The Chicago Spire In (Or Rather, Out Of) Context

The embarassing mega-antennea is gone. Thank God.

Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, has a new article on the re-designed supertall skyscraper proposed for the city's downtown waterfront. Kamin's assesment of the building is mixed: while he praises the its inspiring silhouette for breaking "the flat-topped precedent of Sears Tower and Chicago's other 20th Century giants," he argues that the Spire still has a ways to go.

I have to agree, though I doubt that it will ever become what it should be. As Kamin's multimedia presentation (which accompanies the article) notes, Calatrava stated in a recent presentation that the form of the Chicago Spire is based on a snail's shell. What, exactly, does this have to do with downtown Chicago? You'd be hard-pressed to find a person who'd deny the abundance of potential contextual cues that could be taken from a site like the one that the Spire is proposed for. Chicago has a legendary architectural tradition...and perhaps this is why the (I'll admit, much improved) re-design of the Spire still doesn't feel right: there's no Chicago in it.

My main complaint about most of Calatrava's recent buildings is that, while many are fascinating in terms of their innovative engineering and daring form, they almost never feel like they belong where they are proposed. The starchitect's designs (like those of most contemporary starchitects) feel as if they started as ideas in their creators' heads, and were then superimposed onto a site to which they were not at all connected, purely for the purpose of making a bold personal -- not architectural -- statement. The Spire feels like a very tall, very shiny emblem for the greatness of Santiago Calatrava, not of Chicago.

And seeing as how Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, this seems especially inappropriate.

EDIT (3/28/2007 - 6:22 PM): I forgot to mention -- I do love the amount of public discussion that this project is generating. Whenever the public gets interested in architecture, someone's doing something right. It's just not always the architect of the subject matter.

Calatrava Unveils Towers Latest Twist (Chicago Tribune)

The Chicago Spire


John Hill said...

Thanks for the e-mail and head's up on your page; I'll be sure to add a link at some point.

Your criticism of Calatrava is pretty apt -- especially when he proposes variations on nature-inspired, gleaming white bridges or buildings for just about every city around the globe -- though I'm wondering how a building 2000' tall is contextual at all. Even while taking cues from its context, the height alone (1/3 as tall as the Sears Tower) and its somewhat strange location make that difficult, if not impossible. But I guess that gets into notions of what is context, how is it created, a "conversation" that makes sense in Chicago, where the Sears Tower and Hancock were out of context but are now major parts of the context that further shapes how architects build and how people experience the place. Those are things I surely don't have answers for.

When I think of Calatrava, I always think back to his Stadelhofen (sp?) train station in Zurich, what is now the direction he could have gone in, different from where he is now. For one, it's black, meaning that it blends with its context, or at least doesn't make a statement; it recedes. Also, it knits the two sides of the tracks together, two sides that vary in topography as well as built form. It's a great project that shows a sensitivity to site and context that he's abandoned in favor of creating icons that stand out in their locale? But who's to say that if it ever gets built it doesn't become beloved and reshape the context of Chicago in many ways (physically, economically, socially, internationally).

Brendan Crain said...

I certainly think that people allow some suspension of disbelief in downtown areas in terms of context, because anything more than a few stories taller than the surrounding buildings is tough to make "contextual." Especially in the case of Chicago, height seems to be part of the context, actually.

I agree with what you're saying about the evolution of context, though...but Sears and Big John are both powerful, almost overwhelming buildings that fit well in such a powerful and (to many people) overwhelming city. They're also dark buildings in what has always been a sort of dark skyline. The Spire, in contrast, is a very bright, whimsical building. That's not to say that you can't do whimsy in Chicago (see: Prarie Style motif)...it's just that Calatrava is almost heavy-handed in his dispersal of whimsy. He pays no attention to the surroundings and has created a building that will damage the cohesiveness of an iconic skyline.

But public opinion is unpredictable, and perhaps you're right about the public falling in love with the completed structure; only time will tell. For the time being, at least, I can hope that the project falls through. ;-)