On the rise

Something good is happening to highrise design in Chicago

One Museum ParkIt must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line, that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.
—Louis Sullivan

What would Louis Sullivan, one of the world’s greatest architects and the genius behind many of Chicago’s greatest buildings, think of the city’s skyline today? Given his quote above and his quest for an original American architecture, to say that many of our newest tall buildings would disappoint is probably gross understatement.

Chicago was kind to major developers during the 1990s, but they were not inclined to return the favor. Dozens of new highrises have sprouted in neighborhoods ranging from the South Loop to the Gold Coast, and most of them, we regret, have not been proud or soaring. They were things all right, we’ll give them that, but adjectives other than Sullivan’s spring to mind: banal, beige, bland, boring.

To be fair, developers are in business to make money, not to advance the culture, and in the frenzied real estate market of the ’90s, there was no shortage of buyers willing to sink ever-steeper amounts of cash into even the ugliest buildings. Why should we expect developers to deviate from a formula – and formula is the word – that works so well?

Perhaps the better question today, thankfully, is why have they?

If Sullivan would be disappointed by recent buildings, he might be pleased, even thrilled by much of what’s on the drawing board. Developers have shifted gears, and the residential highrises now breaking ground include many fresh designs, even a couple of gems with a chance to make it into the pantheon of iconic buildings we think of as defining the city, the buildings tourists remember and residents pause to consider year after year.

Two of the city’s biggest planned developments – Central Station in the South Loop and, across Grant and Millennium parks, Lakeshore East – deserve special mention, partly because they are large communities in prominent locations and partly because the progressive look of their latest designs is such a pleasant surprise.

In their River North developments, Magellan Development Group and NNP Residential & Development paid attention to amenities, finishes, locations and views, but architecture seemed little more than an afterthought. In their massive Lakeshore East community, however, the highrises have been interesting, with progressive designs, variety and integrity. The Lancaster, designed by Loewenberg & Associates, features a sheer glass face that will play nicely off of surrounding buildings and the community’s central park. DeStefano & Partners’ design for the Chandler will feature a glass-heavy façade gracefully beveled in a segmented design that breaks up the building’s scale. Next door, DeStefano’s Regatta will respond beautifully to its riverfront site, with an elliptical glass curtain wall that presents a curve as bold and elegant as a full sail to the river.

Directly south, in Central Station, the Enterprise Companies has turned away from the style, or lack of style, displayed in its first Museum Park buildings. Pappageorge Haymes designed the new 23-story Museum Park Place with a wall of glass, exposed steel, bold diagonal lines and postmodern accents. The architect followed this with the 61-story One Museum Park, a tower that curves and unfolds with the grace of a flower and in which form follows function to a degree approaching brilliance. Sullivan might well have been a fan.

Why this shift to a more progressive vision in some of the latest highrises? Part of the answer probably has to do with the building boom of the last decade, at its hottest downtown.

In the late ’90s, housing analyst Tracy Cross said that the city had not seen such a construction craze since the Great Chicago Fire. Unfortunately, the comparison was apt in more ways than one. After the fire, Chicago architects, it was said, measured their work in miles of building fronts. The 1990s saw the same emphasis on quantity in residential construction, and we will have to live with the results for decades to come.

As the many residential buildings designed and sold in the ’90s were completed, there rose a small but vocal reaction against the bland retro buildings transforming our cityscape. Local media began to run stories decrying shoddy design and in 2003, even Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose personal taste seems to lean much more towards 19th century Paris than 21st century Chicago, chimed in with a call for no more ugly buildings (never mind that his administration had overseen and subsidized the development of so many).
At the same time, Chicago was building a small track record for progressive residential design. Developers like CMK Development and Smithfield Properties won praise for their consistently forward-looking buildings, and they had no trouble selling condos. They’re still at it. The new crop of highrises includes Smithfield’s 30 W. Oak, which celebrates its skeleton in a way that tastefully evokes the Chicago School, and Modern Momentum, another Smithfield building with a dramatic four-story center cutout that will keep passersby talking on State Street.

Helmut Jahn, whose cutting-edge work seems to be appreciated everywhere but Chicago, is back on the local scene, following up his Illinois Institute of Technology project with the planned 600 N. Fairbanks, a sleek glass tower that audaciously leans over a neighboring building and in some ways, seems a response to the awkward pedestals on which so many recent Chicago highrises have been perched.

Of course, the developers of 600 N. Fairbanks are touting Jahn’s name as they promote the project, and if his star power entices buyers who are more concerned with cachet than aesthetics, so much the better. Likewise, it doesn’t matter whether or not Chicago developers have seen the light of good design, or herd mentality intact, are simply being jostled up a new hill. The important thing is the shape of our built environment, and judging by the new towers, we’ve shifted, at least slightly, in the right direction.

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