Are We Dead Yet?- by Lynn Becker . . . continued




Are we dead yet?

No, but the damage done is now a part of us, suppressing our sense of what is good and what is important. A transfusion of new blood is the only antidote. Three current projects--two recently completed, one proposed--point toward a possible recovery.

The new 37-story RiverBend, the first major building for 34-year-old architect Robert Bistry, adds a visual anchor to the Chicago River where it splits north and south, just west of Wolf Point. Because the site is extremely shallow, Bistry abolishes the standard central hallway; all units face east, overlooking the river. Corridors run the length of the western wall, and above them windows let additional natural light into the apartments. The eastern facade is light and elegant, pulled forward from the building's bulk. Sets of windows alternate with recessed balconies--as in Magellan's One Superior Place and Grand Plaza--but here the proportions are well considered, with the extended floor slabs creating ornamental notches up the building's sides.

The second notable recent addition to the skyline is Jean-Paul Viguier's new Hotel Sofitel, at 20 E. Chestnut. It's like the love child of Le Corbusier and Miami Beach's Morris Lapidus, 30 stories of shiny mannerist geometry tapering to a knife edge on the southern end. The main facade, facing Connors Park, is a massive plane in which windows of irregular widths are assembled like a mosaic. By day they look like blue gray tiles against the opaque white glass facing; by night they're lit and unlit pixels on a dark trapezoidal screen.

Seeing it at a distance, from any perspective, your first reaction is "Wow--what's that?" It's the party guest who stands an inch from your face, gleefully contradicting everything you have to say, and most of what the Chicago School had to say, about how to build a tall building. It's more than a little cocky, a little too in love with itself and its ideas--but behind the bravado is a seriousness of purpose that's in short supply most everywhere else.

The third and last project has yet to break ground, and it comes from an unexpected source: Donald Trump.

Trump has a rep for gilded vulgarity: more is more and excess is best. But when he decided to come to Chicago, he engaged the city's architectural legacy with a seriousness that has eluded just about every local developer, hiring Adrian Smith of Skidmore Owings & Merrill to tap directly into Chicago's architectural pedigree.

The sleek, 1,125-foot stainless-steel-and-glass tower Smith has designed would be the fourth-tallest building in Chicago. Planned for the current site of the Sun-Times's headquarters, it would be set back sufficiently to keep from crowding its beloved neighbor to the east, the Wrigley Building. To the south, the current narrow river walk would be expanded into a grand arcade linking Wabash to Michigan Avenue. To the west, a great curtain wall would rise along the diagonal of the site in several steps, each with a rounded corner, like a telescoping Flatiron Building thrusting up into open sky. Trump Tower Chicago clearly rejects the current ethos of "good enough."

Donald Trump, it's worth noting, is an outsider. As Chicago architect-provocateur Stanley Tigerman has pointed out, Sullivan, Wright, and Mies "were all displaced persons... conditioned by a state of uneasiness with the present." Outsiders see the things locals pass blindly by; they can provide new perspectives, confront and challenge the insider's comfortable, deadening routine. Outsiders have historically cast the lightning bolts that have kept architecture in Chicago charged decade after decade. To get back on track, we need another strike of lightning; we need a whole series of strikes. We need to stand out in the middle of an open field on a stormy night with a kite and a key.

Of course if you ask Tigerman why Chicago architecture is on the wane, he'll impatiently tell you it isn't, that he can name at least 20 great architects currently working in Chicago. He blames hand-wringing about our current state on the myopia of critics, whom he claims are more intent on selling papers and building their own careers than in doing the necessary legwork to uncover and encourage emerging talent.

He says that while Lagrange's Erie on the Park, Viguier's Sofitel, and Ralph Johnson's Skybridge (at Halsted and Madison) are "as good as anything ever built in Chicago," the emphasis on tall buildings is misguided. The last Chicago School ended with Mies and his followers. "The king is dead," he says. "You gotta get over it. No one is looking at the younger architects."

Tigerman cites, among many others, David Woodhouse, who designed the witty new beach house at Rainbow Park; 3D Design Group's Darryl Geoffrey Crosby, who won a citywide competition this fall with his plan for disabled-friendly affordable housing; and Koolhaas/OMA alum Jeanne Gang, whose Chinese American Service Center, featured in December's Architectural Record, will be faced with multicolored diamond-shaped titanium panels that suggest the skin of a dragon. He argues that icons like Mies and Le Corbusier made their bones not with megaprojects but with houses, pavilions, and other small-scale commissions, and that if Chicago's younger architects are given the patronage and support they deserve, great things both small and large will result.
Tigerman's rebuke deserves its own article, but this is decidedly not it. The focus on tall buildings may be lazy--but in a city known throughout the world for its skyscrapers, it's far from irrelevant. A wide-eyed response of "What elephant?" to a 60-story architectural disaster is an invitation to be trampled into dust.


© Copyright 2003-2004 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.