It’s a cliché, but Chicago really is the home of the skyscraper.
From the Home Insurance Building of 1885 to Louis Sullivan’s iron-framed skyscrapers and on through the modernist minimalism of Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive apartments and the stripped-down corporate slickness of SOM architects, the city keeps building the best and most intriguing tall buildings, even if they may not necessarily be the most expressive, decorative or beautiful. It is a functional, efficient approach that suits the city. More recently, local architect Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower introduced an undulating watery façade to the rippling array of downtown towers.
If each of these towers introduced a new language to the world, the city’s latest luxury tower will not. Architect Robert AM Stern has built a reputation as a designer of “traditional” condo towers that include some of the most exclusive and expensive addresses in New York, such as 15 Central Park West and 30 Park Place. The designs for Chicago’s One Bennett Park are Art Deco inflected, employing a distinctive crown of setbacks that echo the city’s famous skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s. The twist is that, unlike those towers, the top is asymmetric.
The setbacks construct a series of terraces and balconies overlooking Lake Michigan, the Navy Pier and its Streeterville neighbourhood. They create a memorable top, something very different to the city’s architecture of the postwar period, in which towers end suddenly — and straight.
In New York, Stern’s towers seem to have melted into the city. Manhattan’s denser grid, more filled in and more variegated, somehow swallowed up even the tallest of his towers. (Stern is now building bigger but flatter buildings — notably 70 Vestry in Tribeca, with its pseudo-industrial scale and stepped profile.) But One Bennett Park will stick out more, as it’s surrounded by rather generic, flat-sided towers spread thinly, and just because of its sheer height: at 69 storeys it will be one of the city’s tallest buildings.
The argument had been, I believe, that in Manhattan the wealthy wanted the kinds of condos they weren’t building any more: the solid, dependable detail of the early 20th-century buildings that lined the edges of Central Park. But that mood seems to be shifting. New records are being set by decidedly contemporary towers such as Rafael Viñoly’s severely abstract 432 Park Avenue and the city’s other “pencil” towers, or skinnyscrapers. In a way, the shift presents a fascinating future for architecture, in which style reverts to being a matter of taste rather than a matter of asset class. If developers are free to choose any style, do they automatically go for the cheaper, smoother but blander contemporary corporate look, or do they spend a little extra on detail, perhaps historical, perhaps decorative, but in less predictable ways?
Chicago is the laboratory of modern architecture, as can currently be seen at the city’s architecture biennial. It remains one of the most diverse and fascinating ecosystems of architecture. Stern’s revivalist landmark isn’t just a conservative throwback but a questioning of the architectural language of height, which makes its skyline richer.
Photographs: Daniel Lobitz, partner at Ramsa
Related article: Chicago Biennial: The architecture of everything and nothing