Legacy in limbo

Chicago's newest towers offer bottom-line solutions, but few technical or expressive breakthroughs
August 11, 2010

Once the center of high-rise innovation, Chicago seems to have lost the mantle of global skyscraper mecca. Progressive European owners and fast growing, optimistic Asian cities have recently shown the bravura of building that for "the City of the Big Shoulders" is but a faint memory. With plans shelved for 7 South Dearborn, the sleek 1,550-ft. megaproject designed by A/E Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM)-and in spite of the recent news that British architect Lord Norman Foster may design a new 60-story office tower-the latest projects on the rise include tepid if cost-effective mid-rise office towers and a stylistic hodgepodge of condominium buildings.

Even technology advances are accelerating faster outside of the United States, says Ralph Johnson, director of design with Chicago-based A/E Perkins & Will. "The more innovative things are happening in London and in Europe in general. There's more interest there in pushing the envelope in terms of structure and in terms of green building," he notes. "But there's not much of that at all in Chicago, due to interest in first cost; there are different economic forces at play."

With such rapid technical advances taking place in Europe and Asia, the laggard status of U.S. development heightens the focus on large cities such as Chicago, New York and Atlanta. "For the last 10 or 20 years there's been a question about what's happening to Chicago," says Dirk Lohan, principal of Chicago-based architecture firm Lohan Associates. "People expect innovative approaches from us, not just stylistic embellishments."

For American building teams, large questions loom: Has Chicago high-rise architecture-and thus, U.S. tall building in general-lost its way? And without an epoch of greatness, can U.S. developers, designers and contractors continue to show global leadership in the conception and execution of monumental buildings?

Historical context

To understand the position of the third-largest U.S. metropolitan area, it helps to draw some historical context, says James Goettsch, principal with Lohan Associates, which designed One North Wacker, a new office tower now under construction. "The first Chicago School-the development of the deep foundation, the skeleton structure and the use of elevators-was all about maximizing the use of the land and helping speculators," he asserts. "Skyscrapers have always been about money, and once there was that technical capability to build [tall, we did]."

In fact, it was this business focus that allowed the Chicago School to flourish and influence urban development around the country, say historians. "As an example, I would point to Burnham & Root," says John Zukowsky, curator of the Department of Architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago and editor of Chicago Architecture 1872-1922. "Daniel H. Burnham was the king of the speculative office building, and his designs were taken all over the country, such as the Rookery Building [1885] and the Monadnock Building [1889]."

Following a period in the 1920s and 1930s dominated by "New York-style," neoclassically inspired office towers, a powerful era of Modernist designs emerged after World War II that culminated in the massive developments of the late 1960s and 1970s.

"What you could call the 'second Chicago School' was very structurally based," says William F. Baker, SOM's partner-in-charge of structural engineering, citing such protagonists as the building teams involved in the Federal Center (1964 to 1975), the Chicago Civic Center (1963) and the First National Bank building (1969). "These buildings are successful because they're so honest and practical-and very rational. They weren't about fashion; it was the building as a whole, not just the skin. And they've aged very well."

"Modernists were very important in shaping the city," adds Helmut Jahn, president and CEO of Murphy/Jahn Inc. Architects, Chicago. "Designs from the 1960s and 1970s were much more progressive than they are right now, in terms of expression and technology."

Structure and architecture

Through the 1970s, high-rise development left an aesthetic and technological imprint for the world to study, says Zukowsky: "Historically, the most important legacy has been the structural approach to building."

Johnson agrees, citing John Hancock Center (1970) and the Sears Tower (1974) as prime examples. "For both, the structure was very much a part of the expression of the building-Sears' tubular system and the diagonal bracing of the Hancock tower," he explains, adding later postmodernist projects, such as Xerox Centre (1980) and 333 Wacker Drive (1982) to the list. "In the 1980s, structural expression was a way to solve a particular technological issue."

"The great Chicago tradition really has been the interactive relationship between architecture and structure, and the search for the latest and newest ways of doing these things," says Lohan. "And that should remain the dominant component of new and innovative building ideas coming out of Chicago."

Observers and building teams, however, readily acknowledge that it is precisely that relationship that has been lost somehow over the last two decades. The results-which include several attractive if uninteresting new office buildings and a stylistic mishmash of residential towers-leave questions: What-or who-stole the grand tradition of structural expression from Chicago? And what, if anything, has replaced it?

Exit the owner

While many arguments can be advanced, a confluence of factors over the past two decades have led to Chicago's high-rise demise. Beginning in the late 1970s, corporations fled to the suburbs, leaving behind the tradition that started perhaps with the Reliance (1895) and the Palmolive (1930) buildings and continued decades later with those for Sears and Standard Oil (1974). "Those were all built by the companies themselves, to make themselves prominent and substantial," says Goettsch. "But then in the 1980s, the developers entered the picture, using pension fund and insurance money to build."

The era of the corporate citadel had ended, and with it, a century of spending on great design. Even as owner involvement dwindled, feverish development continued through the 1980s. The speculative overbuilding produced as much shoddy, unusable product as it did Postmodernist icons. An entirely new generation of end-user needs, it seemed, could not be met by the latest class-A office stock.

That helps explain why, in the wake of a miserable early 1990s recession, BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois snubbed its nose at 20 million square feet of cut-rate excess space and built its own headquarters in downtown Chicago-the first significant new office tower in a decade. "Elevators in typical spec office buildings anticipate only one tenant per floor, and BlueCross BlueShield needed more interfloor traffic," says Goettsch. "The typical office layout anticipated 250 square feet per person, but they were at 140 square feet, so the toilets would have been inadequate. And they needed a cafeteria, security and a conference center, and none of those things were really possible with spec office buildings."

Still, this project was a statistical anomaly, as owner involvement in high-rise design faded in many large cities. The recent developer-driven market is manifested by smaller infill projects-such as The Alter Group's 17-story Dearborn Plaza, with its sleek, cylindrical corner-and sensible, low-risk towers like The John Buck Co.'s One North Wacker and the proposed Dearborn Center by Prime/Beitler Development Corp. This developer focus would seem to hearken back to Chicago's roots, when architectural invention met the challenges faced by speculators.

In fact, the latest office projects have offered a few advances in technology and design, Zukowsky observes (see "New traditions, new technologies," page 30). "One North Wacker is one of the first to use an advanced German glass, so there is some innovation going on there," he says. "And there is real spatial experimentation at BlueCross BlueShield, with an echo of Burnham's French atrium," says Zukowsky. Other significant changes include emergency power, novel heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) designs and more robust telecommunications infrastructures, adds Lohan Associates' Goettsch.

Homes in the sky

Many design and construction professionals would argue, however, that these technical advances-and today's office development overall-are incidental to the real building trends marking the end of 20th-century America, most notably the repopulation of older inner cities like Chicago (see "New ways to work and live," page 32).

"A lot of younger people want to live downtown, the Internet and e-commerce companies have also come downtown, and a lot of empty-nesters are moving back to the city," observes Lucien Lagrange, principal of Lucien Lagrange and Associates, a Chicago-based architecture firm involved with numerous condominium and rental towers. "The economy has been so strong, and a lot of people are willing to pay for million-dollar condos."

The result is an unprecedented residential boom, with more than 2,500 units brought on line in the first half of 2000 and a staggering total of 20,000 units announced for delivery in the next three years. And the offerings are as pluralistic as Chicago's diverse population: Urban home-shoppers may "try on" any number of stylistic offerings, from Soho-style renovated warehouses to stately Beaux-Arts high-rises.

The market-driven nature of the residential development has opened the door to criticism, however, with the most vehement questioning how the new buildings relate to the tradition of the Chicago School. "The buying or renting public might be very conservative, and new money wants to establish the look of old money," says Lohan, trying to explain why expensive units in the new European-style and neoclassical towers have sold so quickly.

Others are more direct in their critiques. "Of the new residential buildings, quite honestly there's nothing there but the bottom-line drive-this is what the market wants," says Zukowsky. "There are lot of things that are more interesting outside of Chicago."

Disappointment with today's residential development goes beyond the merits of the buildings themselves. In the shadows of greatness, these historicist towers are seen as not living up to the Modernist tradition that has made Chicago a world-class architectural center like Vienna or Berlin. "These are projects done during an economic boom, for maximum return with minimum input," adds Jahn. "There are no significant statements as there were in the 1960s or 1970s in terms of technology, form, or structure or materials."

Echoes of Mies

Yet, even that is already changing. Building teams have begun to unveil plans for 21st-century condominium towers that echo such landmarks as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 860-880 Lake Shore Drive (1952): unique forms clad with steel and glass curtain wall of a decidedly Modernist style. The trend is driven as much by architectural philosophy as it is by a sudden shortage of concrete-and consumer demand, say developers.

"Most people are traditional but in a bit of a modern way," says Lagrange, who equates his celebrated Park Tower-a slender, 67-story hotel and condominium tower completed last year across from the Old Chicago Water Tower (1869)-with such neoclassical landmarks as the Drake Tower (1929). His design for a new residential structure at 500 West Erie, on the other hand, appropriates the Miesian tradition. "It's for different people," he explains. "It's very modern, and it's attracting a very young crowd."

Other building teams rooted in the Chicago tradition are contributing to this trend by developing spectacular examples of structural expressionism. The best example may be the 34-story, fan-shaped Kinzie Park Tower, designed by local architect Nagle Hartray Danker Kagan McKay Architects Planners Ltd. for The Habitat Company and currently in the construction phase. Also under construction is Dearborn Development's 33-story "Skybridge," which uses concrete and glass to achieve a seemingly random quality of mass and void more suggestive of a cliff dwelling than a condominium tower. Designed by Perkins & Will, the residential units offer projections, recesses or terraces that can be glazed in without affecting the overall design. Lastly, Lohan Associates is quietly developing the design of a major residential project that offers a structural expression resonant of the Chicago modernist tradition, with floor-to-floor glass and steel mullions.

None of these fascinating residential projects, however, have generated the excitement of one new mixed-use project: SOM's 7 South Dearborn. Plans call for 57 floors of residential units cantilevered from a massive concrete stayed mast, offering 360 degrees of 11-ft.-high views. With a stainless-steel and aluminum façade accented by tinted low-emissivity glazing that notches back dramatically to its core mass, this structure is one of the most visually exciting to be proposed for the city in 30 years.

On top of that, 2001 started with a bang as Chicago's billionaire Pritzker family selected Lord Norman Foster to design a commercial office tower. While the designer is renowned for structural and technological expression, no schematic drawings have been made public.

Popular support

In spite of these groundbreaking developments, observers and builders are concerned that there is little chance that the most daring gestures will find public and political support. As Lee Bey, architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, said recently, city officials and developers seem more interested in turning the downtown into "an urban colonial Williamsburg, where everything is rendered in turn-of-the-century style, from light posts to subway entrances.to the buildings themselves."

So the question remains: Must the world capital of modernist architecture accept as its future a false historicism? Perhaps it won't have to. In recent major projects, one senses a glimmer of a greater Chicago. And the sleek needle of 7 South Dearborn may one day rise, driven by programmatic need, technological innovation-and the will of an optimistic building team.

         
 

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