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Lofty Goals 

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It's been eight years now, and Chicagoans still haven't forgotten--or forgiven, says David Maola, laughing. "It's an issue that constantly comes up." 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 later this month.

The Council on Tall Buildings itself harbors no ill will toward Chicago--in fact, it 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 lost ambition? 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 200 list.

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. 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, scheduled for completion in 2007, would rank among the world's 20 tallest by the current reckoning. But the would-be owner of the tagline "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 problems 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 spine.

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," engineer Werner Sobek, a collaborator of Jahn's, has said. "Our goal is to perfect our work."

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 buildings."

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 the one you get from having bragging rights to the world's tallest building. We're 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 titles fall away, does some of our vitality wither with them?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy the Thornton-Tomasetti Group.

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