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The changing skyline
"A city has to go on and live and renew itself." Dirk Lohan, architect

June 02, 2003
By Marcel Pacatte

In finding a starting point for a discussion of Chicago's skyline, 1978 might seem an odd choice.

After all, the "biggies" Sears Tower, the John Hancock Center and what now is Aon Center (built as the Standard Oil Building and long known as the Amoco Building) had all taken their place in the cityscape by then, the Hancock in 1970, the other two in 1974.

But the contours of the skyline Chicago's public face, a civic profile that's among the most recognizable in the world have been changing almost continuously since 1978.

And even though the more recent architectural jabs into the heavens haven't been as pronounced as they were in the '70s, the filling-in of the skyline has continued.

For one of the city's premier architects, 1978, the year Crain's began publishing, makes perfect sense as a starting point.


"I came to Chicago in 1978," says Lucien Lagrange, almost impishly. But he quickly turns serious in assessing what he feels is the signal feature of the city's recent architectural development: North Michigan Avenue.

"Michigan Avenue," he says, "is becoming such an incredible boulevard one of the most important avenues in the world."

It's perhaps no surprise that the French-born architect has such an affinity for Michigan Avenue. One of his signature structures, the Park Tower, home to the Pritzker family's Park Hyatt hotel, soars 67 stories above Michigan at Chicago Avenue. Completed in 2000, the building rubs shoulders with the Hancock, Water Tower Place (1976), 900 N. Michigan Ave. (1989), One Magnificent Mile (1983) and other skyscrapers that have crowded this stretch of the boulevard territory well north of the city's commercial epicenter in the 19th century, the Loop.

Michigan Avenue isn't the beginning and end of the experience, however.

"People do want to live in the city," says Mr. Lagrange, stressing the word "do." He's talking about the transformation of Chicago in the last 25 years, particularly in the last decade, during which the city's gradual population decline reversed, as people who previously would have gravitated to the suburbs began to return, drawn by the city's combination of shops, nightlife and neighborhoods. "I'm not sure we all understand why" this is happening, or why it is happening now, says Mr. Lagrange. But it is happening, confirming his belief that, today, "Chicago is a city of the world."

It can be said that a city's architecture embodies its soul; it's the place where a city's history intersects with its present and its hopes for the future.

The Rev. John D. Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church, observes this from his pulpit on Michigan Avenue between Chestnut Street and Delaware Place, the heart of the city's recently designated "Cathedral District."

When asked whether buildings can be seen as evidence of a city's spirit, he replies, "Absolutely, absolutely. Down through the ages, architecture has been an expression of the deeper aspirations of the human spirit."

The first big buildings, indeed, were the great cathedrals symbols, the Rev. Buchanan points out, of an age of faith. Although churches no longer are built on that scale, skyscrapers Chicago's gift to architecture symbolize that same human yearning. When he looks at the cathedrals to commerce that dot the cityscape today, he says he still sees evidence of the divine.

One of his favorite buildings in Chicago is right outside his window.

"I love the Hancock building," the Rev. Buchanan says, unabashedly. "It's so dramatic. Its sweeping crossbars. . . . It pulls your eye up like a pointer to heaven."

A few blocks south, back at the Park Tower, Mr. Lagrange recalls his first glimpse of that spot across from the Water Tower, the historic relic of the Chicago Fire when he was approached for the project.

"When I looked at the site," he says excitedly, "I pinched my side. I said, 'Wait a minute. Do you realize what you have here?' This is possibly the most important piece of land in the city."

"As an architect, you have to understand potential," Mr. Lagrange says to be able to look at a site and envision the possibilities. "Otherwise, it's a missed opportunity."

Donna Robertson, dean of the school of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, still sees potential in Chicago.

However, the next generation of buildings is unlikely to be on the scale proposed by developers like New York financier Donald Trump. His plan for a super-tall high-rise, designed by Adrian Smith of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, on the site of the Chicago Sun-Times Building already has seen its office space component halved from the 1 million square feet originally proposed.

Ms. Robertson cites the prevailing skittishness now about building such lofty structures, in part because of the weak economy and in part because of the lingering post-Sept. 11 fears of exposure to terrorist attacks.

Although "Chicago likes towers," she predicts that in the next 25 years, rather than buildings rivaling the Hancock and Sears Tower, Chicago will see "much smarter buildings," which will make their mark through their energy-conscious features and technological amenities.

"The projects I'm hearing about aren't necessarily the towers. We're going to see courageous architectural design; that's going to continue. We'll be seeing more experimental, innovative architecture unusual forms that offer new statements on the skyline."

Probably the most distinctive characteristic of skyscraper construction in Chicago in the last 25 years is the move away from towers that are primarily used as office space. More prevalent now are mixed-use buildings that combine retail and residential space, with the office component of many newer towers de-emphasized. Indeed, demand for Loop office space has been on the wane; vacancy rates have risen while rents have drooped.

With some older buildings, such as the Carbide & Carbon Building at 230 N. Michigan Ave., being converted from offices to residences and hotel rooms, office space has become almost incidental in some new projects. And, as Ms. Robertson notes, these conversions present architects with the creative challenge of doing new things within the constraints of existing spaces and façades.

Today, the boom in office construction is happening on the western fringe of the Loop especially on the far side of the Metra tracks, which, 25 years ago, was no-man's land in terms of office space.

But even as office construction ebbs there, the Loop is taking on a new character. Much of the recent activity, at least at street level, includes theaters, renovated and new, on State, Randolph and Dearborn streets. The Chicago, the Oriental and the Goodman all ring that block. And, at the northwest corner of State and Randolph staring across at the granddaddy of Loop commerce, Marshall Field's flagship store is . . . a college dorm.

Designed by Ruth Hansen and completed in 2000, the building houses students at the School of the Art Institute.

Says Ms. Robertson: "I've been fascinated to see the incursion of the School of the Art Institute into the Loop. It's changed the whole character of who is on the street in the Loop in a very real sense."

The building serves almost as a bookend to its architectural forebear, the Reliance Building now a hotel one block south, for the still-vacant Block 37.

Says architect Dirk Lohan: "An empty lot is never a good thing. The continuum of the street is interrupted. It's important we fill in the city."

The filling-in process began in 1871, after the devastating Chicago Fire. The city's leaders pledged to rebuild and aggressively promoted the opportunity in Chicago in the aftermath of the blaze. More than 10,000 construction permits were issued here between 1872 and 1879.

Chicago had become an alluring blank slate for architects.

"The timing of the fire, coming as it did on the cusp of steel-cage technology, contributed to the explosive expansion of Chicago," says Carol Willis, an architecture historian in New York and director of the Skyscraper Museum there.

Steel-cage, or skeleton, construction developed by bridge builders made possible the rapid and massive rebuilding that the city's leaders envisioned. Metal framing that supported the structure from within allowed more floors to be stacked onto even the smallest parcel of land. Buildings were soaring to unheard-of heights as a result. When Burnham & Root's Rookery Building at 209 S. LaSalle St. was completed in 1888, it was heralded as the tallest building in the world at 11 stories.

Soon, Chicago landholders, eager to wring the maximum profits out of their properties, were building up, commissioning structures like the 16-story "skyscraper" at 32 N. State St. the Reliance Building which made revolutionary use of glass.

What emerged from all this activity became known as the Chicago School of architecture, a precursor to the modern, glass-and-steel style that would develop in the 20th century under the influence of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others.

Chicago became known as a place that big-name architects wanted to make their mark upon: Daniel Burnham, John Wellborn Root, William LeBaron Jenney, William Holabird, Martin Roche, Charles B. Atwood, Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Prolific and influential firms such as Graham Anderson Probst & White designers of buildings including the Merchandise Mart, the Wrigley Building and the Civic Opera Building made their headquarters here. Others, such as Skidmore, Lohan Associates and Murphy/Jahn, would come later, and export the Chicago style to cities around the world.

Thus, architecture became an important commodity in a city that understands commodities so much so, in fact, that most Chicagoans, deep down, are architecture critics. They know what they like, and they don't mind telling you what they don't.

One recent focus of the armchair critics' attention is Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center, completed in 1985 and just 17 stories tall, which plopped itself loudly on the block bounded by Randolph, LaSalle, Clark and Lake streets.

Mary Bates, a Chicago Architecture Foundation tour guide, exclaims as she leads her group to the building, "I love the Thompson Center." Many others do not. Noise, dirt and inadequate heating and cooling have been the chief complaints of state workers in the building; "ugly" and "inappropriate" are among the assessments of those on the outside looking in.

Beyond the Thompson Center, many of the newer buildings don't get the attention from the average Chicagoan that some older skyscrapers do.

And those that do aren't always known by their proper name the prime example probably being the "Diamond Building," the most distinct of the new breed.

Its uniquely shaped top, its white lights and its position in the front row of the skyline, at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street, all announce its presence. In addition, it sits at a 45-degree angle on its lot, rather than flush to the street, as do all its neighbors along the South Michigan Avenue "cliff" that faces the new Millennium Park.

Designed by A. Epstein & Sons and completed in 1984 as Associates Center, it later became the New Stone Container Building and now is the Smurfit-Stone Building.

Sneaking into the picture across the street, almost lost between Aon Center and the Prudential, is Pru 2 Two Prudential Plaza. Completed in 1990 from a Loebl Schlossman Dart & Hackl design, the 64-story tower is topped by a spire reminiscent of New York's Chrysler Building.

No discussion of Chicago architecture could hope to be complete without a mention of Skidmore, the firm responsible for the most-recognizable elements in the city's skyline: the Sears Tower and the Hancock.

In addition to NBC Tower (1989), 60 stories tall at 200 E. Illinois St., and One Mag Mile at 980 N. Michigan Ave., topping out at 57 stories, the 63-story tower at 737 N. Michigan Ave., home to Neiman-Marcus, is one of many Skidmore designs that have added to the top edge of the city's profile. But does anyone on the street know that the pink-Swedish-granite Neiman-Marcus building is actually called Olympia Centre?

Another prominent firm on the Chicago scene is New York-based Kohn Pedersen Fox, responsible for 333 W. Wacker Drive (1983), the curvilinear green-glass structure fronting the southeast bank at the fork of the Chicago River, as well as its neighbor at 225 W. Wacker Drive (1989) and, down the street, 311 S. Wacker Drive (1990), among others.

Cesar Pelli is represented here too, having designed the former PaineWebber Tower at 191 W. Madison St. in 1991 an homage to Eliel Saarinen's second-place design in the 1922 contest for the Tribune Tower. Mr. Pelli later designed Petronas Towers in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, which stole the world's-tallest title from the Sears Tower.

And Frank Gehry, most famous for his groundbreaking Museo Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, was commissioned to design the bandshell for the new Millennium Park.
IIT's Ms. Robertson says that Chicago is still a destination for architects, despite the comparative drought in big building projects and the emergence of rivals for architects' attention such as Berlin, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

But the partial list offered here doesn't begin to define the city.

Henry Binford, a historian and urban expert who teaches at Northwestern University, believes a city is a marketplace, ever-changing; a place where transactions of all sorts occur.

What makes a city happen on a specific spot is sometimes intangible. In Chicago's case, Mr. Binford says, "It was location. And exploitation of location. Plus a dose of luck."

After a pause, he continues: "It was less luck than it was promotional success. If the St. Louis people had been more shrewd, St. Louis might have become more prominent." Another pause. "No other city had the (advantages of) location Chicago had."

The foot of the Great Lakes, the access to the Mississippi River and the railroads. All of this and more came together, Mr. Binford says, to help Chicago stormy, husking, brawling grow.

"Once the process gets started, it feeds on itself," he says.

But although a city grows and changes, Mr. Binford says, "A city becomes impoverished if it just gets bulldozed and rebuilt over and over. It loses its attractiveness and historical memory."

At the same time, a city can't become a museum to its past. Mr. Lohan, while stressing the importance of preservation, says, "A city has to go on and live and renew itself."

Finding the point where the responsibility to the past and the commitment to future development intersect is an ongoing point of tension, a balancing act. In Chicago, Mr. Lohan says, "by and large, we've done it."

Says Mr. Binford: "There are those who say preservationists err too far, are overdone, want to save everything. I worry a lot less about that than I do about the forces of development because the forces for development are always greater than the forces for preservation.

"In my experience," he continues, "Chicagoans, by and large, have a sense that there is a valuable architectural tradition here."

Stepping from the elevator at a graceful apartment building on Stony Island Avenue in Hyde Park, one is reminded of Chicago's personal relationship with its architecture.

Greeting the visitor in the foyer outside the door to Marian Despres' home is a poster that practically covers the entire wall, from baseboard to molding strip, at least six feet tall and easily three feet wide. It appears to be an original vintage advertisement of the sort now popularly reproduced on greeting cards and much smaller posters encouraging people to use Chicago's commuter rails.

This one is "The el at night," and features the black of the city dotted with yellow squares indicating the lights from buildings in the Loop and beyond. The scene is reminiscent of the last line of Carl Sandburg's poem "Skyscraper": "By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars and has a soul."

In the foreground of the poster as the only discernible structure, soul or no is the London Guarantee Building, designed in 1922 by Alfred Alschuler. The concave-fronted building at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive was long known as the Stone Container Building and now is home to Crain Communications Inc., publisher of Crain's Chicago Business.

Mr. Alschuler was Ms. Despres' father.

"Because of him, I have a stronger appreciation for architecture in the city," she says. "He was a very fair man who demanded perfection in people. He had a very strong aesthetic sense. He never built a building that he didn't try to make beautiful. Even his factories had a touch of the aesthetic."

"By night
the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars and has a soul."

Carl Sandburg, poet

Not every Chicagoan has a relationship with the city's skyline quite as personal as that of Ms. Despres, who served on Chicago's Landmarks Commission until a few years ago. But Chicagoans undeniably take their architecture seriously.

Architect Mr. Lohan whose own personal tie to the city's architecture comes from his grandfather, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe recounts the time he was expecting an out-of-town friend whom he planned to take on a tour of the city's architectural highlights.

"My friend took a cab from O'Hare, and by the time he arrived, the cabbie had given him a whole tour of the city. Where else would a cab driver know the buildings," Mr. Lohan asks right down to the names of their architects but in Chicago?

And, he says, although it's constantly changing, the landmarks of the skyline punctuated by the Sears Tower on the south and the Hancock on the north have remained relatively constant.

Ms. Willis says it was Mayor Richard J. Daley "who lifted the lid off Chicago" and set the stage for the surge of skyscraper construction that pushed the city's profile upward after World War II. At the turn of the 20th century, the City Council had imposed height limits on new buildings, after a building boom created a glut of office space. The first Mayor Daley, she says, pushed to remove those caps.

"Skyscrapers are statements of pride, engineering and technology. That was a tradition in Chicago that was revived" by Mr. Daley, she contends.

Today, "I think what we're seeing is a consolidation and improvement of the city," says Mr. Lohan. "The city is becoming more livable. It's becoming better than ever."

The skyline is only a facet of this improvement, for which Mr. Lohan gives a great deal of credit to the second Mayor Daley, Richard M. "The quality of the sidewalk has vastly improved. By sidewalk, I'm saying what is in the public domain. Historically, you had these really superb private enterprises" such as mansions, hotels and office buildings "with grand lobbies. They were palaces, really. But once you got out to the street, it fell apart."

The mayor, Mr. Lohan says, is demanding that the grandeur continue in the public spaces.

When asked about the shift from office to residential use, Mr. Lohan is emphatic: "Beautiful, beautiful. That's what we needed. The Loop was a dead zone after 6 p.m. In European cities, it is the mixing of functions that makes urbanity happen."

Walter Netsch, whose Inland Steel Building for Skidmore in the mid-1950s heralded the start of the post-World War II Loop boom in tall buildings, doesn't miss a beat when asked about his vision for Chicago in the future.

"I see a stabilization of downtown," he says. We don't see as many tall orders today as we have in the past, he says, because it's not as profitable to build them. "It's all about dollars, not heights of buildings."

Ms. Willis, the architecture historian, agrees: "At base, we shouldn't forget that buildings are businesses." She wrote a book, "Form Follows Finance," that explores that theme.

"When people talk about skyscrapers, they tend to focus on issues of style, the surface of the building, which school it belongs to, that buildings are about ego, expressing ambition," she says. "Buildings are the signature of a skyline. But when you look at who develops buildings, you find that most are speculative office buildings, not corporate headquarters. So, they're not about ego, they're about balance sheets."

She says most skyscraper projects need financing, and without a lender seeing the chance to recoup the investment, "They won't lend you the money. A major part is always economics."

Still, Ms. Willis doesn't believe the super-talls are finished.

"Cities thrive in skyscrapers," she says "the most natural building type for cities."

©2003 by Crain Communications Inc.

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