Monthly Archives: April 2011

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.


IMDB Top 250: The King’s Speech (2010)

My mission to watch all of the TOP 250 films listed in the IMDB site (as of March 22nd) continues.

Since I set myself the goal, I have watched 3 of the 125 films I have yet to see, which makes me believe I need to up the tempo if I want to succeed within the 2-year time frame I’ve given myself. The 3 films include the previously reviewed Blade Runner, 2008’s Gran Torino directed and starred by Clint Eastwood (upcoming review) and the last best-picture Oscar winner: The King’s Speech.

In another post, that I published a few days after I started this blog, I gave my personal list of the top 10 movies of 2010, with the glaring omission of the Oscar winner for best-picture that I hadn’t seen at the moment. It is now my belief that my winner for 2010 continues to be Inception, but the time-piece starred by Colin Firth as the stuttering King George VI deserves to be placed in close second.

The motion picture is one, among the great contenders for Oscar gold, that excels in its simplicity and that relies, primarily, on the romanticism of the story and the craft of a very talented cast. The movie is set in England, right before the passing of King George V and in the years leading to the beginning of WWII. The story follows the ascendance of the younger son of the king of England (Colin Firth), referred to as “The Duke of Yorke” by the commonfolk, or simply as “Bertie” by friends and family. The Duke is quickly presented to us as a man with a stammer that steams from deeply rooted insecurities, none greater than the fear to public speaking.

It is apparent early on that this is also a man of good, with love and care for his family, and an honest interest to serve his father, the King, and the British people. The duchess, remarkably portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, is in love with that man. She feels that he is in pain, trapped inside his body, unable to speak his mind and fulfill his calling. The duchess seeks for treatment time and time again and, with every unsuccessful attempt, pushes her husband closer to a helpless frustration. Happily, she eventually comes across an eccentric therapist named Lionel Rogue, played by the ever-charming and wonderful Geoffrey Rush, that quickly shows a reluctant and pessimistic Duke that it is indeed possible to overcome his stammer.

The complexity and frustration of the Duke’s inability to speak is impressively portrayed by Colin Firth, deserved Oscar winner for Best Actor, and his performance is accompanied by a cast that is as effortlessly great as its leading man, making the story work with every scene, and allowing us to fully immerse in the struggle of an intelligent young prince that rises to King despite all of his fears.

The King’s Speech is simple in that it relies on a linear time-piece type story that is more or less well known. The rise of the young Duke to the throne of England is a story of great improbability that portrays an otherwise unapproachable figure as a deeply human and flawed man. In his quest to overcome adversity, he conquers his fears, reaches his full potential and, in doing so, builds an unlikely friendship with a therapist who he would have never spoken to as his equal in any other scenario. The movie is as much of a buddy-comedy with a lot of heart as it is a romantic story about overcoming adversity.

Unlike other critically-acclaimed movies of 2010, The King’s Speech does simple things remarkably well, which is better than trying to be different but failing to do so. The director, Tom Hoopper, reminds us that there are still “real” and moving stories that treated with care and with the right cast can excel beyond its scale, and beyond Oscar-gold, to become one of the best films ever made.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (masterpiece)


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.


Review: Tangled (2010)

I will step out of my mission to watch the top 250 films of IMDB to review Tangled, a Disney Animation Studios movie released last year to critical and commercial success.

Tangled surprised me. It was irreverent, witty, beautifully rendered and cleverly scripted. It comes as no surprise, however, that the mastermind behind the revamping of an old princess tale is no other that the founder of Pixar, perhaps the most innovative studio in Hollywood. In the deal that brought Pixar under the umbrella of Disney, both studios compromised to work together to give the legendary Disney Animation wing a breath of new life.

Tangled is an interesting fusion of the styles that have defined Pixar within the traditional and romantic storytelling of Disney. It is in the partnership of both that the movie blends an otherwise typical princess story into a modern animated film that is set to entertain people of all ages. It has the charm and the scale of old Disney but with the edginess and vibrancy of a Pixar production.

The movie follows Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore), a princess stuck in a castle due to a very deceiving witch (Donna Murphy) who kidnaps her as a baby from the king and queen of this picturesque world while pretending to be her mom. The witch manipulates the princess by painting a world full of deceit, selfishness and horrible creatures that want to cut her magic hair. Now, given the formulaic set-up of Tangled, the narrative does wonders to use humor and sarcasm to start defining the unique relationship Rapunzel and “mother” have. As it is accustomed in animated movies, the secondary characters are animals with human-like personalities that are as interesting (if not more) than those of the main characters. In Tangled we find a cute little chameleon that acts as Rapunzel’s sidekick and later an incredibly persistent horse that chases after Rapunzel’s love interest, the modern prince turned thief, Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levy).

Both main characters have an authenticity to them that is sometimes at odds with the overly beautiful and unreal scenery that they share. The wittiness of Flynn blends nicely with the innocence of Rapunzel. The adventure they embark on is one of self-discovery, for Flynn it turns into a life-changing expedition that allows him to rethink his priorities and, for Rapunzel, the first and best day of the rest of her life.

For its charm, beautifully-rendered animation, wittiness and modern take on an old child’s tale, Tangled gives Disney Animation a brand new hit for a new generation of moviegoers.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (very good)


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.