Monday, April 23, 2007
Chicago's great gamble in the sky is about to begin in earnest, and the odds are now better than even money that it will succeed as a work of skyline sculpture and as a building that engages the city around it.
After months of struggle, Zurich-based architect Santiago Calatrava finally has been able to make a winning match between visual poetry and the harsh realities of economics in his design for the twisting, 2,000-foot Chicago Spire, which would be the nation's tallest building.
Even if the design that the Chicago Plan Commission approved Thursday lacks some of the balletic elan of the original plan for this tower unveiled two years ago, it remains a powerful sculptural object with a strong structural rationale -- an innovative successor to such great Chicago skyscrapers as the twin corncobs of Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City.
But the 150-story tower is nonetheless a gamble, and not just for the developer, Dublin-based Garrett Kelleher, who insists this is no pie-in-the-sky skyscraper even if he refuses to reveal its cost or the price tag of its condos.
No one has ever built a twisting tower this tall, though a smaller version of this type is under construction in Dubai. For all the allure of Calatrava's architectural models, the Spire they show is as much an abstract sculpture as it is a real building. One wonders how the stunning geometry will look when everyday necessities -- windows, for instance -- intrude.
At best, this will be a new Eiffel Tower, a scale-shattering yet superb skyline statement that becomes the new postcard image of Chicago.
At worst, as less persuasive renderings of the tower suggest, it will be a visual cartoon, a supersize, superskinny version of a soft-serve ice cream cone.
Inevitably, some will lament that this is not the original version of the tower, called the Fordham Spire, which proposed a hotel and communications antenna as well as condos on a vacant site west of Lake Shore Drive and on the north bank of the Chicago River. But that design was a seductive fantasy. This one, which would house about 1,200 condominiums, is striving to be real.
Certainly, it has made great strides toward balancing form and finance, especially since December, when Calatrava made public a banal, nearly flat-topped version of the skyscraper. It instantly was tagged "Twizzler Tower" for resembling a piece of licorice.
Since then, the restless architect has moved gradually to the present plan, in which the tower rises energetically but nobly, making a 360-degree twist as it moves from the ground to a sharply articulated summit.
In January, he unveiled sketches to the Tribune that gave the tower a newly pointed top and promised a restoration of the tower's whirling upward drive. Then, accommodating complex structural requirements, he settled on the current design, which is somewhat bulkier than the pencil-like January version but remains attractively slender. Gone is another version, also revealed to community groups last month, that had too much twist in its top and revealed Calatrava's tendency to lapse into the visually hyperactive.
But the sky-high aesthetic risks haven't disappeared.
Materials make a difference
Calatrava needs to settle on materials -- he wants the exterior to include stainless steel, like the cladding of the much-admired Inland Steel Building of 1958 at 30 W. Monroe St. -- yet how they are detailed and manufactured is crucial.
The gap between vision and reality is already apparent in the glass exterior of the under-construction, 1,362-foot Trump International Hotel & Tower by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Renderings by the architect showed an elegant glass skin, but parts of the exterior as built bring to mind distorted fun-house mirrors.
However the skyline drama turns out, the Spire has a greatly improved, ground-level design that belies the rap that Calatrava's skyscrapers are like ice sculptures, chilling the cities around them.
With Kelleher's encouragement, the architect has moved far beyond the original Fordham Spire plan, in which a ziggurat-shaped parking podium surrounded the tower's base and pretty much held the city at bay.
Instead, with Kelleher approving an expensive underground parking garage and asking the architect to plan the proposed 3.2-acre DuSable Park just to the east, Calatrava has given this enormous tower the fine-grained detail it needs to be a city-enlivening addition to both the riverfront and the lakefront.
The appealing features include a grand, circular plaza set between the tower and the north bank of the Chicago River. In addition, Calatrava's plans call for pedestrian passageways that will lead beneath the superstructure of Lake Shore Drive to the proposed DuSable Park, where Calatrava would handsomely sculpt the landscape. Undoubtedly Kelleher will market the tower as sitting in a 5-acre park, not the 2-acre building site. But the plans also promise to make this skyscraper much more than just an object to be ogled from afar.
True, traffic remains a concern, especially because tourists are sure to flock to this building. Signs will be needed to point those who come on wheels to nearby parking garages. Wisely, the tower's garage won't be open to the public, which should prevent a recurrence of the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, when a bomb-laden van exploded in the center's underground parking garage, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.
For all the questions looming around the Spire, however, this much is clear: The planned skyscraper has the aesthetic and urban design stature to match its projected height. Now the great drama begins: Will this thing actually get built? Will the reality match the promise?
Yes, Calatrava said Wednesday in an interview, explaining that the developer already is getting bids for caissons. His talents as a real estate oddsmaker, one hopes, are a match for his skills in shaping skyscrapers.
For more information about this project, please see website www.thechicagospire.com