A sweet challenge for local architects

By Luke Wilusz

A team of Chicago-based architects, engineers and modelers recently got together and built a scale model of a museum it designed using cutting-edge technology like 3-D modeling software and precision laser cutting. This process was nothing new, and it was strictly business-as-usual, except for one little detail—the model was made entirely out of cookies and other sweets.

Edible Edifice is a fundraising event that involves professional engineers, designers and architects who take a new approach to that traditional holiday favorite, the gingerbread house. This year’s event was held on Dec. 9 at Room & Board, 55 E. Ohio St., where submissions were rated by a panel of judges and auctioned off to benefit Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to preserving Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, which was completed in 1909 at 875 Lake St. in Oak Park, Ill.

Emily Roth, executive director of UTRF, said the foundation called for local professionals to create designs for the event, and it received 11 total entries.

“We asked local architects, designers, engineers—anybody who would like to participate—and we have challenged them to defy convention in the same way Wright defied convention,” Roth said. “We’ve asked them to reinterpret the traditional gingerbread house through 21st Century eyes.”

Steve Wasilowski, chief operating officer for FitzGerald Associates Architects, organized a team at his firm to create a cookie-based replica inspired by the model it designed for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which is currently under construction in Winnipeg, Canada.

“It’s a radical-looking building and probably not one that lends itself to replication in cookie dough,” Wasilowski said.

He said the Edible Edifice submission was intended as a morale boost for the firm, and members of the project enjoyed working on something lighthearted for a good cause.

“We thought it would be a fun activity,” Wasilowski said. “And we thought it would be entertaining to try and employ some of our new architectural tools and techniques on a building model made of cookie dough. We’re using 3-D modeling and lasers to cut the cookies on our particular model.”

Charles Cook, principal of Cook Architectural, put together a team to build a model of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St. He said the building’s iconic status in the city and unique design elements drew the team to it.

“We liked, for one, the kind of massing of the structure—it had some depth to it with these large arch windows [with] the brick arches that step back into it,” Cook said. “And [we also liked] the more flamboyant elements up on the pediment in the corners that kind of give the building some vitality. We thought those would be fun elements to recreate in confectionary components.”

However, Cook said some of those elements presented unique challenges to his team.

“We wanted to convey the glassiness of the big arch windows,” he said. “So we were able to do that by creating sugar-candy glass panes, and then we lit the building from the inside so you see that transparency.”

The proceeds from auctioning off the models at Edible Edifice go toward restoring and preserving Wright’s Unity Temple, which Roth said is in need of serious

structural repairs.

“Water is Unity Temple’s greatest enemy, and over 100 years there’s been a great deal of deterioration of the original concrete structure,” Roth said.

She elaborated, noting that as water enters the concrete and freezes, it expands, which can cause the concrete to crack and fall off in chunks.

“We are very concerned about the structural integrity of the building over the next decade or so,” Roth said. Cook said Unity Temple was important to preserve because it’s a classic representation of Wright’s work while remaining distinctly different in purpose from his later designs.

“A lot of the works [Wright] was famous for were private residences or corporate kinds of buildings, like the Johnson Wax Building—at least in the Midwest,” Cook said. “But [Unity Temple] is one of the few buildings designed as a public building to begin with, and it embodies a lot of the unique features he brought to the world of architecture. I think it’s a treasure that needs to remain accessible to everybody.”

Wasilowski said he agrees Unity Temple is important to preserve and restore, but he emphasized that all examples of classic architecture in Chicago are significant and worth protecting.

“I think they help define what the city is and make it unique,” he said. “Without those kinds of buildings, we don’t differentiate ourselves. Part of what makes Chicago an attractive place to come and visit and stay and work and live is we have this kind of heritage and culture that supports historic buildings. It’s part of the allure of our city.”