Flamboyant New York developer Donald Trump isn't going to foist one of his trademark exercises in architectural glitz on Chicago. He has even radically altered an earlier plan that would have erected a bloated blob of a high-rise alongside such gems as the frilly white Wrigley Building.
Trumps latest proposal for a riverfront skyscraper actually is something to get excited about. Its a vast improvement over that previous design, which the developer and his architect, Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, presented to city officials in December. It represents an object lesson in how architects can tweak the geometry of a terrible initial design to achieve dramatically improved results.
Expected to win City Council approval -- perhaps as soon as Wednesday, when the Council is scheduled to meet -- the new plan for an 86-story office and residential skyscraper promises to be a striking fusion of 1920s setback towers and contemporary, asymmetrical forms. The design also retains attractive ground-level features, like a three-tiered riverwalk on the building's south side, first proposed in December.
True, Trump's skyscraper would dwarf everything around it and would substitute a massive structure for what is currently a prized swath of open space above the Chicago Sun-Times building, which is to be demolished. But if a very tall building is to go at this highly prominent site, this is the way to do it, with a design that is sensitive to surrounding buildings even as it soars above them.
The question now is whether Trump can secure a major tenant that will provide enough financing to start construction. If he can't, the design will join Smith's needle-thin plan for a world's tallest building at 7 S. Dearborn St. on the crowded shelf of big buildings that couldn't. If Trump succeeds, he may be cutting a ribbon at his Chicago outpost, the tallest structure in his portfolio, by late 2006 or early 2007.
Smith's design has evolved considerably since December, when the New York-based Trump Organization released plans for a 78-story, 1,073-foot structure to replace the seven-story Sun-Times building at 401 N. Wabash Ave. The project is a joint venture of the Trump Organization and Hollinger International Inc., owner of the Sun-Times.
The new plan has roughly the same bulk, about 2.1 million square feet, as the earlier version. But Smith, whose previous credits include the handsome, post-modern NBC Tower, has artfully rearranged things, making Trump's skyscraper seem less like a series of stacked boxes and more an essay in soaring verticality.
Complement to its neighbors
It's not just eight stories taller than the previous scheme. It looks taller and is thus more at home alongside the great quartet of 1920s skyscrapers, including the Spanish Revival Wrigley Building and the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, that flank the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Equally important, Smith has set the tower well back from the Wrigley, giving that beloved landmark plenty of room to preen.
To be clad in a silvery palette of glass, aluminum and stainless steel, Trump Tower Chicago would have a ground floor devoted to office and residential lobbies, with parking on floors two to seven. A health club would occupy floors 8-10, offices 11-50, apartments (probably condominiums) 52-84, and mechanical floors would be on 51, 85 and 86.
An off-center spire would accentuate the building's skyline presence, but in a telling sign of lingering, post-9/11 nervousness about tall buildings, Smith's drawings show the spire adorned with communications dishes. That means the spire is, technically, a broadcast antenna, so it doesn't count in official height measurements and thus the tower is "only" 1,125 feet tall, allowing Trump's people to advertise it as Chicago's fourth tallest building.
Count the spire as part of the overall height, however, and the skyscraper "grows" to about 1,300 feet, making it Chicago's, and the nation's, second tallest building, topped only by Sears Tower (1,450 feet). Great height, though, is not an attribute that developers, including Trump, want to emphasize these days in their quest to sell space.
"If there's a target, it's going to be the tallest [building] in the city," Smith says, explaining why Trump elected not to erect the world's tallest building here, although he had hinted that was his goal when the project was announced last summer.
Striking a balance
Smith has long excelled in the art of romantic pragmatism, finding a way to serve both the private needs of his developer clients and the architect's obligation to improve the public realm. He has struck this balance again in this new version of the Trump project, finding a way out of the geometric box that trapped him back in December.
The underlying problem with the first design was that it was a sharp-edged parallelogram shaped by the diagonal contours of the riverfront site. As a result, two sides of the tower came into view from key points such as the Michigan Avenue Bridge and the building appeared to be a single, massive wall.
After being roundly criticized for this failing, Smith went back to his model shop (Skidmore has built an estimated 50 study models of the design) and put the formerly bulky tower on the equivalent of a Slim Fast diet.
Smith sliced off the pointed southwest and northeast ends of the parallelogram, cutting the building's river frontage from 500 to 380 feet. He rounded off the two new corners, at once enhancing the impression of slimness and giving the tower a curving motif that works well with the nearby corncob towers of Marina City. Setbacks were modified so they appeared less like a banal series of steps and more like dramatic cliffs.
Upper floors shrank in size because the tower was now rising from a new and smaller base. But the eight additional floors made up the lost square footage and gave the design an upward drive it previously lacked.
Creating a focal point
The crowning touch came when Smith placed the top 34 stories of the tower in the center of the building, creating a visual focal point like those of the 1920s towers and a broad-shouldered look that evokes but doesn't imitate the Wrigley.
The result is something quite new for the Chicago skyline: A very tall building whose form derives not from its internal structure, as Sears, the Hancock and the Aon Center do, but from its relationship to its external setting.
The building's setbacks, for example, correspond to the rooflines of the Wrigley, the nearby IBM Building and other structures. Underscoring the notion that structure is less important in this design than a desire to fit the context, Smith doesn't even know yet whether the building will have an all-concrete structure or a combination of steel and concrete.
For all its neighborly deference, Trump Tower Chicago would be a powerful presence on its own, especially when seen directly from the north and south. From these angles, which should be evident on Wabash Avenue from the Loop and River North, the building would appear wonderfully thin and soaring. It would recall nothing so much as the Wrigley and the 333 N. Michigan Avenue buildings as they take advantage of the diagonal jog of the Michigan Avenue bridge and dominate the view up or down the street.
Seen from the bridge, as well, the tower would be a positive addition to the aforementioned quartet of 1920s towers, more like a big new member of the family than the alien intruder it seemed to be beforehand. Smith's design even uses the black slab of the IBM building as a foil for his own building's far more sculptural presence.
To be sure, there are caveats. Skidmore must still do wind-tunnel studies to ensure that fierce downdrafts don't knock pedestrians off their feet, as they do at the IBM building. Smith and his associates are working on designs for the building's curtain wall to ensure that it has depth and texture, and doesn't recall a now-infamous, curving mirror-glass building from Houston ("It doesn't want to look like Enron," Smith quips.)
Underground transit connections still must be figured out; Trump has vowed to link the tower to a bus or rail connection under consideration by the city. A curving exterior parking ramp on the building's north side, which will break down the tower's slablike qualities there, also needs to be developed. And the architect wants to fuss with the top of his skyscraper to better integrate the spire and the curving ribs that would support it into the rest of the design.
But if Smith can transform the monster of a project he showed in December into this fetching composition, then all that is surely possible. Smith and Skidmore deserve kudos for attending so well to the art of architecture on this project. Now it's up to Trump to do what he does best -- the art of the deal.