Category Archives: Searching for the Perfect Chicago Skyscraper

Searching for the Perfect Chicago Skyscraper (part 5): Mies’ highrises

Mies with a scale model of Crown Hall

After a couple of months of hiatus, I find myself back at my “Search for the Perfect Chicago Skyscraper”. In this exercise I attempt to review all of the great skyscrapers that have been built in the city that invented and perfected this building type. In this series I have tried to give insight into which is the one that reunites and summarizes the architectural tradition of the Windy City while pushing the boundaries of what was possible at the moment in which it was built.

Great architecture is not only about taste, refinement and attention to detail, but also about originality, one that is not limited to stylistic decisions, but that advances certain concepts or technologies that suggest new possibilities. In this sense I approach the several highrises that were built under the guidance of the great Mies van der Rohe.

Continue reading Searching for the Perfect Chicago Skyscraper (part 5): Mies’ highrises

Searching for the perfect Chicago skyscraper (part 4): The Reliance Building

It is of no surprise to me that this study has gotten to its fourth post barely having scratched the surface of my search for the perfect Chicago skyscraper. In case you missed them, please check them out on the category tab under “Architecture”.
In this part I will continue analyzing skyscrapers grouped under the title “Tall and Wise” which refers to buildings built before WWII and the rise of Modernism.

Tall and Wise (…continued)

The Reliance Building

Like The Home Insurance Building before it, The Reliance is widely considered, with good reason, one of the most important steps in the development of the skyscraper. To the untrained eye, The Reliance nowadays might seem like one of many “old looking buildings” in downtown Chicago clad in stone and heavily ornamented. However, The Reliance’s greatness becomes clear given the epoch in which it was built.
For decades, neo-classicism had taken architecture hostage to ancient tradition, forcing buildings to be clad in heavy masonry. The development of steel frame construction allowed designers to call for fully glazed enclosures, which would not appear until well into the 20th century due to the stylistic and technological resistance of an always conservative construction industry.
It is within this context that The Reliance stands tall as it was a step away from the typical neo-classical high-rise of small windows and ornamented stone-clad facades, and a step toward the “steel and glass modernist skyscrapers”.
Designed by Burnham and Root, The Reliance was a happy accident. Changes in budget, technology and in the approach toward the initial design gave us a building with the highest ratio of glass to stone ever built. The overall weight and heaviness of a more typical neoclassical building was replaced by a more simple, slender and economical structure. The Reliance was not, however, a complete departure from tradition since the architects still opted to clad it in terra-cotta with ornamental motifs.
With the Reliance, Root as the head designer of the firm showed his willingness towards a more austere kind of architecture. Root was also able to adapt to a very problematic construction (the project was halted for nearly 3 years) and his ability to offer original and sophisticated solutions for projects immersed in difficulty made him a true innovator. Had it not been for his premature death, the firm of Burnham & Root might have continued to move closer towards modernism, even before the arrival of the great Mies van der Rohe to the shores of Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, Burnham had to carry the load of the partnership by himself, resulting in a step back towards neoclassicism that halted the development of architecture for years to come.
This is not to say the first couple of decades of the 20th century was void of good ideas (I have already covered great skyscrapers completed then) but it certainly represented, in the bigger picture, a transitional period of limited advancement in the evolution of the skyscraper in America.

Niels

Searching for the perfect Chicago skyscraper (part 3)

Continuing my search for the perfect Chicago skyscraper (refer to previous posts here), I will now analyze a group of high-rises that I have placed under the name “Tall and Wise”.

Tall and Wise

To counter all of the negative comments I have made in part 1 and 2 about Chicago skyscrapers, I intend to briefly explore some successful high-rises that were built after the great Chicago Fire and before WWII. Due to the importance of the projects, I will cover only a part of this group on this post and the rest on the next. Also note that not all of the buildings in this group are still standing, since it’s common to see great architecture fall victim to new development.

Monadnock Building (1893)

One of the many jewels produced by the historic firm of Daniel Burnham and John Root. The building was one of those that, having been built so early in the evolution of the high-rise, it was a sort of experiment that is full of innovation. The tower, which was later expanded south by another great Chicago firm: Holabird & Roche, had to fit within the constraints of a difficult elongated site. The owner wanted his investment to take full advantage of the property, thus forcing the architects to occupy every inch of the problematic site and have as much leasable space as possible. What resulted was a long building with offices at both sides of a long central corridor adorned by beautiful cast-iron staircases capped by skylights. The Monadnock marks an important transition in the development of the high-rise. While most of the first part of the development was completed using large masonry walls to support the weight of the building, the south half was completed using a steel frame, thus becoming one of the first examples of “curtain wall” construction. Another important feature we find in this work of art lies in the simple and dark masonry work of the facade that, unlike most high-rises of the time, used little ornamentation and favored a type of simplicity that preceded, by decades, the modern international style.

The Wrigley Building (1924)

One of most successful Chicago companies boasts headquarters occupying one of the prime real state parcels of the city: the prominent starting point of the so-called “Magnificent Mile” of North Michigan Ave. facing the Chicago River. When analyzing this building I start with the site because it is what allowed the architects of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White to set the building apart from most of its counterparts. The tower responds to its context by turning its facade slightly to face the bridge spanning the length of the Chicago River, rising prominently in the horizon for all of those who travel north using the famous Michigan Ave.

In plan, the building is not a rectangle but a trapezoid that manages to look slender, a quality that is often pursued to accentuate the vertical rise of skyscrapers. The project is also relevant because it boasts not one but two trapezoidal towers that are linked by a richly treated skywalk, thus allowing for a plaza to be placed in between, that serves as a circulation artery and as a open atrium that brings natural light into the offices. Lastly, it is worth mentioning that the masonry work is of the highest quality, proven by an immaculately white terra-cotta that has defied the pass of time, only needing one major restoration since the building was first completed over 80 years ago.

Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store (1887 – 1930)

Henry Robson Richardson, the architect and designer of the Marshall Fields flagship store, forever left an indelible mark on Chicago’s architectural history that has not been erased even after the building’s demolition in 1930. Sadly, the massive structure suffered the faith of an urban arrangement that had dramatically changed with the completion of the Merchandise Mart, bringing wholesale stores all under one roof.

Richardson had created THE symbol for a very specific style of design that is often referred to as the “Romanesque revival” or “Neo-romanesque”, but aptly renamed “Richardsonian style”. The building fused, in its structure, iron and wood framing in a period where most high-rises still relied on massive masonry walls to be sustained. Such a innovative structural approach allowed Richardson to design highly textured facades featuring a series of arches that accented the vertical rise of the high-rise. The disposition of the facade also addressed the passerby, trying to diminish the impact of the scale on the city at street level.

Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company or Sullivan Center (1901)

Aptly renamed the Sullivan Center as a testament to the work of its chief designer Louis Sullivan, the building has recently undergone a long and complex restoration to accommodate the reconfiguration of its function from being a famous department store to become an office building of the Internet age.
Many would think that it is a stretch to call this project a high-rise but it very much is, given the fact that anything beyond 5 or 6 stories was unheard of until the late 19th century because it was unrealistic to expect people to walk up a staircase for that long. It was only with the elevator that taller structures became possible, introducing the term “skyscraper” in the English lexicon.
In any case, Sullivan created a 12-story building of sizable windows that made the facade more transparent than most of its contemporaries. The design addressed the busy intersection of State and Madison street with a magnificent display of Sullivan’s organic cast-iron ornamentation and with a gently curved facade that eases the building’s presence on the passerby. The amount of detail and innovation that came with the sizable glazing units is also worth noting, not to mention the clarity of expression of the facade that suggests the building’s function and the steel frame structure that supports it.

In the next post I will continue with more examples of the skyscrapers I have listed under “Tall and Wise” as I explore The Rookery, The Auditorium Building and The Reliance Building.

Before I go, here are some other notable older buildings that are decent projects but that are not bad or good enough to be a part of my analysis: The Chicago Stock Exchange, The Mather Tower, The Palmolive Building (now Drake Hotel) and the Hilton Hotel.

Niels

Searching for the perfect Chicago Skyscraper (part II)

I have reconsidered the way in which I will organize the rest of my study. I think it will be more practical to analyze all of the skyscrapers that I plan to review in groups that share something particular in common.

In this part of my study I will touch upon a group of skyscrapers that I affectionately call: “the good old buddies that could have been better”

The Good Old Buddies that could have been better

The common theme in this group is that it is composed by high-rises that fulfill all of the minimal requirements of a good, decent project built before WWII and before modernism gained followers in the Americas. All of the buildings I am about to name can be considered out of the candidates for the perfect Chicago skyscraper.

The Merchandise Mart (1930)


The “Mart” suffered from the moment it was conceived as an idea. The building needed to be an urban vertical market for quality goods, a function that has changed little since its construction. Given its purpose, designers struggled to find a unique solution to a rather unique challenge. Instead of relating the massive building to its program, the architects decided to remain within the all-too-common art deco high-rise approach of grandiose, robust and repetitive architecture. The building’s scale is too great, too plain and it extends too far in one direction while not in others. There’s hardly any communication with the passerby as anyone walking by it would fail to grasp the entirety of its huge mass.

Jewelers’ Building (1926)

Despite having many admirers, this famous tower offered nothing new when it was completed. It is clearly disproportional and its ornamentation does not enrich the architecture but instead it reveals the all-too-simple approach the architects took towards the new Chicago building code of the time. The building’s area was as big as it could have been up to the point where it was forced by code to step back and give way to a tacky upper-half full of allegorical references that are somewhere in between ancient ziggurats and suburban gazebos.

La Salle Bank on LaSalle Ave. (1934)


There is nothing truly significant to criticize to this building besides the immense footprint that it covers and that extends uninterrupted 45 stories up. However, one of the biggest projects in Chicago history came to replace a true icon, the Home Insurance Building, which is widely considered to be the first modern skyscraper designed by William LeBaron Jenney. To add insult to injury the building did not offer anything new or particularly exciting to the city, much unlike its groundbreaking predecessor.

The Tribune Tower (1925)


The existing headquarters for Chicago’s quintessential company is a fine building without any major faults. However, it is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity, a great example of the common reluctance of the profession to reinvent itself. It all started when the company decided to relocate and use a new architecture symbol as a promotion mechanism that would attract interest to Chicago and to the company. An international competition was held and what ensued was one of the most significant displays of architecture of the first half of the 20th century. The competition managed to receive over 200 entries, with the winner receiving a grand prize of 100 thousand dollars. Sadly, the selected proposal was that by architects Raymond Hood and John Mead who carefully designed a neo-gothic high-rise of stone and ornamentation. They were preferred over the critically acclaimed proposal by Eliel Saarinen, whose simple design precluded the advent of modernism in the US, influencing architecture for years to come. As it often happens though, some of the most innovative architecture remains on paper to never be brought to realization.

This was only a small sample of the most significant buildings that failed, in the early 20th century, to positively contribute to high-rise architecture in Chicago.

In the next part I will touch upon a group of skyscrapers that I will call “The Old greats”, many of which might end up in the running for the perfect Chicago skyscraper.

Niels

Searching for the perfect Chicago Skyscraper (part I)

Despite the many problems that residents of Chicago have faced over the last century, the city has been able to remain one of the most important architectural hotspots in the world.

When we think of Chicago in architectural terms, the most recognizable contribution the city has produced are its groundbreaking skyscrapers. It is not only the birthplace of the high-rise, but it has also been a place that has carried the evolution of this building type forward, with modern, post-modern and contemporary masterpieces scattered throughout the city.

Going back to the title of my post, I am now embarking on a quest to find the truest example of the most accomplished high-rise in the city that witnessed the birth of the first modern skyscraper.

Before we begin though, there are questions like “what makes a high-rise building great?” that could very well be the subject of contentious debate before I even get started, thus making a preliminary discussion necessary.

The answer to this and other similar questions is definitely not easy. It is as complex as determining what constitutes good or bad architecture. However, there are some basic principles we can all agree on that could help get the discussion started:

1. The building must be well-constructed. In order to be considered great, a high-rise must have endured the wear and tear of weather and time, having been able to maintain its quality and “character” over time.

2. The building must be original or, to be more specific, it should solve a unique problem with a unique solution that advances high-rise architecture either aesthetically, technologically, programatically and/or structurally.

3. The building should address its context in some meaningful way, both in terms of site and as an entity representative of its time.

4. The building should fulfill its function. No great high-rise should fall victim to the wishes of designers that look to make little more than a technological and/or aesthetic statement.

Besides all of those aspects, the buildings that will be touched upon in this series will be unavoidably subjected to my personal taste, which is in constant evolution and reevaluation, thus making broad generalizations about my likes and dislikes rather pointless at this point. It will be much easier to get a sense of what I tend to value once my study comes to a conclusion.

Now some of you may wonder, how does he intend to find the perfect skyscraper in a city full of great examples?

There is certainly no easy way. However, I can, at first, try to narrow down the choices by establishing a simple fact: the vast majority of high-rises clearly fail in at least one of the basic principles established above. Most projects lack the imagination or the uniqueness to be considered in great detail. Others simply do not address site and context as successfully as they could have. Sadly, there is also a number of high-rises that fail even at the most basic level and cannot cope with the effects of weather and time due to poor construction, poor material selection and/or poor detailing.

Among the ones that have already been cast aside we find some notable Chicago buildings that have enjoyed some recognition for one reason or another. Some of these are:

The Prudential Plaza 1 & 2: a couple of modern and postmodern regurgitations by Murphy/Jahn. The second being the ugly offspring of the great Chrysler Bldg. in NYC.


The Illinois Center: a less accomplished Miesian production that was conceived by his firm after his death.


Citigroup Center: a postmodern train wreck of bad taste for a train hub and the Citibank headquarters. Yet another extremely tacky production by Murphy/Jahn.


The Presidential Towers: a cheap and severely misconceived big project that dominates the West Loop skyline with its awful brown tint.


The Smurfit Stone Building: commonly referred to as the “building with the diamond shaped roof”, or simply as “that building with the crazy roof”. This is the best example of aesthetics taking over a project to produce a technically disastrous building. Yes, the tower is a hit with tourists for its bright colors and unique roof, but the truth is that the building sacrificed a significant amount of floor space, and gave engineers headaches when chunks of snow started to dangerously fall on pedestrians due to the unresolved steep slopes of the roof.

Having established the basic ground rules of my search and introduced some famous high-rise disasters, I will begin the in-depth analysis in the second part of my study. I will start to touch upon some respectable skyscrapers like the former world’s tallest, The Sears Tower, and older efforts like The Merchandise Mart, that fall just short of greatness.

Niels