Tag Archives: modernism

Architecture & Film: Playtime (1967)


Genre: Comedy

Director/writer: Jacques Tati

There is no other film quite like Playtime.

Directed and thoroughly conceived by Jacques Tati, the film is a comedic commentary on modernity, one that very likely extends from Tati’s unique reaction to the excess and dehumanization of daily life under the advance of technology.

At the time of its release in 1967, Playtime was the most expensive French film ever made. For it, Tati created a huge set at the outskirts of Paris fondly referred to by locals as “Tativille”. His city within a city was representative of the purest ideals of the International Style of architecture. Buildings were made out of perfectly smooth surfaces like glass and steel, where the line between the private and public realm was often blurred. Buildings were rectilinear, describing pure straight lines, leaving no space for singularity, uniqueness nor superfluousness. Everything was made with a purpose. Decoration and ornamentation were deemed unnecessary and unrepresentative of function. Though life was already hectic and professionally oriented, there was hardly any space for chaos or for the unexpected. In its purest and most relentless, modernity for the International Style of architecture was in direct opposition to the organic, malleable, responsive and expressive character of human existence.

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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.


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.


The new skyscrapers of Chicago

As the birthplace of the skyscraper and the center of many of the technological and aesthetic innovations in the field, Chicago still remains an architectural encyclopedia of modernity.

Chicago has enjoyed several construction booms ever since the dramatic rebirth that ensued after the Great Chicago Fire at the end of the 19th century. The disaster allowed the city to improve, providing an almost blank canvas for talented artists and professionals. The so-called “best generation of Chicagoans” produced not only the skyscraper, but it also pushed Chicago to the forefront of architecture.

The second boom happened decades later, around the 1950s and 60s, as the country’s economy picked up after WWII. During this period the city saw the rise of other great talents and iconic high-rises. Bruce Graham and Fazlur Kahn from SOM combined to produce masterpieces such as The Sears Tower, The John Hancock Center and the Inland Steel Building. The legendary Mies van der Rohe made Chicago his home and, with that, modernism was brought to the limelight with great projects like The Federal Center, 860-880 Lake Shore Dr. and The IBM Building. There were many others projects deserving of recognition, such as the great Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg or Lake Point Tower by George Schipporeit.

The latest significant construction boom came about at the turn of the millennium. The housing bubble that caused the last (and current) global economic crisis helped, at its peak, to fund the construction of a wealth of high-rises (mostly residential) for those who saw the urban life as desirable, especially in response to high gas prices and ever longer suburban commutes. While most of what was constructed lacked the ingenuity and pizazz of the past masterworks, there were a handful of projects that deserve further analysis:

The Aqua Tower (Studio Gang) – residential/hotel: without any previous high-rise experience, Jeanne Gang produced a new landmark for the city. The building starts from the basic modern box form that is broken up by a 9-inch concrete slab that is curvaceous and sensuous, cantilevering beyond the rectangular frame from 4 to 15 feet. There is an interesting duality of rigidity and dynamism that makes the building a very successful aesthetic statement. However, the impact of the duality lessens the further you are to the building since the slabs mesh with the rectangular frame in an indistinguishable and plain and dark glass box.

Another great feature includes a massive green roof over the podium that defines the first 3 stories of the building. The roof provides the residents amenities that include a running track, 3 swimming pools, cabanas and plenty of greenery. Structurally, the building simply relies in a concrete core and peripheral columns that allow for the slab to cantilever and for the building to withstand lateral loads.

The Trump Tower and Hotel (SOM) – residential/hotel: this is a building that does exactly what is supposed to do. It utilizes the site very efficiently and it was shaped and proportioned to respond to the specific views you would get from and towards the building from different vantage points. Neither structurally nor aesthetically does the building provide uniqueness or inventiveness. In fact, the proportions seem to be off, making the building rather stocky and short, asking to be significantly taller, as it was originally planned. What The Trump Tower sacrifices in height and inventiveness it makes up partly on the quality of the materials used and the attention to detail that a firm like SOM is known for.

The Chicago Spire (Calatrava) – residential/hotel/office: this massive project by Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava fell victim to poor timing and the crash of the housing bubble. The construction had barely gotten started when the economic crisis reached its zenith. All that remains is the immense hole made for the foundation work and the several conceptual iterations that were produced during the approval process. As a result, Calatrava can only be judged in paper, knowing that no one will quite grasp the effect the building might have had once completed.

It was, without a doubt, a daring and highly complex building. Calatrava adapted an idea he had already explored and completed in a little-known high-rise in Malmo (Sweden) in one of the most successful efforts of his career. The Chicago Spire was to twist as it got taller, with a rotating floor layout that slowly got smaller as the building rose in height. As it is to be expected with Calatrava, the core of his idea was rooted in a daring engineering form. Calatrava produces works that are objects that stand out by themselves and that often represent a stark contrast to its surroundings. The tower would have been the tallest structure in the United States, with far smaller neighbors in the near vicinity. In order to accomplish height and slenderness, the first conceptual iterations of Calatrava sacrificed floor area, rendering a few upper floors completely unusable. In order to make a more realistic project, Calatrava had to subsequently sacrifice some height (even then the tallest structure in the US) and slenderness. The tower’s twist was also to become more gradual in an effort to make the building cheaper to construct. Aesthetically, these changes made the building less successful, and the rendering produced seem to have been inspired by a phallic object.

Despite these interesting entries into the extensive high-rise library of Chicago, the city and most of its American counterparts seem to have fallen behind Asian and European cities that continue to push the boundaries of what is possible structurally and aesthetically.

In the next “architecture post” I will continue on this theme with a series that will be titled “Searching for the perfect Chicago Skyscraper”