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Nouvel Khan, Tatlin garnish





[November 20, 2007] The Chicago antecendents of Jean Nouvel's bold new skyscraper

  - by Lynn Becker

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


As a Chicagoan born and bred, it's impossible to look at Jean Nouvel's stunning new 53 West 53rd, a 75-story hotel/condo tower, to be built next to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, without thinking of its early precedents: the diagonal-braced tube skyscrapers of the great engineer Fazlur Khan, most especially the iconic John Hancock Building on North Michigan avenue, designed at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in collaboration with architect Bruce Graham.

The Nouvel project comes from Gerald D. Hines Interest, and so it's also impossible not to ponder that developer's latest Chicago project, currently under construction, 300 North LaSalle, a 60-story office tower by Pickard Chilton Architects. It's a perfectly respectable design, but Nouvel's audacity leaves it looking timid and pedestrian.

Nouvel has never been invited to build in Chicago - the closest he's gotten is his new Guthrie theater in Minneapolis.

Nouvel deconstructs Kahn's elegant minimalism. Where the Hancock has a single stack of crossed diagonals on each facing, Nouvel splinters the diagonals of his proposed tower into multiple instances that, while structurally ordered, give the impression of being as random as cracks in a block of ice. Where the obelisk-like Hancock rises in a single, slender taper, the Nouvel fragments and clefts, appearing to bend back at the apex as if it had suffered a swift kick upside the head. At its crest, where the Hancock offers a flat roof, 53 West 53rd cleaves into twinned sharp-edge points - symbolic structure a la Tatlin; the skyscraper as Exacto knife.

On the initial renderings, which you can see here, the concept extends also into the large public spaces, like lobbies and a swimming pool, where the diagonals not only cross along the window walls, but intrude into the interiors like Serra-sized geometric sculptures.

Different times, different strokes. Khan worked at the end of an era when Mies' ideas of a sublime order, expressed in architecture, provided a response to the murderous anarchy of the 20th Century. Nouvel's generation offers up a reverse mirror image, seeking individual expression within the rigid superstructure of a supply chain economy whose basic impulse is to transform everything it touches into an generic, interchangeable commodity.

The hubris of Mies and his followers was that a rigidly ordered architecture could be an antiseptic to man's innate destructive impulses. The hubris of the architects of our own generation is that randomness and spontaneity can be fabricated. Neither path may do much for the salvation of the species, but they both provide poignant crystallizations of our human condition in all its complexity, contradiction and longing.

See the complete set of eighteen renderings of Jean Nouvel's design for 53 West 53rd Street on the de zeen website here.

Discuss this story here.


© Copyright 2007 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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