Reflective giants: Chicago’s building boom, now nearing its end, has layered a new generation of glass towers into the skyline


Chicago’s renowned skyline has long been about muscle, its towers as solid as a meat cutter at the old Stockyards.

But now, with the decade-long building boom coming to a close, a little-noticed change has come into focus: A new family of skyscrapers, principally sheathed in light-catching glass and at least 50 stories tall, has quietly infiltrated the skyline. And this invasion is by and large a good thing, giving us buildings notable not simply for their shapes, but for their lightness, transparency and reflectivity.

Let’s call them the “glass giants.” And here’s what they add up to: Even though the tallest tower proposed during the boom — the corkscrewing, 2,000-foot Chicago Spire — shows no signs of being built, the skyline has continued to evolve, and in a way that is unmistakably, if not always satisfyingly, of its time.

With its shimmering, ever-changing exterior wall of reflective glass and stainless steel fins, Donald Trump’s year-old, 96-story riverfront hotel and condo tower is the biggest of the giants. Yet there are others, including two condo towers that are now open — the 73-story Legacy at Millennium Park (left), an elegant wedge that overlooks its namesake park, and the 57-story One Museum Park West, a carefully modeled high-rise on Grant Park’s south end.


Others (left) include the ruggedly handsome 54-story Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Illinois headquarters at 300 E. Randolph St., an add-on building whose second phase took shape last year, and just to its east, the context-sensitive, 64-story 340 on the Park condo tower, now three years old.

It is always dangerous to evaluate buildings as a group, but this group nonetheless shares certain characteristics.

The new towers both reflect the sky and seem to blend into it, minimizing (though not necessarily masking) their enormous bulk. Their lightness enables them to soar above revered landmarks — the Wrigley Building and the clifflike wall of high-rises that lines Michigan Avenue — without overwhelming them. And those along Grant Park are good neighbors in another way, creating a sharply defined urban “edge” on the park’s previously ill-defined north and south flanks.

Yet the glass giants perhaps look best when one surveys the skyline and recognizes what they aren’t — nostalgic stage sets like the 60-story Elysian, a concrete-faced hotel-condo tower at 11 E. Walton St. that flaunts an oversize mansard roof resembling a Shriner’s fez. If the towers had turned out that way, a skyline synonymous with modernity would be weighted down with ponderous “mansions in the sky” — a bloated version of Paris.

To be sure, high-rises chiefly clad in glass have appeared before on the Chicago skyline, most winningly at 333 W. Wacker Drive, the office building whose gracefully curving, green glass wall reflects a bend in the Chicago River. But the glass giants are taller and more prominent than the 36-story 333 Wacker, their visibility from Grant Park magnifying their skyline presence. In addition, the glass giants are lighter and more transparent that the steel and glass boxes of the 1960s, whose dark surfaces and projecting I-beams convey a palpable solidity.

Because architecture is the most pragmatic of the arts, it should surprise no one that the reasons for the shift to glass begin not with aesthetics but economics. More glass makes for better views, and jaw-dropping vistas sell real estate, particularly in tall buildings.


“Clients are asking for more visibility from the spaces within,” said Adrian Smith, the former Skidmore, Owings & Merrill partner who was the lead designer on Trump Tower (left) and now has his own firm.

Other factors have contributed to the shift. Glass surfaces are easier to maintain than stone, and they are generally lighter and less expensive, Smith said. Stricter energy codes, like the one Chicago passed in 2002, have encouraged builders to sheathe their buildings in materials including glass to improve insulation. Superthin coatings allow windows to filter out solar heat without obstructing views from the inside out.

The recent ascent of modernism and the changing nature of high-rises have also played roles. Because so many of the new towers are residential, with irregularly spaced columns carving out extra-large living spaces, architects have further reason to shy away from the rigid, structurally expressive look that long ago went out of fashion.

In short, the glass giants are more skin buildings than bone buildings, the latter exemplified by the X-braced muscle of the John Hancock Center.

All of these changes are evident in the Legacy at Millennium Park, which was designed by Chicago architects Solomon Cordwell Buenz and soars nearly 820 feet into the air — high enough to make it the tallest building in such large American cities as Miami or Minneapolis.

Five years ago, Solomon Cordwell Buenz had just finished the postmodern Heritage at Millennium Park, a solid but not particularly innovative 59-story, exposed-concrete condo tower that rises two blocks north of the Legacy. The new tower shows how much things have changed since then, even if it is by no means a perfect building.

The Legacy has been shoehorned into a tight site between the row of officially protected landmarks on Michigan Avenue and the elevated tracks on Wabash Avenue. To make room for its base, the tower’s developers sheared off everything but the facades of three historic commercial buildings on Wabash — another one of those lamentable “facade-echtomies” that preserves a streetscape but destroys architectural integrity.


But on the skyline, the Legacy excels.

In contrast to the modernist hulk at 55 E. Monroe St., which shows Millennium Park the broad side of its massive slab, the wedge-shaped Legacy turns its narrow front toward the Crown Fountain and Cloud Gate. Two adjoining slabs rise alongside each other, separated by a stack of recessed balconies. One slab is slightly taller than the other, and its top tilts slightly, introducing a subtle geometric counterpoint.

The design is emphatically vertical, yet the tower’s softly reflective, minimalist skin of light-blue glass effectively pushes the “mute” button, tempering its geometric complexity. The simple surfaces transform the Legacy into a quiet mirror as it rises behind the Gothic filigree of the adjoining University Club and the broochlike ornament of Louis Sullivan’s Gage Building at 18 S. Michigan Ave.

Though the Trump Tower has more articulated skin than the Legacy, it plays the same game as it soars above the Spanish Revival Wrigley Building and the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower. It is at once a skyline object and a background building, a luminous presence that contrasts vividly with the decorative but opaque surfaces of the 1920s towers. It’s a thrill to watch the building’s blue skin turn white as the setting sun reflects off its fins of stainless steel. Such qualities compensate for the tower’s subpar spire and riverfront bulk.

The glass giants “are a real complement to the skyline,” said Pauline Saliga, executive director of the Chicago-based Society of Architectural Historians and the editor of “The Sky’s The Limit: A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers.” “Their light, reflective qualities make them beautiful rather than ponderous and heavy.”


The glass giants lining the north and south flanks of Grant Park reveal the positive urban impact of this trend. In contrast to the steel-and-glass high-rises of the 1960s, many of which stood aloof on windswept plazas, the new towers appropriately treat the park as if it were an outdoor room and they were the walls enclosing its vast open space. One Museum Park West, a westward addition to the bold but cartoonish, 66-story One Museum Park East, is a good example.

Its architects, the Chicago firm of Pappageorge Haymes, had previously turned out desultory concrete towers along South Lake Shore Drive that aped the robust classicism of the neighboring Museum Campus.
But clients began asking, the architects say, for modernist towers with floor-to-ceiling glass instead of traditional ones whose small windows left room for art on the walls. More important, planners at City Hall started preaching the gospel of tall, thin towers that would be arranged with an eye toward urban design, not just view corridors that would line developers’ pockets.

As at the Legacy, there are problems — but only more so. The nautically inspired One Museum Park East, the least persuasive of the glass giants, looks painfully pudgy from Lake Shore Drive. One Museum Park West’s top is disappointingly blunt compared with the exuberant, nautilus-shaped crown that Pappageorge Haymes planned. Yet these towers still improve on the architects’ previous efforts, especially as works of urban design.


The towers’ great height gives them enough visual oomph to match the row of tall buildings on the park’s northern edge. Pappageorge Haymes carefully placed them side by side, joining them at the bottom but leaving a slot of open space between them. The bands of metal that sweep across their glass facades appropriately suggest a single, continuous wall, which has been cleaved in two.

Thus, while the boldly scalloped skyscrapers are aligned to capture views and sell condos, they now serve the broader civic agenda of shaping the public realm. And their glass walls, while hardly jewel-like, captivatingly capture the light.

How architectural historians will eventually rate the glass giants remains a matter of speculation. There are surely no masterpieces among the group — nothing that possesses the modernist brio of the Hancock Center or the Art Deco elegance of the Chicago Board of Trade Building. Some are clearly more satisfying than others. Yet on the whole, these exercises in lightness and luminosity merit praise for the way they enliven the skyline and uplift the cityscape.

By Blair Kamin–but-now.html

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