The changing skyline
"A city has to go on and live and renew itself." Dirk Lohan,
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.
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,
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.
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
"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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Thompson Center, many of the newer buildings don't get the attention from the average Chicagoan that some older skyscrapers
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
"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."
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.
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
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
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."
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.
thrive in skyscrapers," she says "the most natural building type for cities."
©2003 by Crain Communications Inc.