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The Resurgence of Architectural Design in Chicago
William Moy

Photo: Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, William Moy
While the City of Chicago ponders the possibility of hosting the Summer Olympics in 2016, let us hope that today’s current resurgence in the quality of local architectural design lasts until then. The architectural scene in Chicago has seen its share of cycles consisting of trendsetting building booms countered by dry spells of varying severity. The Chicago Fire of 1871 created a veritable clean slate for designers and builders to create a new cityscape. Technological advances in materials allowed architects to reach for the sky in designing innovative high-rises. Economic depression and war resulted in a construction standstill during the 1930s and ‘40s, but Modernism then followed with its legions of glass and steel skyscrapers that still populate downtown today. Postmodernism in the 1980s was a reactionary style to the rigid Modernism, with details that made sly references to historical styles or incorporated inside jokes in its designs.

Legendary architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe have made their mark in and around Chicago, along with a list of other talented names far too lengthy to mention here. Unfortunately, an architectural malaise slowly seeped through the city during the 1990s. Chicago witnessed the construction of a slew of buildings with anonymous designs, namely tall and soulless condominium complexes. A stroll along some of these streetscapes may give the uneasy feeling that you have been transformed into an old-school cartoon character that walks past the same sequence of flat buildings scrolling across the background. Instead of getting an uneasy chuckle from a Postmodern building, some of these edifices from the last decade were just jokes in themselves with no redeeming design values whatsoever for those who appreciate good architecture. With a few exceptions (Museum of Contemporary Art and O’Hare International Terminal), this lackluster decade of design will not be recorded very favorably in the architecture history books.

The poster child for the dawn of the recent architectural renaissance in the city has to be Millennium Park. Sure it was opened a few years after the millennium began, and yes it cost a zillion dollars to create. But what a brilliant creation it is! Now it is being recognized as one of the premier urban parks in the world for not only its design aesthetics but also the added residual value that it manufactures in its immediate neighborhood. Numerous businesses all around it have attached the word “Millennium” to their names. For instance, Doral Plaza, a nondescript residential tower just north of the park, was blatantly rechristened as Millennium Park Plaza. Visitors will take pleasure in Millennium Park, an exciting ensemble of eye-catching design (Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge) and interactive public art (Anish Kapoor’s fascinating Cloud Gate and Jaume Plensa’s spitting Crown Fountain) balanced by quieter public spaces perfect for contemplative
garden walks or quiet lunchtime noshing. The popular ice skating rink in wintertime is transformed into an equally festive al fresco dining plaza during the precious summer months. Unlike overly commercialized Navy Pier, Millennium Park has rapidly become the definitive gathering spot in Chicago for tourists and locals alike, and its basic amenities will not cost you a penny.

Photo: 111 South Wacker, William Moy
The revamped Soldier Field has not been met with as many accolades from the conservative tastes of the general public. Its status as a National Historic Landmark was recently erased, which met with much approval from the fickle community. The original (and much beloved) neoclassical stadium with its trademark Corinthian colonnade appears to have been swallowed whole by a daring asymmetrical design spearheaded by Carlos Zapata and Dirk Lohan. The new Soldier Field is a very commendable facility, but admittedly the overall result is an architectural compromise that does not quite work. The new stadium design would have been smashing if it had been allowed to stand alone on its own merits rather than be an unwilling partner in this shotgun wedding of a project.

New skyscrapers are in vogue again downtown, ready or not. Recent office buildings worthy of mention include the Hyatt Center, a sleek structure designed by Henry Cobb of the firm Pei Cobb Freed and Partners. Its almond-shaped floor plan and chamfered corners create a graceful silhouette along the western edge of the Loop, and its ground level planters are not only attractively landscaped but defensively constructed to withstand terrorist attacks from charging vehicles. Across the street is 111 South Wacker by architect James Goettsch, which features a spiffy marble lobby capped by a funky ceiling design resembling an Escher-like inverted spiral stair. This tower is also certified as a work of “green” architecture thanks to its high level
of energy efficiency. Along the Chicago River, the Trump Tower is on the rise upon the former site of
the Sun-Times Building. Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill gets to stake Donald Trump’s place in downtown Chicago with a typically glossy corporate design that will be probably recognized more for its name and its height rather than its aesthetics. Its location will place Trump Tower within this "Murderer's Row" of skyscrapers along the river that already includes Marina City, the IBM Building, and the Wrigley Building.

Photo: Contemporaine, William Moy
While the previous decade included far too many unmemorable residential designs, the Contemporaine by Ralph Johnson of the firm Perkins and Will is a relatively small condominium tower in the trendy River North area with an appearance that is quite striking. This project may never become worldfamous, but it is still interesting enough to get your attention if you give it a chance with its angular sculptural qualities, playful window patterns, and natural concrete surfaces. This is a far cry from the typically bland condo projects whose concrete exteriors were painted with drab colors, in the architectural equivalent of a mortician applying makeup upon a corpse.

Photo: McCormick Tribune Campus Center, William Moy
New and exciting design developments are not limited to the city center, nor should they ever be. The Illinois Institute of Technology campus, which had been revitalized by the world-famous master plan of Mies decades ago, has recently enjoyed a different kind of revival. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has injected a splash of color into the monochromatic Miesian grid with his McCormick Tribune Campus Center. The building incorporates bright orange-tinted glass along with a closeup image of Mies that faces off with the iconic Crown Hall across the street. Whether this choice of color is a reflection of Koolhaas’ admiration for the Dutch national soccer team or NFT’s very own website, this is definitely the best use of the color orange in a Chicago building. This facility designed for IIT’s students crouches beneath the CTA Green Line station at 35th Street, but a cleverly coordinated tube of concrete and stainless steel is incorporated into the design to muffle the notorious train noise that otherwise could have made life miserable here for its users. Nearby is the State Street Village, a student residence hall by Helmut Jahn that is a much more subdued scheme when compared with the then-futuristic State of Illinois Center. Its rhythmic linear design is much more akin to his admirable United Airlines Terminal at O’Hare Airport, and blends in with the IIT campus a bit more than Koolhaas’ glow-in-the-dark student nerve center. If you are attending a White Sox game, stop by before or after for a look at these works by two of the living masters in architecture.

Photo: University of Chicago, William Moy
A bit further south, Hyde Park has drawn its share of attention recently thanks to the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business - Hyde Park Art Center by Rafael Vinoly. The architect had the unenviable task of designing a key building in context with the predominant neo-Gothic style of the campus (including Bertram Goodhue’s formidable Rockefeller Memorial Chapel), not to mention the Prairie School masterpiece Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright to the north. The result is a design centered upon its glass-enclosed Rothman
Winter Garden, an uplifting space that acts as an interior quadrangle for the students. Vinoly interpreted the Gothic vocabulary into a contemporary design featuring slender structural elements in the familiar forms of arches, fan vaults, and bundled columns. The airiness of this spectacular central area meshes well with its horizontal and cantilevered surrounding elements whose composition was influenced by the ground-hugging principles of the Prairie Style. Not far from the campus is the new home of the Hyde Park Art Center, redesigned by local architect Douglas Garofalo from a former printing plant. Although it still was not completely
finished when it held its recent grand opening weekend celebration (there were a few gaps in the walls along with missing glass panes in some interior doors), this project looks like a promising addition to the local arts community. The building includes what has been proclaimed as the world’s largest exterior digital facade, which will give experimental artists the opportunity to utilize this frosted glass projection system to make their mark in a building-as-canvas manner.

There are some very enticing projects currently on the drawing boards. Of great interest is Fordham Spire, the project by Spanish architect-engineeer Santiago Calatrava scheduled to rise in the Streeterville neighborhood. Chicagoans like nicknames, so this development has been dubbed the “Drill Bit” and “Corkscrew” amongst other titles. Scheduled to reach up to nearly 2,000 feet in height at its ultimate tip, the Fordham Spire is related conceptually to his earlier Turning Torso tower in Malmo, Sweden. Each floor plan is rotated to rest on top of the one below at a slightly offset angle to create the illusion of the tower “twisting” on its central axis as it elevates from its structural base. While the Malmo tower is a bit blocky and analogous to a vertical Rubik’s Cube, the Fordham Spire has a slender silhouette that is taller and more graceful. As a great admirer of Calatrava’s creations around the world, I look forward to following the progress of the Fordham Spire once the thumbs up is officially given to this ambitious scheme.

Another potential project of note is Aqua by local architect Jeanne Gang, whose body of work includes the silvery and scaly design of the Chinese American Service League in Chinatown. Aqua will be a condo high-rise of 82 floors with concrete balconies of varying sizes and shapes. It might be described as a wilder version of one of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City towers. In its renderings Aqua appears to be a vertical stack of impossibly curving and rippling surfaces, designed to afford ideal views of Millennium Park and other city spots for its eventual tenants. Hopefully this and many other inspired projects will keep Chicago on the forefront of cutting-edge architectural design where it belongs. If Chicago does somehow land the Olympics in 2016, architects around the world will have the opportunity to design a brand new set of instant landmarks, which ideally will be accompanied with Olympian levels of aesthetic brilliance as well.

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