Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Willis Tower -- Second to None?

Second Place?  Only in height . . . (JWB Photo)

Years and years from now I can tell my granddaughters that I stood on the deck of Chicago’s Leading Lady with a freezing wind blowing out of the north as I directed 40 or so tourists to look at what is, as of today, the second tallest tower in the nation, standing proud and muscular, despite its 40 years of age, against a clear blue Chicago sky.

It was at 10:00 this morning that the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat announced that the 408 feet of whatever-it-is atop the new One World Trade Center in New York City is really a spire and not an antenna.  That decision meant, of course, that the New York tower’s 1,776 feet inhales more than 300 more feet of air than Chicago’s tower.

Congratulations on the tall building thing (JWB Photo)
So New York has the tallest building in the country and Chicago . . . well . . . Chicago is now the second city when it comes to super-talls.

You know what, though?  I’ll take Willis Tower over One World Trade any day, and I especially favor it on a day like today when the clarity of its plan stands so emphatically against the bright afternoon sky.  It defines this city in a way that the New York tower never had a chance at doing. Part of the reason for that lies in the difference between the two cities.

Bruce Graham, the lead architect on Sears Tower, said this in his oral history at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Chicago is a city of skyscrapers.  New York is not.  New York is a city that is a huge rock that has been carved out to make streets . . . You have to be miles away to see the buildings . . . You have no sense of the buildings.  Rockefeller Center was the first one that you could see, and after that there were really none.”

A tall building that makes a statement and defines a city (JWB Photo)
Mr. Graham hit upon one of the problems with the new building in New York.  It is a giant among other giants.  It is impossible to find a space nearby where one can appreciate its presence apart from all of the other towers that surround it.  And it doesn’t help that one-fourth of the tower’s height is made up of what we have apparently agreed to call a spire.

There’s more to it than that, though.

Consider what Paul Gapp, the Pulitzer prize winning architectural critic for The Chicago Tribune, wrote when Sears Tower opened its doors in 1974 . . .

Sears Tower clearly and exultantly asserts itself as a giant whose elements assume a lighter character as they rise, in a manner somewhat akin to that of the skyscrapers built in the 1920’s.  There is no self-effacement here, no bland anonymity.  And that is as it should be . . . So Graham and Khan [Fazler Khan, the structural engineer on the project] have triumphed in coping with bigness, as far as that difficult game can be carried. [Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1974]

The key phrase in Mr. Gapp’s appraisal?  No bland anonymity

You can call it a spire if you like . . . maybe
it's that pointy thing at the top that
seals the deal (JWB Photo)
One World Trade Center is a good looking building, intriguing in its clever geometric tricks.  Beginning at the twentieth floor, the sides of the building are chamfered, slanting inward from the square base from which they rise, in the process forming eight elongated isosceles triangles that resolve themselves at the square top of the building.  It’s nice to look at.  But does it stir the soul and inspire a city the way that Willis does?

Noted architectural critic Paul Goldberger said this as the new tower began to rise in 2010:

I think a great tower would have had a place there.  Either a pure tower, just as a symbol, like the Eiffel Tower of the twenty-first century, we might say.  Or remembering that the United States is, after all, the birthplace of the skyscraper – a building form that we’ve now given to the world that is so common all around the world – what better place, if we’re looking to show the world that in fact we have not been defeated by this attack, than to come back to this place, in this country, in this time and build the most advanced skyscraper we could possible imagine.  The one that will bring the art of skyscraper design forward yet again . . . And instead we are not doing that.  We’re doing a building that is not that different from a lot of commercial buildings built everywhere, and in fact, not as good as many of them.  It’s going to be very tall, it’ll have a little more flair to it than the old Twin Towers did, but, you know, it’s not what it might have been. [BIgThink, September 7, 2010]

Look at those words and then look back to the words of Bruce John Graham at the time Sears Tower opened.  Mr. Graham stated, “Art – and certainly architecture – is more in the nature of discovery than creation.  God created order, which man discovers and uses.  How it is used is a reflection of civilization.”

Sears Tower, now the second tallest building in this great country, reflects a civilization that dreamed big and built boldly.  As I stood before One World Trade Center in early October, I wasn’t convinced that the civilization that produced it shares those ideals.

Impressive from any direction, from any angle, from any decade (JWB Photo)

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