Donald Trumps's 90-story hotel and condominium tower, which appears more real than ever after Thursday's ceremonial start of demolition on the Chicago Sun-Times Building, has more going for it than the hype associated with the reality TV show "The Apprentice."
It will be one of the tallest buildings erected in the United States since the 1970s, when Sears Tower and the now-destroyed World Trade Center in New York City rose to record-shattering heights.
And with key design details finally coming into focus, it looks to be a promising addition to the vaunted Chicago skyline, something few would have predicted in 2001 when Trump -- the prince of glitz -- announced he wanted to erect a supertall tower, perhaps the world's tallest, on the Sun-Times site.
To be sure, the tower, which will soar more than 700 feet higher than the nearby Wrigley Building, raises the specter of gigantism. Yet it shapes up as an elegant, even neighborly, giant, one whose shoulder- like setbacks, refined exterior walls and ground-level public spaces should distinguish it from the monolithic, anti-urban behemoths of the 1960s and 1970s.
Designed by Adrian Smith of the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the same blue-chip firm that produced Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center, Trump's sleek 1,125-foot skyscraper will create a new center of gravity in a skyline that Sears, the Hancock and the Aon Center have dominated for decades.
Mayor Richard M. Daley still must give a final sign-off. Apparently fearful of alienating the powerful mayor, Trump's people refused to release the latest drawings for the skyscraper even though Smith showed them to the Tribune and Trump told the newspaper about the latest tweaks to the design, which include eliminating an antenna seen in earlier versions.
In some respects, the tower marks a throwback to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the sky-high ambitions of American architects and developers seemed to match the country's desire to put a man on the moon.
While the riverfront skyscraper will be considerably shorter than Sears Tower (1,450 feet) and the planned 1,776-foot Freedom Tower at ground zero, it will reverse the trend that saw American developers shying away from supertall towers well before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Eight of the world's 10 tallest buildings are now in Asia, including the world's tallest, the 1,670-foot Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan, according to the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which monitors skyscraper construction worldwide.
The Asian ascent largely reflects the desire to erect grand symbols that put emerging economies on the map.
"When you get above 80-some-odd stories, the economics start to fall apart," said Seattle engineer Ron Klemencic, chairman of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Building and Urban Habitat, a group that monitors skyscrapers worldwide.
The chief reason: The elevators needed to move thousands of workers from the ground to their offices in the sky chew up so much potential floor area that the towers become unprofitable.
A tall residential building, on the other hand, requires considerably fewer elevators because it is not as densely packed with people as an office tower, Klemencic said. That means great height is not a major economic liability.
"A residential building is a different equation," said Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York City.
Yet for Trump, whose name is practically synonymous with gaudy casinos and glitzy skyscrapers, the sticky question remains architectural, not just financial: Whether his Chicago project can live up to the towering standards of the city renowned as the birthplace of the skyscraper.
In that respect, the developer may have made his wisest move when he said, in effect, to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: "You're hired."
The firm has long served as the architect of the corporate establishment, turning out such widely admired modernist structures as the Inland Steel Building in Chicago and Lever House in New York. Even its postmodern work, such as Smith's NBC Tower in Chicago, never lapsed into pastiche or excess.
After stumbling in late 2001 with a plan for a 78-story, 1,073-foot tower -- a skyline dud that resembled a bunch of boxes piled on top of one another -- Smith recovered in 2002 with a design that synthesized the graceful setback skyscrapers of the 1920s and the dynamic, asymmetrical forms of today.
It calls for a skyscraper that will step back at various heights to acknowledge the rooflines of such nearby structures as the Wrigley and IBM Buildings.
The setbacks should make the tower seem like a mountain that rises naturally from its foothills rather than a stark, stand-alone spike that arrogantly ignores its environs.
Since that shift, the main issue has been whether God would be in Smith's details -- and whether Trump would agree to pay for them.
Now the answers seem to be "yes" and "yes," though Trump's refusal to release the latest drawings gives him wiggle room to water down some impressive design details.
The drawings show that the tower's exterior curtain wall will have projecting, fin-shaped vertical elements, known as mullions, made of polished stainless steel. The mullions would catch the sunlight, making the tower seem light and silvery in contrast to the muscular black profiles of Sears and the Hancock. They also would accentuate the tower's verticality.
Though the tower will take away the prized swath of sky over the seven-story Sun-Times building, it also promises to give something back to the city, the drawings show: At ground level, its footprint actually will be smaller than the newspaper building.
It would offer walkways and landscaped open spaces along the river, including gardens, a fenced-in dog park and a performance stage. Nothing could be more different from Sears' plaza, which was fortresslike well before 9/11.
True, there are caveats.
The tower's elegant curtain wall and ground-level amenities could turn out to be the equivalent of a Trojan Horse, masking a skyscraper of overwhelming bulk.
But for now, at least, Trump's tower seems to be a big building and good architecture.
We'll know for sure once we see those drawings.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun