to view the taller towers and balconies around me, and imagined what it would be like to live in a place this sophisticated. Shadows of the occupants were far enough away so that my fantasies of urban chic drifted up to the penthouses, where I imagined sleek furniture and martini glasses in every hand.

Right in front of me was an architectural provocation, a tower not rectangular but sliced instead like a thin triangle, topped by an iron balcony, where people walked slowly about. But the absence of cocktails in their hands, and the orange jumpsuits they all wore, suggested that this was no rooftop soiree. My host stood next to me at her apartment's window and followed my gaze. "It's a prison," she said. "Nobody realizes that there's a prison right here, downtown." But some people know the location quite well. On the streets down below, I saw now, scattered women and children were waving up to inmates.

In this landscape of towers, I recalled the ambitious urban planners of Genesis 11, who said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." They were wrong to think they could build their way to heaven, but in another sense, they were right. We do make a name for ourselves with our buildings, for better or for worse.

The penitentiary penthouse balcony overlooking Van Buren Street sits atop the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center, designed by architect Harry Weese. That rooftop must provide most of the sunlight, because the artistically spaced window slits are all of five inches wide, the maximum allowed in a prison at the time of its construction in 1975. On an architectural website where fans of Chicago's buildings get to vote to "raze it" ...

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