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ARCHIVES: Into the Great Wide Open

(This article by Charles Shaw was originally published in the July 2002 issue of Newtopia Magazine)

The uncertain future and undeniable significance of skyscrapers in our culture

It was New Year’s Eve. I was sitting against the window on the west side of the signature room on the 96th floor of the John Hancock center with my guests for the evening, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a solitary bright light in the distance moving across the sky in a parallel direction to the building, an airplane circling off in the distance over O’Hare. The plane was the only aircraft in the sky, which one might consider abundantly strange considering Chicago has the busiest airport in the world. But there it was, one light that gradually seemed to be moving closer and closer to us. The bright wing-mounted spotlights intensified as the plane banked east towards the skyline.and us.

At some point I turned around and noticed that the entire west side of the lounge was staring out the window at the exact same point of light circling in the distance. Mumbles began to ripple through the crowd, and a few couples were seen headed for the elevators. My sister leaned in and asked, “Do you think we should go?” For a split second, I almost agreed with her. The panicked look on everyone’s faces was threatening to unravel the reverie of the evening before the proverbial clock had a chance to strike Midnight. In our mind’s eye, back in the deep recesses of our psyches, a voice kept reminding us that it would behoove us to be below the point of impact, or else we would be trapped. Before any of us could make a decision one way or another, the plane had banked sharply and descended into O’Hare.

The effect that few minutes of circling had on us, as a collective group, was unnerving, like a palpable stress fracture that ran through everyone’s face as not-too-distant memories of 9/11 came flooding back. We all remember where we were that morning, or more appropriately, where we weren’t, where we prayed we would never be. Three and a half months later, there we were, at the top of an eleven hundred foot tall building, feeling totally helpless and terrified.

Moments later we all felt like fools. But should we have? Probably. In this writer’s humble opinion, the days of using commercial aircraft as weapons are over, a one shot deal that scored a direct hit. As a long devotee of the skyscraper, one who used build scale models as a child, I was increasingly angered that the skyscraper had been vilified in the ensuing months after the 9/11 attacks. After all, the World Trade Center was not hit because it was a skyscraper, but because it was the World Trade Center, America’s financial hypothalamus gland. More money went through those buildings in the course of a day than the people of Afghanistan have ever seen. And after seeing a slew of speculative articles and news clips about the immediate future of these buildings, I endeavored to set the record straight. I went straight to whom I believe to be the foremost authority, Adrian Smith, Lead Designer for the Chicago office of world-renowned architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, LLP. (SOM), “a partnership engaged in architecture, engineering, urban design and planning, interior design, and graphics.”

Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill essentially wrote the manual on skyscraper design, to put it mildly. They have offices in four US cities, London and Hong Kong, and Smith’s first project, fresh out of UIC in the late Sixties, was to assist with the design of “Big John”, The John Hancock Center, arguably the world’s most recognized building, at least before 9/11.

Many years and many buildings later, Adrian Smith recalls where he was on the morning of 9/11. In what can only be described as sickening irony, he was with representatives of Donald Trump, preparing to go live with a press conference to unveil his new design for Trump Chicago, a roughly 125 story, 2000 ft skyscraper that would have finally repossessed the controversial title of “World’s Tallest Building” from the Petronas Tower’s in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But rather than showing the world his beautiful new model, he instead stared at it and realized that it would never be built.

This must have seemed to Smith to once again be the interceding of fate to thwart his noble quest to build the World’s Tallest Building (WTB).

After a career that every architecture student on earth would most willingly sacrifice one or perhaps two limbs to experience, Smith’s most recent major accomplishment was Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower, currently the third tallest building in the world. He is also the designer and tireless lobbyist behind two high-profile projects that have been mired in snafus and tumults, Trump Chicago, and 7 South Dearborn (7SD).

7 South Dearborn, a brilliant, innovative 2000 ft modern multi-function skyscraper, was to have been nearing completion right about now. But instead, it was not built, and now bears the sad and almost impossible to shake distinction of “proposed project”. Details on that particular debacle will come later, as it holds particular significance in the sometimes-shady world of the Skyscraper.

And then of course there is Trump Chicago, the biggest pre-9/11 hoopla to hit the city in a long while. Why? Because it’s Donald Trump. Because The Donald can build anything he wants. All one has to do is look at some of the travesties he has pulled over on the Manhattan skyline to confirm that notion (Trump World Tower at UN Plaza as the one notable exception). And because he can get it built, we knew the 125 story Trump Chicago would get built and then Chicago would finally get back what the Council on Tall Buildings took away from us in 1997 when Ceaser Pelli, designer of the Petronas Towers, lobbied to have the title.

All things considered, the World’s Tallest Building should be in Chicago. We not only invented the skyscraper, we perfected it. They are part of our collective identity, one so deeply ingrained that my entire generation grew up with the knowledge that just a few miles away was the tallest building in the world, something we saw whenever we looked towards the Downtown. To have this distinction removed on a technicality was reprehensible, and something we have neither forgiven nor forgotten.

It took a wholly benign attempt at pacification on the part of the Council on Tall Buildings to put the issue into some perspective. Their solution was to create four distinct categories of height:

HEIGHT: The height of a building is measured from the sidewalk level of the main entrance to the structural top of the building. This includes spires, but does not include television antennas, radio antennas, or flag poles. Height is listed in both meters and feet and is rounded to the nearest integer. This is the official criterion used by the Council in determining ranking.

OTHER MEASURES OF HEIGHT: In an effort to reflect other aspects of the statistical height of a building, additional information is shown for buildings ranked in the top ten. (All of the following measurements begin at the sidewalk level of the main entrance of the building.)

To Structural Top: Height to structural top of the building (the Council’s official criteria as defined above).

To Highest Occupied Floor: Height to the floor of the highest occupied floor of the building.

To Top of Roof: Height to the top of the roof.

To Tip of Spire/Antenna: Height to the tip of spire, pinnacle, antenna, mast, or flag pole.

(from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat)

But, here, you be the judge. These are the “big three” in order:

Petronas Towers: 88 flrs/1483 ft
Sears Tower: 110 flrs/1450 ft,
Jin Mao Tower: 88 flrs/1381 ft

A person standing at the window on the highest occupied floor of the Sears Tower will have to look down a couple hundred feet to see the people standing on the highest floors of both its competitors. Is this a valid distinction? For purists like Adrian Smith, the answer is “absolutely.” Ask which structure was actually built higher, which structure had the highest construction workers, tenants, even observatory. In each case, it is the Sears Tower. Just so you understand, the only reason the Petronas Towers even had a claim was because the tip of it’s spire is 33 feet higher then the top floor of the Sears Tower. The Sears Tower’s antennae are not included in its overall height measurement. If they were, the total height would top 2000 ft. Again, which is tallest?

I rest my case. Ceaser Pelli can fax me his disputes.


The Archetypal Connection

TO UNDERSTAND THE TRUE SIGNIFICANCE OF SKYSCRAPERS we need to approach them from the point of view of their two defining factors: Their symbolic value to a particular city or country; and the economic importance they hold for the present and future of commerce.

If you’ve never seen a Supertall building in person you can’t possibly understand what I am talking about, even if you have seen endless footage of the 9/11 attacks. You’ll pardon the cliché, but they truly are majestic and awe-inspiring. Here in Chicago, we are spoiled, but still we never cease to be amazed. They are more than just tall buildings to us; they are archetypal symbols of our power and prosperity, defying the very gravity that binds us to this earth. They are the most important and direct symbol of our advancement as a race, of our intellectual and practical evolution, and of our ability to think outside the constraints of our natural environment. And in one way or another we have been building them in our dreams, on paper, and on our soil for thousands of years.

We need to make an important distinction. Skyscrapers can be broken into two distinct categories: The “high-rise” is considered anything over 10 stories that possesses an elevator system; “Supertall” buildings are generally considered to be trophy structures over 1000 feet tall, of which currently there are 24 in the world and 6 in the US (3 in Chicago; 1 in NYC, LA, Houston, and Atlanta) with an additional 8 in the US within a few feet of 1000.

Chicago – 1. Sears Tower, 1450 ft, 3. Aon Tower – 1135 ft, 4. John Hancock Center 1127 ft, 10. 311 South Wacker – 961 ft, 13. Two Prudential Plaza – 915 ft.

New York – 2. Empire State Building – 1250 ft, 11. Chrysler Building – 925 ft, 14. Citigroup Center, 915 ft

Los Angeles – 5. Library Tower – 1018 ft

Houston – 6. Chase Tower – 1002 ft, 8. Wells Fargo Plaza – 971 ft

Atlanta – 7. Bank of America – 1000 ft

Seattle – 9. Bank of America – 954 ft

Dallas – 12. Bank of America Plaza – 921 ft

In today’s world, Supertall buildings are not built because they are especially practical. Most “monuments to our innovation” do not fall into this category, because they are built as extensions of the Human Ego (or perhaps, depending on your particular school of psychology, an extension of another prominent human organ). Some consider this idea hackneyed now, overplayed. But really, the condemnation towards “ego buildings” is only a recent phenomenon brought about by the September 11th attacks, as many decided to shame the skyscraper along with the enemies who attacked them. But nothing stands as a greater symbol to a society’s might than the structures they build as paeans to mankind’s power and ingenuity. Whether they be the Pyramids of Giza built to exalt the majesty of the Pharaohs, or the Lighthouse at Alexandria built at the forefront of a new age in sea travel, the Eiffel Tower, built as a testament to steel, or the Jin Mao Tower, built as a testament to the fact that a Communist nation can compete in a global economy, man will continue to build upward if for no other reason than to defy gravity. Like I said, we don’t build them to be practical.

Ultimately, they will become practical and commonplace to meet our ever-growing need for workable space. But before anyone really needed the space we still had the idea to build them. And despite what appeared at the time to be prohibitive factors, we got out there and built them anyway, and the world followed suit. So, despite the fact that Supertall buildings are predominantly phenomenal spectacles, they are becoming ever more beautiful, and ever more necessary to our modern existence.

Take for instance our “big three” listed above. Each stands as the pinnacle symbol of its respective society-Capitalist Culture, as espoused by the West; Fundamentalist Culture, as espoused by Islam; and Communist Culture, as espoused by China. Like the three Nation-States of Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia from Orwell’s 1984, our three Superpowers each posses economic and nuclear might, each competes for control of global markets, each is engaged in a war of both resources and ideology. And, of course, each has a Tower which proclaims the might and wherewithal of it’s particular Superstate.

When the Petronas Towers were completed in 1997, their main function was to herald the arrival of the Islamic-Fundamentalist state as a world economic power; China had similar intentions with the Jin Mao Tower. This power attained by Islam was achieved by the spread of the religion to the former Buddhist enclaves of the Indonesian/Malaysian/Philippine corridor, known, along with Taiwan, as the world’s manufacturing and assembly center. And it is no coincidence that the rise of the new Islamic “cell-based” terrorism, such as the two bombings of US Embassies in Africa, coincided with the completion of their Byzantine behemoth.

Of course, there was one structure that rose above even those three, standing proud for the whole world to see just how rich and powerful it could become. It transcended the notion of the Superstate and stood as the most recognized symbol of both the city and ideology of the world’s most powerful nation. And when it was attacked, not only did it announce the end of the brief age that saw the USA as the world’s only superpower, but it also took a part of our soul down with it. The World Trade Center was deeply rooted in our collective psychology and culture. Destroying the towers also decimated any notion of our being invincible. The gaping wounds from which the people and smoke poured was a visual metaphor not even Dostoyevsky could have conjured.

Ultimately, the birth of a skyscraper needs two essential ingredients: a favorable economic climate, and either the tacit or direct need for vertical space. In the 1990’s, there were two places on earth where the word “redevelopment” caused everyone to redefine their terms.

IN 1990, AFTER WITNESSING THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL AND SEEING THE IMPENDING COLLAPSE OF COMMUNISM IN THE WEST, the Chinese government realized that the only way they could avoid the foibles of post-Marxist/Leninist government was to permit and foster free trade. They designated five areas as “special commerce and development zones”: Beijing, Shenzen, Guangzhou, Shanghai/Pudong, and in 1997, the territory of Hong Kong. They also opened their first world stock exchange to finance the redevelopment.

The “Pudong” district was an undeveloped, pre-industrial ghetto area of marshland across the Huangpu River from the Old Shanghai. The Chinese had designs to turn Shanghai into the banking center of the New Asia, so they needed to actually physically create a city in which to house this international banking community. The Old Shanghai had fallen deep into ruin as memories of the “Paris of the Orient” had long since faded. But, the Chinese people reminded their leaders that ejecting the West from Shanghai after WWII was a political victory as well. They didn’t want the Westerners, who they refer to in their language as “other”, crawling all over the city again. So, in an unusual act of compromise, they choose to build literally from the ground up across the river in Pudong.

To achieve the massive demand for quality residential and commercial real estate, the Chinese had to import an entirely Western concept.the Skyscraper. Facing huge ambitions and a dearth of knowledgeable modern architects, they were forced to cross their commercial divide and partner with International firms in order to have their plans realized. Over the next ten years 25,000 construction sites opened up all over Shanghai. Yes, that’s correct, 25,000. At one point, one quarter of all the steel, concrete and high-rise construction cranes in the world were in use in Pudong-Shanghai. An entire city of high-rises began to sprout like dandelions.

The Chinese Plan for Shanghai

Naturally, when you talk skyscrapers, you eventually mention Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Smith and his associates were approached by the Chinese Government to design the trophy structure of the Pudong development, the Jin Mao Tower (a rough translation is “Good Gold”). Although SOM is recognized as the world authority, the firm was chosen in part because the Chinese Government had very specific laws prohibiting collaboration with any Western nation that did not already have a valid business interest in or connection with China. By building the Jin Mao Tower,, the Chinese government was able to lure international investors to trade in their stock market, and subsequently build their new skyscraper city.

The late 1990’s were a similar time of redevelopment in America, if not in such Herculean measures. It is certainly notable in our two major urban centers of New York and Chicago. New York City was able to rebuild Times Square as a glowing conglomeration of mirrored skyscrapers coated with neon. And the economic boon of the Tech Age was particularly good to Chicago, which was already in the process of being completely overhauled from the industrial city of lore to the modern business center of the New Economy.

Mayor Richard M. Daley had a very ambitious plan to renovate and develop the three areas immediately adjacent to The Loop business district-the South Loop, River West/Near West, and the Near North districts—which had lost their identities when the railroads had left and the manufacturing plants relocated to the suburbs. The South Loop and Near West had become a wasteland of empty warehouses within spitting distance of what is arguably the world’s most impressive skyline. The River districts suffered from the consequences of using the Chicago River as a sewer system, which necessitated developers building along the river to design everything facing away from the riverbank. Once the riverfront revitalization campaign began in the early ’90’s, the city found itself with three distinct new zones upon which to develop top dollar property that interacted with the river, rather than hid from it.

Conversely, the Near North district suffered from negligent development in the area outside Michigan Avenue, fallout from public housing developments like Cabrini Green, one of the country’s most dangerous, poverty stricken areas, located adjacent to The Gold Coast, one of the three richest communities in the country. It was one of the stranger places on earth for a while as the polar extremes of society shared a common street. With the announced closing of Cabrini Green, and plans for a multi-billion dollar redevelopment of the area, the era of transition in Chicago began with a bellow heard in urban centers around the world.

The plan in Chicago was to capitalize on the ’90’s exposure of “urban living”, and redevelop all these old industrial areas into dense residential areas replete with high-rises and town homes. The result was a complete and total renovation. Mayor Daley, always being a man of impeccable class and integrity, led the charge by moving into the first new South Loop development. Around him sprang up the movement. By the year 2000, whole sections of the city had been brought back to life, and new skyscrapers sprang up alongside stalwarts like “Big John”, The Sears Tower, and the Aon Tower (formerly the Standard Oil/Amoco Building), as pleasant compliment structures that made those megaliths seem that much more accessible.

Today, as you stare across the Chicago skyline, you suddenly understand where all those cranes the Chinese were using ended up. In all three surrounding districts a total of 50 new buildings have been added since 1998 with 40 of these high-rise developments currently under construction. Of those 40, only four are major commercial developments-the new 55-story UBS Tower, the 39-story Dearborn Center, the 37-story 191 N. Wacker Drive, and the 29-story ABN-Amro Plaza. The rest are all residential towers. And they are big residential towers, with 7 of them topping out over 50 stories.

Here is a list of the more prominent projects:

River East Center (Streeterville) – 58 stories

Millennium Center (Near North) – 60 Stories

Grand Plaza (Near North) – 2 towers, 57 and 40 stories

Park Millennium (Illinois Center> – 57 stories

2 East Erie (Near North) – 40 stories

55 East Erie (Near North) – 55 stories

The Fordham (Near North) – 52 stories

The Pinnacle (Near North) – 49 stories

1111 South Wabash (South Loop) – 35-40 stories

Skybridge – (Near North) – 40 stories

400 N. LaSalle (Near North) – 45 stories

Museum Park I and II (South Loop) – 30 Stories

The Heritage at Millennium Park – 47 Stories

This period of development over the last three years has been closely (and wrongly) compared with the late 80’s construction boon in Chicago that resulted in a slew of commercial skyscrapers built as speculative stock and bond investments without secure tenants, which led to a commercial vacancy crisis as late as 1995 when most of the high-rise property in the Loop stood empty. But the late ’90’s economy not only solved that problem, it created a bit of a demand. The other major factor to consider was that these new buildings, as part of Daley’s plan, needed to be approved by the City Council on Tall Buildings, unlike the 80’s when Daley’s predecessors, Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer, let anyone build anything they wanted as long as part of the package ended up in their pockets. These days, in order to begin construction, half the building needs to be sold in advance.

How successful was this plan? Well, for example, the Millennium Centre in the Near North District was 94% sold the day the project was announced. This particular figure is comparable throughout all the new projects, and they are still trying to build more. The city has approved plans for another 20 odd 30-plus story residential high-rises. Another major factor to consider was the evolution of construction techniques which made it much more feasible to build huge residential towers than ever before.

But the argument against all this rampant vertical development, and the one held fairly strongly by Smith and other architects, is that these new breed of residential high rises offer little aesthetic value. For the pedestrian on the street navigating the long canyons of buildings, many of these structures have three blank uninviting sides, and one entrance, mostly because most follow an economical template that incorporates a parking structure for the first ten odd levels. Above this unsightly box rise the towers, and the towers themselves are built in the Trump mode, to be more pleasing from the inside looking out than vice-versa. The one notable exception are the three towers of The Fordham Group, who actually got together with the neighborhood associations to design aesthetically pleasing towers. These new residential towers also don’t lend much in the way of skyline enhancement, regardless of the fact that the will transform the look of the North half of the Downtown area.

It’s interesting, when I was a boy, the only tall building in the Near North was the John Hancock Center, and people were still asking why they decided to put it “up in the middle of nowhere”. Today, Chicago is just like Manhattan, supporting two separate dense clusters of skyscrapers on opposite ends of the Downtown area, each possessing a mixture of commercial and residential structures.

Now, 50 odd major tall buildings in four years are not exactly 25,000 in ten, but these were also distinctly different projects. The Chinese Government was starting from scratch and could do whatever it wanted because it owned everything. Chicago needed to sell, demolish, and redevelop land in the very heart of the city. That alone makes what happened in Chicago akin to a miracle. Also bear in mind Shanghai supports a metropolitan population of roughly 30 Million, as opposed to Chicago’s paltry 10 Million, and every last one of them could potentially be conscripted to labor should the Chinese government decide they need their services. Building in a Capitalist society is a distinctly more complex endeavor.

But the real comparison is that Chicago invented the skyscraper, and Shanghai gave us the chance to perfect it. Manhattan and Hong Kong belong to a different category of cities, those needing tall buildings due to lack of space. Each has only about 25 square miles of land to build on (most of Hong Kong is mountainous). Conversely, both Chicago and Shanghai have an abundance of flat developable space upon which each respective city can expand. Can you imagine a city with over 230 square miles of skyscrapers? The Chinese can. They have no choice; they have almost 1.5 BILLION people to feed and house. Chicago will follow suit someday.

What the cities of Chicago and New York did with the guidance of their respective mayors was lay the foundation for the new urban renewal movement across the country. Some care to call the practice “gentrification”, the removal of a low-income ghetto in favor of an upper-middle and upper class ghetto. This of course is an argument for another article altogether, but I will acknowledge that gentrification is an extremely heated subject in today’s inner cities. Admittedly many of Daley and Giulliani’s redevelopment tactics were tough, but ultimately when you drive through both cities what you see are two beautiful, modern urban habitats with clean streets and pretty buildings and people out enjoying their lives, no longer darting from building to building with their purses hidden under their shirts and coats. Life in the big cities is exponentially better than it was ten and fifteen years ago. How this will pan out in another twenty years, of course, remains to be seen.


What is imminent is the completion of the Taipei World Financial Center in Taipei, Taiwan. When completed in 2003, this innovative design will stand 1667 ft, thus supplanting the Petronas Towers by over 200 feet. Again I must state that the Sears Tower still puts a human being higher than both.

But everyone with a public platform these days seems to be professing expertise when it comes to predicting the future of Supertall buildings. So, before I indulge you in what “might be”, let’s discuss what definitely is not to be.

Adrian Smith believes the immediate future of Supertall buildings, first and foremost is determined by economics. If it can’t be financed, it can’t be built. Any economic recession would result in a halt in major construction, and conversely any economic boon usually results in a glut of construction. But take a recession, coupled with the dot.bomb phenomena, and then add on top of it a cataclysmic terrorist attack on a Supertall building, and you have the makings of the death knell for the industry, if not a severe coma for years to come.

As it stands, the Empire State Building is a third empty. Can you guess which third is empty? Tenants in the Sears Tower are also grumbling about leaving, this after much of the ’90’s was spent trying to put tenants back into the building after Sears relocated to the suburbs. And even if the next WTB was to be built anywhere on Western soil, the wholly prohibitive costs of new “Anti Terror” insurance would make it impossible to fill with tenants. So, is anyone clamoring to build another WTB in America right now? Not even remotely. The title is lost for now and is not likely to return for many years. Many fear the days of the Supertall building in New York are over entirely. Personally, I think that’s rather shortsighted. This particular fear may last twenty years or so (which is in all truth a safe estimate), but eventually, unless the entire city is somehow destroyed, New York will eventually run out of room. And the only place to go is up.

But will an American skyscraper ever regain the title of WTB? Before 9/11 you’d most likely hear everyone say it was not only possible but also imminent. After 9/11.well, if anything, it leveled the playing field. I’d say good old-fashioned American stubbornness would be more of a deciding factor in whether or not to build the next WTB then the threat of another attack on a Supertall building. Like I mentioned before, that was most likely the terrorists’ one and only chance.

And of course, there will always be the prestige attached with building something so awe inspiring. The thing about the whole concept of The World’s Tallest Building is that it is immediate and free international publicity, so anyone with a design and a dream can get their face in front of the world. Of late, the WTB platform has been used to get a whole slew of other projects financed.

Case in point: the Korean “Lotte World Tower 1” in Pusan Korea, a “proposed 2000 foot tower” project that was used to bring in foreign development money to finance and build the “Korean Unification Railroad”. Also-rans in the publicity or pie-in-the-sky genre are the Grollo Tower in Melbourne, Australia and the Olympia Tower in Brisbane, The London Bridge Tower/London Millennium Tower project, The Union Tower Project in Hong Kong, the various incarnations of the New York Stock Exchange Tower, and of course a certain development in Shanghai that goes by the name of the Shanghai World Financial Center.

Don’t Believe The Hype!

The Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) is a Supertall structure that was ostensibly planned for the lot adjacent to the Jin Mao Tower, but really is the greatest present example so far of this particular brand of Tall Building chicanery. As far as the world knows, this building is currently on the rise and will soon supplant the Petronas Towers as the WTB. It would be closer to the truth to say the SWFC is a well-intentioned publicity stunt designed to drum up financial interest in:

a) Mori, the enigmatic Japanese designer of the Shanghai World Financial Center

b) Design firm Kohn Pedersen and Fox (KPF), and Chief Designer William Pedersen

c) Pudong Shanghai.

In 1998, during the topping out ceremony for the Jin Mao Tower, as Adrian Smith stood astride his masterpiece, Mori was next door hammering four pylons into the ground to legally claim he had begun construction on the SWFC. Now, four years later, the lot remains vacant, as does the Chinese government’s interest in building the tower. Simply put, they don’t have the money to build it, and they don’t see how it will make money for them. But despite the fact that it won’t get built, KPF has assuredly used this practice of publicity-stunting to their advantage to help bring greater visibility to numerous KPF projects around the world. How could it not? As you read this, construction is nearing completion on the new 191 N. Wacker Tower in Chicago, a beautiful 37-story blue glass structure, the third building along the “KPF bend” in the Chicago River, right at home next to it’s curvilinear brother, the famed green-glassed 333 N. Wacker building, where Ferris Buellers’s father was seen dancing at the window.

It can be argued that for a firm as accomplished, KPF would not need to generate that level of publicity, that it might do more to tarnish their reputation than bolster it. But I imagine if you asked lead architect William Pedersen he might argue differently. Not every firm has the reputation SOM has enjoyed. Whenever plans for a new World’s Tallest Building are made, odds are SOM will be considered or, at the very least receive a courtesy call. Take Trump, for instance. Granted it was a short list, but he ultimately chose SOM because they still are one of the select few ever to design and build anything so high. Although KPF can make roughly the same claim, they are still “the new kids”.

Even mid-range and local developers use the WTB publicity machine. De Stefano and Partners in Chicago, hoping to bring in development money for a number of high-rise residential towers, a few years back unveiled their design for a WTB concept called “Project 2000”. What they ended up building was the mere 60-story River East Centre. Simply by saying they could build something enabled them to build something else. See how that works? But it is doubtful that they would have ever been able to build something that big. Unlike in the late ’80’s when developers Miglin-Beitler were thwarted from building the Chicago Skyneedle due to the impending recession, smaller firms just don’t have the credibility or clout to actually get the deal made. The reasoning behind it is closely analogous to why Hollywood only uses a handful of Directors to helm $100 million dollar action films: too much can go wrong, and too much money is at stake.

And when all is said and done, as Smith so deftly put it, it is 40% cheaper to build two 40-story buildings than one 100-story tower, because above the fortieth floor one runs into human-transport issues, a polite euphemism for stating that the damn elevator shafts take up too much room.

Frankly, I’m curious how many people call up SOM every year claiming they can build “it”. Now, at the professional level where SOM operates, you can pretty much guarantee that any proposal that hits Adrian Smith’s desk has undergone the 30-point inspection. What is almost unfathomable, and something Adrian Smith never considered, is that at that level of complexity in financing and construction, the two-bit con man still finds a way to slither under the door. One thing Adrian Smith never imagined was that he would be swindled.


The $500 Million Swindle and The Future as it Exists on Paper

In September of 1999 the people of Chicago erupted in a collective burst of jubilation and civic pride as the city announced it had approved SOM’s plan for 7 South Dearborn, the new prototype for the future of Multi-Function skyscrapers, soon to be crowned the World’s Tallest Building.

Uniquely designed to be built on a half-block footprint instead of the usual full or double city block template of most Supertall buildings, 7SD was to be a four-sectioned tower with Commercial/Parking/Retail in the lower section, a hotel in the second section, the highest condominiums in the world in the third section, and an upper section entirely filled with state-of-the-art digital communications equipment, topped off by twin HDTV broadcast towers that would bring the floor height to 1550 feet, a hundred feet taller than the Sears Tower, and the total height to 2000 feet. This would have unequivocally brought the title back to Chicago, in all four categories of height. And yes, it does still matter to us.

Remember, I said the city approved the plan. For those of you outside Chicago, what that means is they most likely went over the proposal with an electron microscope before issuing the stamp. The project was going to cost $500 Million. There was a hotel already interested in buying one of the sections. New dot.coms multiplying all over Chicagoland were clamoring for the commercial office space. Interest in “The World’s Highest Condos” threatened to turn the whole thing into a Sotheby’s auction. I mean dot.coms that didn’t even exist were reserving floors. (Jesus, did 1999 really happen? And why was I the only guy who didn’t get rich?).

And yet there was still more to sweeten the deal: A new building technique that would have shaved a year off the total construction time. This patented technique was also the reason 7SD would have been one of the safest Supertall buildings on Earth: this new design concept incorporates a dense 1550 foot tall “concrete silo” center, upon which the floors in each of the four sections would be essentially dropped like rings, unlike, for example, the World Trade Center, where the square floors were held to the structure by metal brackets, which proved to be the causative factor in the collapse. This would have made 7SD theoretically indestructible to wind and earthquakes, using the patented “Tuned Mass Damping” system of oscillating fluid used to stabilize tall buildings. And it would have been largely impervious to terrorist attacks using conventional means, even a commercial airliner, because the core would have been so dense, as Smith puts it, “an airplane would bounce right off.”

And then, of course, there were those nice foreign investors who were going to fund the project. It was the age-old “too good to be true.”

7 South Dearborn: The Future of Multi- Function Skyscrapers?

Less than a year later it was uncovered that the so-called financiers of the project were, you guessed it, only trying to drum up money and publicity. The actual $500 Million in financing never existed, nor was there any reasonable expectation of it ever existing. Our hearts were broken. Even the $30 Million judgment levied against the “investment group” for fraud was useless and ineffectual, as these people did not have even the proverbial two nickels to rub together. Many of us took this personally.

Then, in March of 2001, just as Smith announced he had obtained new financial interest in 7SD, the recession hit like the backside of Hurricane Andrew and suddenly there wasn’t enough money left to feed the meter much less build a 2000-foot Skyscraper. But, recessions end, don’t they?

Next came the summer of 2001 and The Donald, like the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson floating back into town with the World Series Title in his arms. Well maybe not. Public sentiment in Chicago was decidedly against Trump putting up one of his trademark gaudy Ivana-Glitz towers of the New York ’80’s. But when he said he would build the biggest and the baddest, we quickly changed our tune.

Trump Chicago was supposed to be the next undisputed heavyweight champ, Smith’s real shot at redemption. I mean, come on, it’s The Donald! It was going to get built! Then, three months later in September.well, we’ve been through that part. The original design won’t get built, and I think I’m one of the privileged few to ever have seen the model.

Smith takes it all in stride these days. Is he disappointed? Absolutely, wouldn’t you be? Not just because they were his designs. Both towers are worth building, and both are needed, regardless of any ill will towards the Supertall concept or the incursion of The Donald on Chicago.

7SD represents eventual necessity. Chicago will be an entirely digital media city by 2004. So, whether or not the new broadcast and satellite relay equipment and servers go into 7SD or not, they still need to go somewhere. I asked Smith if he would build 7 South Dearborn tomorrow if I gave him half-a billion dollars, and before I could finish the question he said, “you bet!” I had to admit to perhaps exaggerating my personal finances, but I think he understood the sentiment.

These days Smith is content to move forward with his revised design of the now 82-story Trump Chicago that would make it, upon completion, the second tallest building in Chicago, and perhaps the country. It is a joint venture of Trump and Hollinger, the parent company of The Chicago Sun-Times, and is planned for the most prominent riverside plot in the city, the intersection of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River, where now sits the desperately ugly former Sun-Times headquarters. The tower would be sheathed in bright steel and glass, which would pick up the color of the neighboring Wrigley Building. It is designed with setbacks that allow a progression from a slender tower down to a broad base containing stores and a Riverwalk. A European health club chain has expressed interest in leasing 200,000 sq ft, which only leaves about 550,000 more to sell in order to secure financing. But if anyone can do it.

Smith claims it’s as simple as this: Trump Chicago will get built if Trump thinks it will make money. It’s the same reason the Chinese won’t build the Shanghai World Financial Center

The much-ballyhooed millennium/landmark/kowloon tower is a whole other scenario. Smith has been asked to help with the design of this massive project the size of two Sears Towers that has been proposed for a number of locations including Tokyo and Hong Kong. If completed it would stand over 2800 ft and house 50,000 people in an all-purpose vertical habitat environment that one need not ever leave. On any given day, 200,000 people might pass through the tower.

In March of this year the Village Voice ran a speculative article called “Sky City Fantasies” which claimed a number of these mega-tower/self-contained city projects were in development. Well, “development” can be defined in many ways, including a simple sketch, and yes this is where the whole concept of Supertall buildings is headed. But only the Millennium Tower concept has been put through the logistics mill. The rest are truly “fantasies”, like the 4,000-foot tall X-Seed Tower in Tokyo, existing only in the imaginations of their vanguard designers. But the concept of structures this immense is not that far beyond us. We don’t have even the slightest idea how to build them yet, but like electricity, nuclear fission and the genetic code before it, the mystery of defying gravity and building upward is close to being cracked.

The Discovery Channel produced an amazing documentary on the proposed construction methods for The Millennium Tower at the Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong site. When you consider the size of the project, you suddenly realize that nothing like this will be built anytime soon. (You can read about it yourself at Discovery.com.) Building the Millennium Tower would tap the entire steel production in Japan for a year, which is not a workable scenario at the moment. And although the Tower would be exponentially safer from wind, earthquakes, and terrorism than anything we now know, the sheer costs in time and materials make something this big possible, but highly unlikely. It would take an international effort, and frankly, these days it seems the International community is more interested in building planes and bombs than buildings. There is a distinctly different priority at hand these days. Besides, Smith told me the plot where the Tower was supposed to go just got sold. So, forget noble causes.the almighty dollar and the Supertall building are inextricably linked, at once each other’s best friend and worst enemy.

And still, life goes on in the skyscraper, because they are not just buildings or monuments or astounding feats of engineering, they are also our homes and our businesses and our places of recreation. Rick Roman, the owner of the Signature Room, talks with great pride about the thousands of world travelers who have made the pilgrimage to his restaurant. The double-entendre of their slogan, “The Restaurant The World Looks Up To”, is not lost on us. And think about the tens of thousands of people for whom the Hancock Center is a part of their daily lives. Myself, I couldn’t imagine a week without a Chocolate Martini in the Southwest corner of the lounge, staring across the city at the Loop at sunset. There is no more beautiful site on earth than that view, no mountain range or coastline or desert vista can even remotely compare.

So no matter what happens to them tomorrow, our fascination and love for building big things will always supercede our practical concerns. It’s just in our nature. The Adrian Smiths of the world will continue to envision beautiful towers growing and growing like well nurtured crops, and eventually, when the time is right and the problems have been solved and the space is used up, they will be able to shape their dreams in steel and glass, and in their own unique, symbolic way help us as a race continue to grow steadily upward, like their concrete creations, and the eventual progression of all living things.

Newtopia founder and editor emeritus CHARLES SHAW is an award-winning journalist and editor, author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, and Director of the documentary, The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System.

Charles serves as Editor for the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum and the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, both collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy, and the Tedworth Charitable Trust.

Charles’ work has appeared in Alternet, Alternative Press Review, Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist, Guardian UK, Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness, YES!, and Znet. He was a Contributing Author to the 2008 Shift Report from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen’s Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning (2007, Island Press). In 2009 he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.



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