Architectural rebound: after years of dull home design, Chicago is back

X / O Condominiums

In 2003, architecture critic and local blogger Lynn Becker wrote a cover story in the Chicago Reader calling on developers to “stop the blandness.”

Incredibly, they listened. At least many of them did.

As Becker was writing, there already were hints of serious changes afoot in local residential design. A number of builders had been steadily creating track records for progressive projects, and dissatisfaction with a series of terrible towers in neighborhoods like River North was taking its toll.

The vast bulk of major developments, however, were not especially well-designed, this at a time when a building boom was remaking the city’s skyline. But in just four short years, Chicago has seen a sea change in residential design.

Glass and steel are suddenly in fashion. Facades are curving and shimmering and even spiraling skyward. Architects are experimenting with massing and color, balconies and rooflines.

Plenty of new designs are still vintage-looking, borrowing their styles from the Art Deco or Victorian eras, adding French touches here and English motifs there, and that probably will always be the case. Lots of homebuyers say that buildings of stone and brick with clear caps and clear bases and an air of history are “warmer” than more contemporary designs.

And once upon a time (not so long ago), the market offered little else. Now that the tides have turned, homebuyers – at least those looking for condos – have a wider variety of home styles from which to choose than ever before. Low-rise housing, unfortunately, is still dominated, with some exceptions, by fairly similar, fairly retro-looking designs. Mid-rises, however, have started to show signs of evolving; perhaps the zeitgeist is working its way down the architectural ladder.

Will a softening market stop this trend dead in its tracks? While it already has slowed the pace of building, it’s not likely to hurt the movement toward modern design. The successes of developers (ranging from Donald Trump to CMK Companies) with contemporary projects across a broad range of price points for a broad spectrum of buyers have been too well established.

If anything, a tougher market encourages builders to separate their products from the pack, and unique design is one way to do that. Virtually anything will sell in the sort of boom years Chicago recently experienced – and anything did. Now, when buyers are concerned with keeping up with inflation at resale (as opposed to keeping up with the Rockefellers), developments that set themselves apart have something significant to tout.

The movement toward “green” building, which is gaining ground in Chicago, will only increase the trend. Modernist projects ranging from the West Loop’s Emerald to Lakeshore East’s 340 on the Park have inextricably linked environmentally-friendly development with contemporary architecture, and buyers appear to be responding.

Below are just a few of the most interesting residential designs in development in Chicago. Thankfully, there are now many more where they came from.

235 Van Buren

235 Van Buren
A previous collaboration between developer CMK Companies and architect Ralph Johnson, of Perkins & Will, resulted in Contemporaine, an architectural tour de force in River North. This time around, the developer and designer have paired up for a much different project, a 46-story high-rise with more than 700 units – one of the largest new developments to be announced this year downtown.

Like the much smaller River North building, 235 Van Buren draws on Johnson’s sculptural approach to design. In some ways, it’s two buildings – the north façade turns strong horizontal ribbons of concrete and glass toward the Loop and the south façade presents a wall of glass punctuated with playfully irregular balconies to the endless cars streaming in and out of the city via the Eisenhower Expressway.

Many architects dislike balconies in high-rises. Developers and marketers insist on their presence in residential buildings, but designers often go along grudgingly, convinced their structures would be more elegant without these tacked-on appendages. That attitude tends to show in balconies that look, well, tacked-on. Johnson, by contrast, embraces his balconies, which in turn, embrace the city, their cantilevered forms jutting into the urban environment and to use his image, “spinning off the building’s column in a fashion similar to a pinwheel.”

The exuberance of those balconies is contained in a restrained concrete frame, which also draws attention to an eye-catching corner roof element (a Johnson trademark) and references the building’s very different flip side. The concrete southern wall of the base, striated with angled horizontal lines, echoes its neighbor, the highway, while the base’s northern side turns a friendly glass face – and neighborhood retail – to Van Buren Street.

The building has a deep footprint, which can make getting adequate light and ventilation to back bedrooms an issue. Johnson used some tricks from loft construction, including partial-height walls to “borrow” light from the fronts of units, where wide expanses of glass maximize it.

600 N. Fairbanks

600 North Fairbanks
Helmut Jahn, whose cutting-edge work for years seemed to be appreciated everywhere but his adopted town of Chicago, is back on the local scene, following up his Illinois Institute of Technology project, State Street Village, with 600 North Fairbanks. The sleek glass tower leans audaciously over a neighboring building and in some ways seems a response to the awkward pedestals on which so many recent Chicago high-rises have been perched.

Jahn, of architecture firm Murphy / Jahn, designed the 41-story tower with a curved wall of glass for the corner of Fairbanks Court and Ohio Street, where construction started early in 2006 and is now nearing completion. Like the exterior, unit interiors display a European influence, with open floor plans, some exposed steel and concrete, and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Utilizing air rights over a neighboring low-rise structure, Jahn’s high-rise projects over the adjacent building at an eye-catching slant. As the remainder of the glass goes up, reflecting the clouds floating over Streeterville, Jahn’s brilliant sense of proportions is more evident each day. Like many great artists, he makes it look easy, but there are plenty of buildings nearby proving how difficult it is.


Aqua, 225 N. Columbus Drive
At first glance, Aqua might seem like sheer architectural playfulness, an idea incubated and hatched in an adventurous architect’s mind sans developer, site or financing. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this is not just one of the most creative designs Chicago has seen in years, it’s also a direct response to its location and to the lifestyles of its future residents.

The rippled, undulating façade of the 81-story high-rise is less sculptural than geological, and indeed, designer Jeanne Gang, of Studio / Gang Architects, has said that the waves of neighboring Lake Michigan and the weathered sandstone outcroppings of the Great Lakes served as inspiration.

The wavy surface serves another purpose too. Gang figured that if she modulated the façade by bumping out floor plates to varying degrees, she would create interesting and unexpected views for residents. On Aqua’s east side, for example, units that would have faced the Lakeshore East park, will also have views of Millennium Park, to the south. In the process, Gang has created a one-of-a-kind building for a very prominent spot on the skyline, just north of Millennium Park between Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue.

Chicago Spire

The Chicago Spire, 420 E. North Water St.

It has been compared to a drill bit and a corkscrew and a portion of the male anatomy. It has been praised and maligned and speculated about endlessly. It has even gotten the attention and suffered the scorn of The Donald – the true mark of an ambitious project.

Will Shelbourne Development Group, Inc. actually build the 150-story Chicago Spire, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to be the tallest in North America? We don’t know anything for certain, but since ground has been broken and site work has been underway for several months, we have to assume that Irish developer Garrett Kelleher means business.

Let’s hope so. The elegant iconic structure pictured in Calatrava’s renderings would do for Chicago in the 21st century what the Sears Tower did for the city in the 20th. The lakefront tower would be a beacon and a monument, and drive home the fact that Chicago – once the clear leader in building design – is back on the architectural map after a long dull spell.

Rotating floor plates create a twisting, tapering, soaring skyscraper in Calatrava’s hands. It’s too early to say what the interiors might look like, although from these heights in this location, the views would obviously be stunning.

The design is muscular and forceful, but the beauty of The Spire is that even at 150 stories, its narrowing spiral profile manages to look graceful, though never insubstantial. Some of the elegance of the initial design, which rotated floor plates 360 degrees (as opposed to 270) and tapered the tower more at the top, was lost in revision. But the first design was probably unbuildable, given the economics of Chicago’s real estate market.

X / O Condominiums

X/O Condominiums, 1712 S. Prairie Ave

Architect Lucien Lagrange is best known for his ultra-luxury buildings in and around the Gold Coast, structures that, observers often remark, look like they’ve always been there. But with X/O Condominiums, 1712 S. Prairie Ave., Lagrange continues down the path on which he embarked with modern projects such as Kingsbury on the Park and Erie on the Park. Like those cutting-edge buildings, X/O makes a bold, contemporary statement, clearly Lagrange’s boldest to date.

The floor plates of the development’s two high-rises (a 44-story north tower and a 34-story south tower) expand and contract as the eye travels up the structures, so that they slope gently, with curves too subtle and willowy to be called voluptuous. Lagrange has compared the buildings to figures dancing and in this case, the metaphor isn’t architectural pretension.

The towers work not as a single unit, but as a beautifully matched pair, straining toward each other and away in a compelling frozen dance. Their lower halves pull together sensually (yes, that sounds odd, but take a look at the rendering), while on the upper stories, the high-rises move out to a more seemly arm’s length. They are complementary and bend in tandem, but like dancers, they are not symmetrical or perfectly matched. The shapes and heights of the buildings vary, as do the skillfully designed balconies, whose patterns echo each other without simply mirroring.

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