See the new skyscrapers soon to be added to Chicago’s skyline

Curbed Chicago takes a quick look at eleven skyscrapers, seven proposed or approved and four under construction, that could alter the iconic skyline of Chicago:

Vista Tower.
Studio Gang

Vista Tower

Status: Under Construction

Currently rising along the south bank of the Chicago River’s main branch, the 1,198-foot Vista Tower is posed to become the city’s third tallest building. It’s angular design from Chicago architect firm Studio Gang is made up of three stacks of undulating geometric frustums wrapped in alternating bands of shaded of glass.

Work progressed quickly after Vista broke ground in 2016 and recently reached the halfway mark. Delivery of its 406 luxury condos, a 192-room five-star hotel, and impressive amenities is expected in 2020…

Golub & Co./CIM Group

Tribune Tower East

Status: Proposed

At 1,422 feet, this proposed addition to Chicago’s neo-gothic Tribune Tower is gunning for the title of Chicago’s second tallest building. Slated to replace a parking lot just east of its historic neighbor, the yet-to-be-named skyscraper will contain a 200-key luxury hotel, 439 rental apartments, 125 condominiums, and 430 parking spaces.

The design from hometown architecture firm of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill is quite slender by Chicago standards—partly due to a protected view corridor requiring Tribune Tower to remain visible from the Ogden Slip to the east.

A skyline is important to the status of a city, particularly for one like Chicago that takes pride in a history of important architectural works (particularly in the Loop as it transformed from a commodity based economy to a finance center) and consistently works to assert its importance as a global city. These new buildings will add more glass as well as more height to the skyline. It will take some time for all of them to become accepted and recognized parts of the a skyline for a long time that was fairly set (roughly from the early 1970s to the early 2000s with the three tallest buildings).

It would be interesting to consider how Chicago compares to other cities in the approval and construction rate of skyscrapers. Even on this list, the majority of the tall structures are not yet under construction. Chicago always seems to have some supertall buildings in the works (see this earlier post) but many do not come to fruition. Is this common in all major cities? Does Chicago have more proposals than normal or a lower ratio of completed buildings?

The difficulty of changing corporate names on significant urban buildings

The Hancock may soon officially be no more in Chicago but that does not mean the name will disappear from use, including by architecture critics like Blair Kamin:

But names still matter. “Willis Tower” has never felt right. It’s foreign — literally. At the height of the Great Recession, with Sears Tower’s owners desperate to lure tenants, a British reinsurance company swept in and cut an office lease deal that gave it naming rights. Lots of people, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, would rather that the modernist high-rise continue to be called Sears…

The eclectic Wrigley Building, thank goodness, is still the Wrigley Building, even though its namesake company no longer occupies it. The building’s whiteness was meant to symbolize the freshness of chewing gum. The architecture and the name were part of a single, organic package, just as they were in New York’s Art Deco Chrysler Building, where eagle gargoyles adorned the building like Chrysler hood ornaments…

But as I’ve written in recent weeks, pondering the Chicago Tribune’s impending move from Tribune Tower to the old Prudential Building (now One Prudential Plaza), buildings are commodities subject to the dictates of the marketplace; expecting them to stay frozen in time is unrealistic. The same goes for their names.

That’s why Boston’s John Hancock Tower, a 62-story glass-sheathed high-rise that is as elegant as Chicago’s Hancock is brawny, became known in 2015 by its street address — 200 Clarendon. When the lease of the John Hancock company expired, the tower’s owner no longer was allowed to use the Hancock name. The new name hasn’t exactly caught on with the locals.

Three things strike me here:

  1. Iconic structures are more likely to retain their original names even when later changes dictate the official name is something else. What makes those buildings iconic can differ: it may have been occupied by an important local company or it may have unique architectural features. The buildings cited above in Chicago have both things going for them.
  2. It is a little strange for locals to cling so strongly to corporate identities in the names of buildings. Would it be better to instead name major structures after something other than the company behind it? An address may be rather bland but perhaps the name could be connected to the particular architecture and design or tied to a famous figure, moment in history, or feature of the location.
  3. Perhaps the deeper issue is connecting buildings to history. If naming rights are simply up for grabs, prominent locations can change their identity regularly. Not only might this be disorienting to locals, it can remove the structure from its creation and its place within a city. The issue may not be naming rights but rather making sure that buildings are defined by locals rather than by out-of-towners or global interest.

I suspect residents of Chicago will be calling the structure the Hancock for years to come.

New record set by the number of skyscrapers built in 2017

Skyscrapers have truly spread around the globe in recent years:

The current global boom in tall buildings shows no signs of slowing. In its annual Tall Building Year in Review, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) found that more buildings 200 meters tall or greater were finished last year than any other year on record.

A total of 144 such structures were completed in 69 cities spread across 23 countries, part of a wave of tall towers, the fourth-straight record-setting year in terms of completions. Last year’s new tall towers set records across the globe as well: new tallest buildings took shape in 28 cities and 8 countries…

The U.S. completed 10 such structures, including four in New York, two in Chicago, and the record-setting Wilshire Grand Center in Los Angeles. This new class of skyscrapers forms the bulk of North America’s 17 new towers, representing 10.4 percent of the worldwide total.

But as has been the case for years, Asia, specifically China, was the center of the action. Chinese construction projects added 76 new skyscrapers, representing 53 percent of the global total. The city of Shenzhen, which added 12 new buildings, accounted for 8.3 percent of the worldwide total, more than any country outside of China.

While these buildings may be constructed in some places because of high densities and a need for interior space, I suspect the status factor is big here. Being able to project an impressive skyline is a nice feature for today’s big city to have. To be a major city in the eyes of the world, skyscrapers help. Buildings alone cannot catapult a city to the top of the global city rankings but they can certainly make an impression on residents and visitors as well as provide space for new bustling activity.

Urban high-rises can be “vertical suburbs”

Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin suggests again that some new urban high-rises are dull by comparing them to suburbs:

The most forward-looking of the bunch comes from the studio of Mexico City architect Tatiana Bilbao, who designed a model low-cost house for the first biennial. Her tower, done in cooperation with 14 other designers, would house apartments, a market, a workplace and other uses in a plug-in matrix enlivened by cantilevered parts. The design offers a persuasive alternative to the lifeless (and mindless) high-rises that are turning cities from Shanghai to Chicago into vertical suburbs.

Taking aim at the never-ending quest to erect the world’s tallest building, Bilbao asks a far more important question: “How do we create truly vertical communities?”

This comparison does two interesting things. First, it continues the suburban critique of blandness and conformity. While it was often applied to tract homes built on a mass scale, here it is applied to high-rises that are indistinguishable from others. Suburbs and their residents don’t take risks, nor do these new buildings.

Second, the architectural form of suburbs – single-family homes, strip malls and shopping malls, automobile-centric – may be a less important trait compared to its culture. The suggestion here is that a high-rise in the heart of the city can still be a suburb. Spatially, this makes little sense but if the suburbs are more about a particular community life and set of values – an emphasis on privacy, getting ahead, property values, family life – then it may not matter where this lifestyle is found.

It may be worth thinking more about this idea of a “vertical suburb.” Architects and others have spent decades thinking about how to create vertical communities but it often does not work as intended.

Comparing the architecture of Chicago and LA

If baseball teams from two cities square off, why not use it as an opportunity to compare the architecture of the two locations? “Chicago vs. Los Angeles: Which city has the better architecture, public art, and parks?” Here are the comparisons in the iconic skyscraper and landmark categories:

Willis Tower

During much of the twentieth century, Chicago was a merchant city and the biggest name in the business was Sears. In the late ‘60s, the company decided to build a new headquarters and tapped Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design what would become the tallest building in the world. Designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Rahman Khan, the building’s “bundled tube” design not only allowed it to reach new heights, but to also make a grand gesture in the Chicago skyline. With an official height of 1,450 feet (1,729 feet if you include its antennas), the tower held the world’s tallest title until 1998 when the Petronas Towers in Malaysia were completed.

US Bank Tower

The tallest building on the West Coast—until about six weeks ago, anyway—is strong and mighty—it was built to withstand an 8.3 magnitude earthquake. But that hasn’t mattered much to filmmakers. It’s such a standout building that director Roland Emmerich targeted it in no less than three of his blockbuster disaster films; Aliens destroyed it in Independence Day, Tornadoes swept through it in The Day After Tomorrow, and it was felled by an earthquake (presumably above 8.3) in 2012. Completed in 1989, it was designed by architect Henry N. Cobb, who outfitted the structure with its signature crown. This year, the tower unveiled a terrifying glass slide that suspends riders above the street 1,000 feet below. (Even the engineer admitted it’d be “scary as hell” to ride in an earthquake)…

Chicago Water Tower

The Chicago Water Tower in many ways is a reminder of Chicago’s ability to endure through difficult times. The 154-foot tall limestone structure is a physical connection to the city’s early days as it is one of the rare buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which wiped out most the city’s downtown. Today, it is surrounded by towering skyscrapers but remains a popular tourist destination and symbol of Chicago’s strength and determination.

Hollywood sign

Perhaps the most recognizable landmark this side of the Pyramids at Giza, the Hollywood Sign has come to stand in for so much—show business, fame, excess—but is locally a symbol of the city’s complicated relationship with growth and change. The sign originally read “Hollywoodland” and was merely an ostentatious billboard advertising a new subdivision during a 1920s development boom. Later, when it had become a recognizable local landmark, preservationists sought to restore and preserve the sign. And now, with tourists from around the world flocking to Beachwood Canyon to get a closer look at those giant letters, it’s apparently become the bane of local residents’ existence—some of whom have proposed dismantling the sign entirely.

If we are comparing the most iconic representatives of each categories, the cities may be closer than many realize. Chicago is widely recognized as a capital of architecture yet Los Angeles has a good number of interesting and well-known buildings and designs. Additionally, the “feeling” of each place – spatially, culturally – is quite different so it could be hard to make direct comparisons. Yet, I would guess that if we went with quantity as well as history, Chicago would be a more clear cut winner.

I would be interested to see how many architects worked in both cities. In other words, were they separate architectural worlds or was there a lot of back and forth? Given that the two cities are so different, I wonder how much overlap is possible and then how much either the cities or architects would want to broadcast such overlap.

Sociologist on the effect of skylines on cities

Camilo Jose Vergara is a sociologist and photographer who in a recent piece showing multiple angles of the World Trade Center tower over the decades also remarks about the power of a city skyline:

“The skyline is often how people relate to cities,” Vergara told The Huffington Post. “If a city has a skyline, it enters into a different category. It’s a grand city, a great city.”

Two points are notable:

  1. Cities are complex so an iconic image – the skyline – can be an important shorthand for the large city and metropolitan region.
  2. Important cities have notable skylines. Of course, many cities have taller buildings that can be seen from a distance. But, only certain cities have large collections of tall buildings and these skylines can have buildings that becomes iconic in themselves.

In other words, it is hard to imagine major American cities without recognizable skylines. Yet, European cities don’t have the same obsession with skyscrapers and tend to feature older structures like churches. And I wouldn’t be able to immediately pick out a skyline for Tokyo or Berlin or Moscow or New Delhi.

Renaming the Willis Tower and John Hancock buildings

Chicagoans may have to soon adjust to two new names for skyline fixtures:

Sneed hears the Willis Tower, the crown jewel of skyscrapers, is currently the subject of negotiation for naming rights.

Meanwhile, Sneed is told a name change at the John Hancock Center may be imminent…

“Selling naming rights for buildings not occupied by the company that’s named is a new phenomenon and it’s something our ordinances don’t really address,” said Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who has ordered a study by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks Department to determine whether the building qualifies for landmarking status — which restricts building modifications to respect historical integrity.

Even if the names officially change, it will take a significant amount of time for the everyday use of the new titles to change. The buildings are privately owned and yet they have clearly been symbols of Chicago for decades. That the naming rights could change every few years – dependent on the global real estate market – is an odd phenomenon for structures that serve as public markers.

In the long run, perhaps this is why we need non-company names for buildings. Think the Empire State Building or the Gherkin. Firms can move in and out and the name and symbol stays the same. I’m not sure what the Chicago buildings would be named in such a scheme. The Sears/Willis/?? Tower could be the “Stack of Rectangles Tower” and the Hancock could be the “X Support Building.”