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Annie Wang works for an architecture firm in Chicago, Illinois. After graduating from the University of California, Davis, she relocated to Chicago for the architecture and the deep-dish pizza.
Situated between the two coasts, Chicago is often overlooked as a dynamic center of architectural innovation. Not only is there space to build, but there are open-minded institutions and developers willing to cultivate design and to patronize talent, from the city of Chicago and abroad.
          The Art Institute of Chicago appointed the Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect, Renzo Piano, to design the modern addition to its neoclassical main building. Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, will erect the world’s highest residential tower in Chicago, the Spire, while Jeanne Gang of Chicago-based Studio Gang is commissioned to create the tallest building designed by a woman in the United States, a mixed-used skyscraper known as Aqua Tower.
          Spurred by the 2004 completion of Millennium Park, Chicago is in the midst of an architectural renaissance. The culmination of the forward-thinking city, its philanthropic families, and creative forces such as Frank Gehry and Jaume Plensa, Millennium Park is a contemporary, cutting-edge creation which represents a step away from the legacy of modernism as exemplified by the disciplined rationalism of Miesian architecture. Mies van der Rohe’s influence has long been felt in both the academics and the aesthetics of designers in Chicago, resulting in a tradition that demands to be both revered and broken. Yet it is this aesthetic tradition which produced a new generation of Chicago architects who have risen to the challenge of invigorating the execution and relevancy of modernism.
          Unlike the "starchitects" that hail from Manhattan, or European cultural centers such as London, Chicago’s architects have the opportunity to build in their own city. Extending the legacy of the Chicago School, which pioneered steel-frame construction and the skyscraper, they are furthering innovation and pushing the limits of architecture’s function, and beauty. Conceived to be socially, ethically and environmentally responsible, Chicago’s newest and most exciting projects are more than mere shelters to keep the rain out. They are built with purpose, and with the concept of community in mind.
          Chicago-based John Ronan Architects’s recently completed Gary Comer Youth Center embodies the principles valued by the modern masters: utilitarian but consciously evocative of contemporary American culture. The architects designed the Gary Comer Youth Center with the needs of the inner-city community it serves at the forefront of their minds, yet every practical function and necessity is treated beautifully. Clad in a vibrant cement skin reminiscent of colorful stacked Legos, the individual panels can be easily removed and replaced if subjected to vandalism or other damage. The expansive glass windows are bullet-proof, and at night, light glows through the rectangular punch-outs that dance along the walls of the building. A gymnasium, 600-seat auditorium, dance studio, cafeteria, and classrooms work as interconnected spaces to create a sense of spatial continuity and openness. A green roof offers a welcome retreat from the urban decay of the inner-city neighborhood, where children and teens can plant fruit, vegetables, and flowers atop this neighborhood landmark of hope and renewal.
          Studio Gang’s Aqua Tower is an 82-storey high-rise located in Lakeshore East, containing a hotel, condominiums, apartments, and offices. Each floor plan is unique from the others, flanked by undulating balconies that roll and swell not unlike waves, forming a highly contoured, sculptural façade. The balconies are strategically crafted to allow views of Lake Michigan, Millennium Park including Frank Gehry’s B.P. Bridge and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, and Harbor Park. Residents and visitors of the Aqua Tower are able to occupy the building while retaining the sense of also being a part of a metropolis at large. The wave-like balconies part in sections to reveal expanses of cool blue glass, glazed in accordance with the amount of solar exposure received, giving the façade movement, liquidity. Aqua Tower is not only an incredible endeavor by its own
merits, requiring cutting-edge technology to sculpt the concrete balconies, but also an undertaking that challenges the notion that a small firm cannot manage large commissions. The $300 million Aqua Tower will be completed in 2009.
          The newly completed Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, designed by Krueck & Sexton Architects, is a faceted glass gem set among 19th century masonry and brick buildings, filling one of the last empty lots on historic Michigan Avenue. The new $39 million Spertus Institute, built almost entirely with funds from private donors, is a mixed-use highrise, containing a museum, library, 400-seat auditorium, college classrooms, and administrative offices. Sophisticated computer technology was employed to fabricate each of the 726 individual glass pieces into 556 unique shapes, forming a folded, transparent glass skin. The building manages to be bold in its design, an eye-catching jewel that shimmers in the sun, yet also reticent, with proportions respectful of the surrounding historic buildings. Its material, glass, is treated not unlike the heavy stone of Adler & Sullivan’s famous Auditorium Building which shares the avenue with Spertus. Both buildings express the qualities of their respective materials beautifully: Krueck & Sexton emphasizes the lightness and transparency of glass, while Adler & Sullivan express the weight and heft of stone. The transparent glass façade welcomes pedestrians of all backgrounds to explore the Jewish cultural experience within. A cultural triumph, Krueck & Sexton’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies is a symbol of the architectural and civic vitality in the city of Chicago.
          155 North Wacker will be the third commercial highrise completed by Goettsch Partners for the John Buck Company on Wacker Drive. This 48-storey Class A commercial highrise has been pre-certified LEED Silver by the U.S. Green Building Council. Its floor to ceiling, low-e glass windows maximize the use of natural light, low VOC paints, carpets and adhesives, high efficiency plumbing, and green roof allowed 155 North Wacker to achieve pre-certified LEED Silver status. Its sleek appearance fits appropriately with surrounding buildings, and its location offers tenants spectacular views of the city. Skaddan, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and the Bridge Financial Group have already signed leases which will, in total, will use nine floors. 155 North Wacker demonstrates a changing perspective towards environmental responsibility. No longer viewed as a bonus, an afterthought or unnecessary extra expense, environmental sustainability is now an integral part of commercial developments. Undoubtedly, the tenants of 155 North Wacker understand that inhabiting a sustainable building speaks to their own brand’s sense of social responsibility.
          Gensler’s 185,000 square foot Center on Halstead is the largest community center devoted to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered population in the Midwest. The first storey of the Center is the restored façade of an early twentieth century building, featuring salvaged terra cotta and brick, topped by two storeys of unembellished, transparent glass that honors the Center’s spirit of openness. While the restored first storey façade provides privacy for therapy and other confidential functions, the transparent top storeys reduce any sense of isolation by visually integrating the activities within to the street without. The Center houses diverse organizations that serve the LGBT community which will serve tens of thousands of individuals each year, and also features a Whole Foods grocery store, café, technology center, theater, gymnasium, entertainment center, public roof garden, offices for community organizations, and an underground parking structure. The rooftop garden, natural ventilation, efficient use of daylighting and recycled or reclaimed materials, and its establishment of Chicago’s first rainwater harvesting system will allow the Center to achieve its target of a LEED Silver rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
          340 on the Park, designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz, is Chicago’s most environmentally conscious residential highrise, with a LEED Silver rating. The building uses materials manufactured regionally, an
internal storm water collection system, white surface and green roofs to minimize solar heat gain, a sophisticated ventilation system to maximize indoor air quality, and low-e insulated and tinted glass. 100 percent of the concrete and reinforced steel used in construction are recycled, and 27 percent of the building products are locally produced to reduce transport cost as measured in environmental terms. On the 25th floor, a winter garden with soaring 20 foot ceilings provides a space for residents to congregate and socialize. With a highly visible location in Lakeshore East, 340 on the Park is sensitive to its surroundings. Its six levels of parking are wisely hidden below ground, sparing the city from another unattractive parking garage, which are always difficult to execute well. A reflective glass skin mirrors its surroundings, while its rectilinear form curves at the north. Facing Grant Park, horizontal and vertical lines, a faint echo of Miesian structures, visually modulate the 672 foot tall tower. Its clean, sleek, contemporary aesthetic, combined with well thought-out environmental sustainability elements, sets a new standard for how architects conceive residential highrises.
          Santiago Calatrava’s Spire will sit in stark contrast to the socially-conscious buildings designed by Chicago’s own architects. After undergoing several design revisions, the Chicago Spire, which at the beginning of its evolution looked not unlike an epically-sized screw struck into the landscape of Chicago, now appears screw-like still, although blunted at its tip. Rather than appearing as a broken piece of a giant’s javelin lodged in the city skyline, the Spire now seems like a Freudian dream piece. Soon to be Chicago’s most prominent landmark, the Spire will soar higher than the Sears Tower as the tallest building in the United States, and it will be inaccessible to the everyday Chicagoans who look upon it. With prices at a minimum of $1,400 per square foot, few Chicagoans, or even Americans, can afford an apartment within the spiraling, 2,000-foot tribute to exclusivity. Hence, an estimated half of its residents will be made up of wealthy Europeans, Asians, and Middle-Easterners thanks to an aggressive international marketing campaign that will tour Dublin, Shanghai, London, Johannesburg, and other cities. The Spire seems especially undemocratic – in contrast to the very spirit of Chicago, a city grounded by buildings that are often described as "good neighbors," carefully inserted into the city either by truly generous, philanthropic local families, civically-minded institutions or responsible developers sensitive to the appearance of the skyline. One could not call The Spire a good neighbor. How will this influx of unabashed wealth affect the atmosphere of Chicago? That is uncertain, but it seems somehow unwise, in a time of national security nightmares so extreme that they must be color-coded by the government, that the nation’s tallest landmark will be dedicated to elevating the privileged high above the anonymous heads of the pedestrians below. The Spire is to Chicago – and the world – a beacon of that unique American brand of excess.
          An upside of the Spire’s appearance in Chicago is that its existence has attracted much attention to a city perceived to be provincial in comparison to London or New York. Chicago is not yet a real player among truly world-class cities, yet the work of its local architects and the starchitects the city is able to draw in, combined with daring institutions and private entities willing to take a chance on design, will result in a cityscape that is not only beautiful, the a continuation of the grand narrative envisioned by Daniel Burnham. Chicago’s architects, from Burnham, Sullivan, and Wright, to the individuals imaginatively expanding their legacy of artistry and innovation to this day, can be assessed by their contribution to the city’s socioeconomic and cultural growth. The projects mentioned in this article indicate a flourishing of civic and cultural spirit. It’s in this spirit that buildings rise, here in the Windy City, and the worthy projects undertaken by ambitious individuals are too numerous to recount in one sitting. Burnham’s most famous adage is also fitting for the city of Chicago: "Make no little plans."