Cityscape: The High and the Flighty | Essay | Chicago Reader

Cityscape: The High and the Flighty 

The Sky's the Limit catalogs a century's worth of Chicago skyscrapers, providing an overview that can't be had on any walking tour.

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Edgar Lee Masters once traipsed from his downstate village to the Masonic Temple at State and Randolph, then the tallest building in the world, because he had heard it said that a man could see all the way to Council Bluffs, Iowa, from its 21st floor. Traveling more than 200 miles to see Iowa from the top of a building, when the same trip in another direction would have let you see it close up, suggests something of the mystique that Chicago's tall buildings have always had for the rest of the world.

Along with the stockyards and Al Capone, tall buildings are what Chicago is mostly known for. The casual tourist's curiosity about Chicago's skyscrapers is catered to by tours and exhibitions galore, plus several guidebooks (Ira Bach's Famous Buildings of Chicago is probably the best known). But the lay reader whose interest in buildings lies somewhere between casual and compulsive finds that guidebooks that are useful enough on a stroll are frustratingly abbreviated in the study. And while whole libraries of learned works have been published that consider architects and their buildings in historical, aesthetic, and technological terms, such works might as well be written in Sanskrit as far as the general reader is concerned. In fact, Sanskrit would be more readable than architecturese.

The gap between the tourist guide and the treatise was recognized by Rizzoli of New York as a market niche. That publishing house has filled it with The Sky's the Limit, a handsome new survey of a century's worth of Chicago skyscrapers compiled by three senior staff members of the Art Institute's architecture and education departments. This is not a guidebook (at just shy of four pounds it would turn a walking tour into a staggering tour). And while it offers larger photos than any guidebook, it is not quite an art book. It is instead a coffee-table book with brains, usefully blending history and catalog. If it prompts nearly as many questions about Chicago's tall buildings as it answers, well, that makes it more interesting rather than less.

If nothing startling is essayed, it may be because this is not only a book about Chicago skyscrapers but also a Chicago book about skyscrapers. Of the 90 or so quotations from critics and historians in the text, roughly 70 are from experts based in Chicago. This is not to suggest that their opinions are wrong, only that they may be somewhat suspect on grounds of either parochialism or a pardonable patriotism. (The single most-cited authority is Paul Gapp, who has said a lot even though he hasn't always had a lot to say.) Still, this book is a rich resource, though at $65 it entitles one to quibble a bit (a paperback edition is being talked about). A map of downtown Chicago would be useful in future editions, and I would have been grateful if the publisher had realized that not every reader is so intimately familiar with Chicago's street numbering system that he wouldn't find it easier to locate a building if its nearest cross street were listed as well as its street number.

The Sky's the Limit offers a chronological listing of 130 major skyscrapers from the 1885 Studebaker building (now the Fine Arts on Michigan) to several projects as yet unbuilt. Seeing them all together allows you to consider them in ways not easy to do when you encounter them by chance.

The extensive use of period photos may disappoint some readers accustomed to art-book-quality illustrations. But these older pictures reveal how dramatic the Wrigley and the Palmolive and the London Guaranty must have looked when they opened on the fringes of the Loop. Such buildings weren't only tall, they were the only remotely tall buildings within blocks. Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott store was once a tall building--additions have made today's version wider than it is high, but the original (revealed here in a seldom-published photo) consisted of three 12-story bays fronting Madison Street. It's as startling as a photo of Orson Welles before he got fat. Only the Hancock Center and the Sears Tower have had that kind of impact since the 1930s.

As the Loop has been built up, the tall building has become the context as well as the text of architectural discussion. The Sky's the Limit points out in detail the ways architects relate new buildings to nearby older ones through stylistic references. Such guidance is welcome; often these references register feebly on passersby, who can be forgiven for assuming they exist only in the imagination of the architect. Take the multicolored stone piers that ring Helmut Jahn's State of Illinois Center, which John Zukowsky reveals "refer indirectly" to the polychromed masonry of the Sherman Hotel. Very indirectly; the hotel was razed to make way for Jahn's building.

Some of the most influential buildings in Chicago, such as Walter Gropius's entry in the Tribune's 1922 competition for the design of its planned new Michigan Avenue tower, were never even built. These unbuilt works inspired particularly the work of Cesar Pelli, who is so adept at rephrasing the ideas of dead creators that I suspect he uses a seance where other architects use a computer. His PaineWebber Tower at Madison and Wells paid homage to Eliel Saarinen's losing entry. And readers who find vaguely familiar Pelli's drawings for Miglin-Beitler's proposed 125-story tower--seen here on page 290--may be remembering it from page 11, in the form of a never-built Michigan Avenue skyscraper from 1925 designed by Andrew Rebori.

The rise of the "Chicago School" of tall-building design is so familiar by now that even an alderman can recite it: how the Great Fire in 1871 led to innovations in fireproof iron and steel framing that was "expressed" or revealed through the windows, piers, etc of the facade; how these structural innovations (along with mechanical innovations like the elevator) liberated architects to design honest American buildings shorn of decadent Europeanized ornament.

That, at any rate, is the tourist version. The adoption of new building technologies was not in fact very speedy after the fire, and for a long time most of the new buildings in Chicago were pretty much like the old buildings. Where they were used, the new technologies often (indeed usually) had no immediate impact on style.

No single building, indeed no single city showed the way. (One perspicacious critic has identified no fewer than seven phases in the evolution of the skyscraper, beginning in the 1850s.) Many Chicago buildings made tentative adaptations of the new metal-framing technologies. The Monadnock Building, for example, used iron girders here and there but retained traditional load-bearing masonry walls. William Le Baron Jenney's Home Insurance Building at LaSalle and Adams used to be widely recognized as the first skyscraper in the sense we know it today, meaning a steel frame to which a non-weight-bearing curtain wall is attached. But The Sky's the Limit contributor Jane H. Clarke has read her skyscraper revisionists, and points out that the building's masonry-clad piers carried some of the structural load, and that Jenney's Manhattan Building (built a few years later on Dearborn, where it still stands) was one of the first skyscrapers to rely wholly on a metal skeleton.

It was the inventiveness that showed on the outside of Chicago skyscrapers that earned the city its reputation as an architectural innovator in the late 19th century. The history of skyscraper style is as complex--and in some respects as disputed--as the history of skyscraper technology. Not all the tall buildings erected in Chicago during the golden age before World War I were of the Chicago School, and not all the Chicago School buildings were built in Chicago. Some of the most technologically daring Chicago buildings from the 1880s and 1890s were given facades that relied on classical forms, if not in their ornament then in their organization into the base, shaft, and capital of the classic column.

However haltingly it evolved, a new style of skyscraper did appear in Chicago during those early years. The skyscraper must be understood as the product of the alien impulses toward art and greed. The spareness, the economy of gesture of the classic Chicago School skyscrapers owed as much to the developers' niggardliness as to the architects' inspiration. Most of these buildings were speculative projects, often financed by out-of-towners who did not feel the compulsion to impress the locals with opulence as they might when they built a headquarters in their home cities. As Ada Louise Huxtable put it in The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered, "Business was the engine that drove innovation" in Chicago at the turn of the century. "Architecture was the servant of engineering, and design was tied to the bottom line."

In a now-famous 1894 letter, the financier who bankrolled the Monadnock instructed architect John Root to design a building that would not become a home to roosting pigeons, which colonized every doodad of classically ornamented buildings. The uncluttered facade Root came up with--window bays instead of pediments to vary the facade, a subtle swelling to give shape to the base and cornice--did more than just pigeon-proof the Monadnock. Historian and critic Donald Hoffman is quoted here calling the building "without peer" in the history of the tall office building.

That Chicago owes its preeminence in the history of design to pigeon shit is proof that architects have usually given developers better buildings than they deserve. Buildings like the Reliance and the Monadnock (both still standing), the Stock Exchange and the Tacoma (both lost) were handsome as well as utilitarian. Such buildings are still admired today, and the best of them have not been diminished by age, although indifferent ownership has taken a toll on several of them.

Each era's buildings had been shaped by the same economic forces, as developers sought buildings that could enclose as much rentable space as quickly and cheaply as possible; the projects differ only in the technologies and materials used to express them. The glass boxes that rose in the 1950s and '60s certainly were as diligently functional as their turn-of-the-century ancestors, if usually less prepossessing in appearance.

For these reasons, many critics saw in postwar modernism a second Chicago school of tall-building design. The newcomers shared with their predecessors a certain economy in looks and cost. All but a few of them, however, lacked the expressive power of the best works of Root, Burnham, et al.

The glass box is reckoned by many to have killed the public's affection for the skyscraper, and even critics have begun to ask whether the modernist era was a new turning in the road toward the ultimate tall-building design or simply a blind alley. It's not clear whether such modern monuments as Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Inland Steel Building (1954) will ever become much loved, but after nearly 40 years they do engender a certain respect.

Modernism in Chicago means Mies van der Rohe, of course. Four major Mies projects are profiled in The Sky's the Limit--the Federal Center, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, Illinois Center, and the IBM Building. His Chicago buildings are no longer new--his apartment towers at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive are now 43 years old--but they still look "modern." One has to agree, even if reluctantly, with Huxtable that Mies at his best made structural symbolism into a high art form for a technological age.

The problem is that while high art usually makes great architecture, it often makes mediocre buildings. Mies's Federal Center will do as an example. Mies made the lobbies of the two office towers on the site the same height as the post office that adjoins them, thus giving "human scale" to the spaces. However, the ground floors of all three buildings are so overscaled that the sidewalk observer is hardly aware of them. The granite paving that Zukowsky says "unit[es] the complex at the ground plane" in fact fuzzes the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space. This lack of definition is especially felt from the sidewalk; the loss of a street wall creates an amorphous space that dissolves behind the glass of those tall lobbies.

Only a philistine would complain that all modernist skyscrapers look alike. But the world is run by philistines, and by the 1970s corporate tenants who wanted to make a splash didn't want to headquarter their firms in "just another glass box." Architects were faced with the task of differentiating their new buildings from all the other new buildings. There was no economic or technological reason to abandon the Miesian skyscraper. But corporate tenants were not looking for efficiency in the 1980s. They wanted prestige, market presence, identity. If economy drove the skyscraper market a century ago, celebrity drives it today.

Paul Goldberger, the New York Times's architecture critic, has said that Chicago has one of the best collections of postmodern skyscrapers of any U.S. city, by which we may assume he means in part that Chicago has fewer really bad ones. The tall buildings in Chicago have always tended to make cautious statements in their respective idioms. This conservatism has probably prevented some invigorating skyscraper designs from being built, but it probably has prevented the construction of a lot more meretricious ones.

It is hard to form an opinion about postmodernism in Chicago without forming an opinion of its most notorious local practitioner, Helmut Jahn. The most challenging building to go up in Chicago in 30 years was his State of Illinois Center. Jahn also was the perpetrator of such major Loop buildings as the 1980 addition to the Board of Trade and the Northwestern Atrium Center. The Board of Trade project deserves the praise that Pauline Saliga gives it in The Sky's the Limit, but the Northwestern project revealed some of Jahn's less ingratiating habits. He borrowed from the Board of Trade addition in designing the Northwestern building, specifically from the scallop motif used in the sconces and lobby of that art-deco beauty; but Jahn's reworking produced a building that looks like a giant Wurlitzer jukebox. And Jahn quoting Louis Sullivan in the arched entrance on Madison is a bit like George Bush quoting Lincoln in this year's state of the union address.

Leafing through The Sky's the Limit, one remembers that virtually all of the Chicago skyscrapers built before the 1960s were designed by Chicago firms. That began to change in the 1970s, when increasing numbers of projects were awarded to out-of-town firms. Chicago in the 1980s may not have been the site of much new architecture, but it was the site of many new tall buildings. The book's cover photo is remarkable testimony to the new cosmopolitanism of the Loop skyline. Looking southwest from the river, the vista encompasses buildings by such national and international architectural luminaries as Kevin Roche, Adrian Smith, Bruce Graham, Cesar Pelli, and William Pedersen.

The New York-based firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox has been especially busy. KPF is the author of 225 and 333 W. Wacker, 311 S. Wacker, 900 N. Michigan, and the new Chicago Title and Trust Center being erected at Clark and Randolph. Last year Paul Goldberger dared suggest in print that KPF's architecture "has become nearly as conspicuous on the skyline" as that of Skidmore--indeed that the New York firm was setting the architectural agenda in Chicago.

The Tribune's Paul Gapp is always ready to defend Chicago against architectural interlopers, especially if they come from New York. (It's a game in which you can keep score; when this year's American Institute of Architects design award winners were announced, Gapp reported that 8 of the 19 awards went to New York-based firms.) A typical 1989 Gapp dispatch described an "invasion" by other firms, and asked whether the interlopers were "demeaning" the reputation of a city that had been "architecturally self-sufficient" for decades. Less generous critics might rephrase "architecturally self-sufficient" as "smug" or "insular."

One cannot talk about the architectural rivalry between Chicago and New York without dealing with the cities' ongoing competition to be the home of the world's tallest building. The battle is waged by people--not all of them architects or critics by any means--of the sort who, had they gone to different schools, might amuse themselves by yelling "Tastes great!" and "Less filling!" at each other in ballparks. Gotham patriot Steve Friess delivered a typical in-your-face rebuttal to an unflattering portrait of New York City in the Trib's sports section. "Chicago may have taller buildings," Friess wrote, "but the world still looks to the Empire State Building as the dry martini of skyscrapers."

Indeed it does. But style is not the point of the really tall building. For a long time now, the limits on skyscraper height have been economic, not technological or aesthetic; building higher and higher is less a measure of architectural or engineering prowess than of deal making.

And of other things. The phallicism of the skyscraper seldom is commented upon in polite circles, probably because it is so obvious that no comment is thought necessary. (Young architects tell me that you aren't considered a man, architecturally speaking, until you've designed a tall building.) But the imagery is so familiar by now that architects and critics seem to have become blind to it, often with amusing results. Paul Gapp, describing his candidates for the ten most important post-World War II buildings in Chicago, speaks of the "muscular, bare-bones tradition of Chicago design" (if the bones are bare, where are the muscles?) exemplified by Mies, whose "powerful Chicago buildings began rising in the late 1940s" and which "flex their biceps in a brawny fashion that seems in keeping with the city's more general tough guy reputation."

Chicago, it seems, has no guys tougher than its architects. In a remark quoted in The Sky's the Limit, Skidmore's Bruce Graham extols the Hancock Center as an example of the "gutsy, masculine tradition of Chicago." Poor Louis Sullivan, tortured by his desire to produce a "proud and soaring thing," would have been happy to belong to such a butch bunch.

There is no compelling necessity for the skyscraper as a building form, apart from its utility in housing the maximum number of renters on the minimum acreage of expensive downtown land. Most popular books on the subject deal with the tall building as an artistic object. But aesthetics are among the least important aspects of the tall building, as Lewis Mumford never tired of pointing out. That great critic decried the skyscraper as giving encouragement to characteristic American weaknesses: "Our love of abstract magnitude, our interest in land gambling, our desire for conspicuous waste."

The very tall building has its costs. Carol Wyant, the director of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, has argued for years that smaller buildings offer rents lower than are possible in glitzy new high rises. And the taller the Loop, the less diverse its tenants. Developer John Buck has argued in favor of pedways in part because they provide affordable space for shoe-shine parlors and tailor shops and other service stores driven out of street-level space by high rents. The image of CEOs and their minions directing an economy from the clouds while their servants toil underground makes Fritz Lang's Metropolis look uncomfortably prescient.

Chicago architect Carl Giegold shifted his aim somewhat when he critiqued Miglin-Beitler's proposed 125-story tower in a recent issue of The Neighborhood Works as an energy user. "The project is touted as an expression of humankind's oldest and most noble aspirations," he writes. But while it will have the floor area of a typical 50-story building, it will expose 70 percent more surface area, which will absorb 70 percent more heat per unit of area; cladding and cooling such a building, plus supporting it against the wind, will require disproportionate amounts of energy for electricity, quarrying, refining, fabricating, and shipping. "This building may be poetic," concluded Giegold, "but it is also extravagantly self-absorbed."

The Sky's the Limit generally limits itself to the engineering, artistic, and historical aspects of Chicago's tall buildings, but occasionally the authors consider their broader impact. Pauline Saliga scorns suburbanized apartment complexes such as Presidential Towers, Sandburg Village, and McClurg Court, asking whether such developments don't diminish a neighborhood's diversity in both human and economic terms. Jane Clarke praises the Hancock Center as "a neighborhood encapsulated" in one building. She cites William H. Whyte in praise of such mixed-use projects for bringing people back to the city center. In fact, Whyte has been an eloquent critic of such mixed-use centers, which he describes as being located in the city without being of the city.

Few writers, however, explore the fact that a surprising number of people dislike tall buildings not because they are ugly or inefficient or antiurban, but because they are tall. The earliest skyscrapers invaded a realm that in the previous experience of the race had belonged to either God or nature. What drew Edgar Lee Masters to State and Randolph was the chance to do what only the dead or the daring had been able to do, which is look down upon a great city and see it reduced to the size of a toy. All it takes nowadays to see the world the way God sees it is $3.75, the price of a ride to the top of the Sears Tower.

Richard Sennett, in The Conscience of the Eye, wonders whether today's skyscrapers wouldn't strike the architects of a medieval cathedral as profane. City people of course have largely lost that sense of the terrible when we look at tall buildings. Sennett notes that building height no longer has much symbolic value; in fact tall buildings are enormously more simple, symbolically, than the meanest church. Over the years I have polled friends and relatives returning from their obligatory trips to the Sears Tower, and I have been impressed with how unimpressive they find it. People remember the views but not the building. It isn't dramatic or awe-inspiring or interesting. It's just big.

Indifference is not the only reaction that the skyscraper excites in the uninitiated. Larry Rice, who has worked as city manager in Highland Park and Elgin, told Crain's in February, "Chicago has a problem . . . because people feel so dwarfed by the tall buildings when you walk down the street." It is easier to dismiss this anxiety ("Try the good life in Highland Park--where the buildings are as small as the people who build them") than it is to explain it. To the extent people feel intimidated by tall buildings because they are the physical representation of a corporate/bureaucratic power structure that controls things--and them--their reactions are reasonable.

That greed and ego can occasionally be accommodated so handsomely via the artistic imagination and technological daring of our best architects makes their achievements not only impressive but astonishing.

The Sky's the Limit: A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers edited by Pauline A. Saliga, with contributions by Jane H. Clarke, Pauline A. Saliga, and John Zukowsky; Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.; $65.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.

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