Monday, September 10, 2012

"The city where the skyscraper was born"

The city where the skyscraper was born just can't get enough of these supertowers. But for the dozens of massive buildings proposed in Chicago, very few actually come to fruition.

Though construction began in 2007, today the Chicago Spire exists in a state of limbo. Many consider it a dead project. A few believe it could still be completed. It's more likely that this project will be resurrected in a smaller, less ambitious form. After all, the foundation has already been built, and this is one of the few remaining pieces of land along the city's lakefront that can be developed.

The Spire was originally proposed as The Fordham Spire. It was going to be the first Windy City project for Spanish architectural superstar Santiago Calatrava. Though he has graced the shores of Lake Michigan before with the Quadricci Pavilion up the road at the Milwaukee Art Museum, having a showcase project in Chicago is a much better feather to have in one's architectural cap.

The Spire's position at the point where the Chicago River drains Lake Michigan would have put it in the center of the city skyline, and made it an unmissable focal point in the thousands of photographs taken by tourists each day.

In its original form, this building lived up to its name. It was truly is a spire -- A svelte, tapering form topped by a needle. It was later revised, and the final design eliminated the needle piercing the sky. The entire shaft evolved into a more blunt, yet refined, form.

In a New York Times article about the building, it was compared to a drill bit, a blade of grass, and a tall twisting tree. Others have compared it to a lighthouse, a zucchini, and even an exclamation point.

The inability to quickly categorize the shape is exactly what the architecture world has come to expect from a Calatrava design. It is both geometric and organic. It takes a simple form and twists it in the wind like so many of his other bridges and buildings. In this case, quite intentionally. Though the architect held and stroked a snail shell through many of the design meetings he had in Chicago, Calatrava has stated that the intent of the twisting and rising form was to pay homage to the American Indians, by echoing the smoke from their campfires along the edge of Lake Michigan.

Each of the building's floors were designed to be anchored to a central column. But each would also be offset from the one below. With each progressive level, the result would have been, indeed, something very much like a drill bit.

The original plan called for the bottom 20 floors to be occupied by a hotel, while the rest of the building was to be filled with 1,200 luxury condominiums. The final configuration eliminated the commercial aspect, and resulted in an entirely residential building. That was a great disappointment to those who believe Chicago needs another sky-high observation deck.

Before economic troubles finally sank this project, its biggest obstacle was zoning. The parcel of land selected was only zoned for as 540-foot-tall building and a 350-foot-tall building. The developer managed to assuage the city, neighborhood groups, and local open space activists by developing a riverfront plaza with six stories of parking underneath. The developer also promised to pony up nine million dollars to turn a disused chunk of lakefront land into DuSable Park.

The City of Chicago has wanted to create that park for decades, but could never come up with the money. The developer planned to use the future parkland during construction, and then afterward turn it over to the city with the cash so that it could become a public space. A survey of the site today shows that neither of those things happened.

At this point, whether the park will ever be built is anyone's guess. The construction crews packed up and left in 2008, and the banks have been fighting over the scraps of what's left in the courts for years. Some day the world may change enough so that this project will once again catch the attention of some visionary who can make it happen. But it's not likely soon, and if the economists are to be believed, possibly not for decades to come. 

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