been eight years now, and Chicagoans still haven't
forgotten-or forgiven, says David Maola, laughing. "It's an issue that constantly
He's talking about how the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat,
where he currently serves as director, snatched the title of world's tallest
building away from Sears Tower in 1996 and awarded it to the twin Petronas
Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The unoccupied 111-foot decorative spires atop the Petronas
Towers were counted as a part of the structure, bringing its height
to 1,483 feet. The stubs that support the Sears Tower antennae - which
could have brought its recognized height
to 1,518 feet - were not. The uproar was so intense that the following
year the council created additional categories-highest occupied floor
and tallest top of the roof-as a sort of consolation prize, giving Sears
both new titles. We were not assuaged.
It's all about to become moot. "The height committee is deliberating
right now on Taipei 101," says Maola. That's the Taiwan skyscraper
that hit its full 1,671-foot height in October and will leave both Sears
and Petronas in the dust when it's completed later this year. Just to
rub salt into our wounds, the Structural
Engineers Foundation of Illinois is bringing Taipei 101's design team
in for a reception and talk at the Union
League Club on April 15th.
The Council on Tall Buildings had just moved to the Illinois Institute
of Technology from its longtime home at Lehigh
University in Pennsylvania,
where it was founded in 1969. "We thought that going to IIT in Chicago,
which is known for its international school of high-rise design, just
made sense," says Maola. "IIT wanted us there, and they really
thought it was a good synergy for us to be there-good for their students,
good for us, good to get us in the Chicago community." The council's
the second major urban-design organization to move to Chicago recently-the
Congress for the New Urbanism,
headed by former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, arrived here from San
Francisco in January.
But though the Council on Tall Buildings maintains its Web server at IIT,
as an organization it's largely a virtual presence: Maola still lives
in suburban Philadelphia,
chairman Ron Klemencic in Seattle, and many of the group's deliberations
are conducted by e-mail.
The council is not without competition in ranking tall buildings. The
commercial Web site Emporis
(formerly Skyscrapers.com) maintains its own global database of information
on over 85,000 buildings and projects 12 stories and higher. Take a look
at what's been happening over the last decade and you could come to see
the diminished status of the American skyscraper as yet another casualty
of global outsourcing.
Of the 86 structures added to Emporis's list of the world's 200
tallest buildings over the last ten years, the United States accounts
for just 10, China 38. Even tiny Dubai has added 5. Chicago's tallest
addition is Lucien Lagrange's
stolidly conservative Hyatt Park
Tower. At 844 feet, it's number 36 on the list of new skyscrapers,
and the 76th tallest in the world.
Is Chicago's slide a matter of maturity or senility? Actually,
it's probably a bit of both. Architect David Childs of Skidmore,
Owings & Merrill-currently in a forced and often contentious partnership
with Daniel Libeskind to build the 1,776-foot "Freedom Tower"
at the World Trade Center site in New York-has pegged 65
to 70 stories as the height at which skyscrapers stop making economic
sense. After that, too much rentable floor space has to be given over
to elevators and stairways. It's a view that's broadly shared-yet there
are no fewer than 52 buildings exceeding 65 stories on the Emporis top
One justification for these supertall skyscrapers is high land costs-that's
why 9 of the 52 can be found in Hong Kong. When skyscrapers were going
up along the Magnificent Mile, with its own superheated land costs, creating
a Hancock building or a 900 North Michigan made economic sense. Now the
city's planners are pushing office development across the river west of
the Loop, a land of low-rise buildings and surface parking lots. The land
costs tend to be lower, the new towers a lot stumpier.
The second justification is pure ego - a corporate appetite for celebrity.
Chicago's tallest towers-Sears, the Hancock, the Standard Oil (now Aon)
building-all bear the names of corporate powerhouses not shy about spreading
around some bucks to promote their accomplishments. In contrast, today's
powerhouse corporations often teeter on the cusp of being obliterated
in the next megamerger. They're not in the market for monuments.
A few egoists remain, but even they aren't immune to downsizing.
At 1,125 feet, the Trump
International Hotel & Tower, currently scheduled for completion
in 2007, would rank among the world's 20 tallest by the current reckoning.
But the would-be owner of the phrase "you're fired" originally
had even bigger plans for the Sun-Times building site. "This isn't
folklore," says Maola. "This is true. On the morning of September
11, Donald Trump was actually in the office of
SOM [Skidmore, Owings & Merrill] in Chicago, and he had up on the
wall the tallest building in the world, and that has been scaled back
since September 11." The downscaled project, designed by Adrian Smith
of SOM, now faces new questions given the shake-up at Hollinger International,
a 50-50 partner with Trump in the $700 million development.
The last time Chicago had a contender for the world's tallest, it was
also from Smith. His elegant design for Seven
South Dearborn was essentially a pair of 2,000-foot high-definition
television antennae with a 1,550-foot building wrapped around them. Squeezed
onto a quarter-block site, it offered 85 floors of parking, offices, and
apartments in the form of a trim sequence of six rounded segments, each
set back from the one beneath it and cantilevered from a central concrete
Financing fell through, and the Chicago firm DeStefano
& Partners is now putting up a 40-story
tower on the site. (The model for Smith's building can be seen at
the Art Institute's new exhibit "Unbuilt
Chicago.") Smith's design draws its power not by being a looming
megapresence like Sears or the Hancock, but from its lightness and clarity-and
this may be the wave of the future for American architecture.
Architects like Smith and Helmut
Jahn are less concerned with size than with quality: "We're not
concerned with landing the commission for the highest building,"
Sobek, a collaborator of Jahn's, has said. "Instead, our goal
is to perfect our work. .. the buildings we plan together are becoming
clearer, simpler, more logical. They are improving in quality"
It's a concern that's reflected in "Transparency,
the Art and Science in Building Design," the professional symposium
the Council on Tall Buildings is sponsoring at IIT April 15 and 16. Quality,
rather than sheer massiveness, is a "very hot topic right now,"
Maola says. "There's a tremendous amount of interest, both in the
architectural community and the engineering community, in transparent
Older glass skyscrapers were rigidly artificial environments, gluttons
for energy. Sunlight pumped heat and glare into the interiors. As they
grew taller, ever greater quantities of air-conditioning were required
to make things bearable. Today evolving technology is allowing glass to
provide a more natural skin, one capable of "breathing in the wind"
(the title of a symposium talk to be given by another Jahn collaborator,
climate engineer Matthias Schuler) to provide natural ventilation, insulate
against noise and extremes of heat and cold, and bring usable sunlight
deep into the interior.
To the rational mind this kind of payoff should be a lot more satisfying
than what you get from having bragging rights to world's tallest
grown-ups now-we've put away childish things. Yet we can't quite forget
that it was crass, raw ambition that built Chicago - hog butcher to the
world, world's busiest airport, world's tallest building. As the frivolous
titles fall, how much of our vitality withers away with them? Maturity
has its compensations, but not enough to arrest the occasional wistful
gaze towards newly younger lands, far to the east.