Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is that a spire or are you just glad to see me?

The Chrysler Building has a spire. 
     People love tall buildings.
     Which could be seen as odd, given that God doesn't seem to like tall buildings at all, at least not in the Bible, in Genesis, where He reacts to the attempt to build the first skyscraper, the Tower of Babel, by scrambling human language — up to that point, everybody spoke the same tongue — for the specific purpose of keeping us from ever reaching toward the heavens again. 
     Didn't work. We're still at it, in that selective way we have of ignoring Biblical strictures that go against our grain. The honor of being tallest is so coveted that — in a way that is almost Talmudic — the question of who's got the biggest one is not a simple matter than can be settled with a measuring tape. 
    (Of course, the "who's got the biggest" leads to another, Freudian interpretation, which one of the readers of this column, which appeared in the Sun-Times Monday, added, "It isn't the size, but what you do with it." Which serves for buildings too).

      Math problem: 
One World Trade Center doesn't (ST photo)
       If Chicago has a building, the Willis Tower, that is 1,451 feet tall, from the pavement to the roof, and New York has a building, One World Trade Center, that is 1,368 feet tall over the same distance, which city has the taller building? 
      A clever second-grader would gaze at those numbers for a moment, perhaps crinkling his freckled nose cutely, then exclaim, “Willis Tower!” and he’d be right.
      Alas, the world is not run by clever second-graders.
     That is why the people who built the WTC have dubbed the 406-foot-tall mast they’ve bolted atop the building a “spire” — aka, an integral part of the building’s architecture that should count as the structure’s official height — and through a combination of politics and misplaced Sept. 11 pity might just pull it off, as the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat ponders whether to accept the deception, which can be easily seen by just looking at the damn thing.
     Among the charmed arguments that its builders have floated is the novel notion that since the building originally was designed with an actual spire, but alas, economics whittled it down to the needle of nothing actually atop the actual building in the actual world of the real, that means the design should somehow factor into the decision.
     That's nuts. If plans count, then heck, drag out Frank Lloyd Wright's drawings for a mile-high skyscraper, pretend it was built here, and lay claim to the title that way.
     And how much is that distinction really worth, anyway?
     How much civic pride do we take from the Willis Tower being the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere?
     A lot? No. I'd say, "a bit." Sometimes, guiding visitors, I will sweep my arm in the tower's direction and say, in sort of an avuncular chuckle, "Tallest building in the Western Hemisphere."
     That is a fallback, of course, from the Tallest Building in the World. But these are fallback times, and just as pride in a good career in a solid industry was replaced by, oh, pride in a good day job where you can keep the bags of chips you haven't handed out at the end of the day, so we need to take our satisfaction where we can.
     And I don't think it's sour grapes to observe that the striving cities that have actually built really tall buildings do not, on the basis of that, draw lingering significance. Taipei 101 surpassed the then-Sears Tower in 2004, becoming the tallest building in the world, a title it held for six years, and I'd wager lunch not one American in 10 can guess what country it's in. Nor has Petronas Towers skewed the world's gaze to Kuala Lumpur. Being 1,200 feet taller than the Willis Tower didn't jam the Burj Khalifa into awareness half as much as being featured in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" did.
     The Council on Tall Buildings is based in Chicago, which you might think would tilt its hand in our direction, but it's one of those groups with international pretensions, obviously, and might give the plum to New York just to prove it doesn't have local bias, in the same way that the International Olympic Committee is based in Lausanne but has never brought the Summer Games to Switzerland and probably never will.
     I called Anthony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings, but he was in China, natch. He told the Wall Street Journal that failing to rule in favor of the WTC would disturb "the vast majority of the entire USA public for whom the 1,776 symbolic height is sacred."
     Not 'round here. You've been reading too many developer's brochures, bub. The vast majority of the entire USA public can hardly bestir themselves on 9/11 to arrange their mugs into a simulacrum of solemnity and remember that something bad happened on that date in the recent past. What they really hunger for is an officialdom — the government, corporations, yes, even the Council on Tall Buildings — that lives in the same reality-based world we do, and acts accordingly. A spire is part of a building's architecture. The Chrysler Building has a spire. That counts. An antenna is a pole stuck atop a building. The Willis Tower has two. Now look at the World Trade Center. Forget politics, forget 9/11 and Bette Midler singing "The Wind Beneath My Wings." That's an antenna, heck, almost a flagpole.
     And if that counts, then the things atop the Willis Tower are twin spires, and we can duct tape some paper-towel tubes to the end and nudge past New York. No matter what the decision is, I'm still calling it the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. Facts still matter.


  1. There's no such building with that name!
    It's Sears Tower. Period!

  2. Why? We won't call the Target on State Street Carson, Pirie Scott -- it wasn't Carson's originally, either.

    1. Agreed Chicago Evening Journal, columnist!

    2. In NYC, it's still the Chrysler Building, even though the heirs to Walter Chrysler sold it in 1954 & it has been resold three more times.
      It would be one thing if that English insurance company had bought the building, but they didn't. Vornado Realty bought it.
      There would be a lot less opposition to the name change if it was the owner of the building naming it after themselves.
      As for the Target on State, the building is almost always referred to as the Carson's Store, even though it was built as the Schlesinger & Mayer Store.

  3. Neil,
    The nature of CPS changed just like Fields did after they got taken over by outside interloopers. However, the Sears Tower has not been changed. The Willis company can purchase the naming rights but it'll always be Sears Tower to me. One other thing - thanks again for this blog. It's great to have the chance to read more of your writing.

  4. How many states can you see from the new WTC? Is it at least four? If not, Willis wins! :)

  5. @David -- it might sound strange, but I've really been enjoying the blog. Writing it isn't hard. It takes a certain rigor. But this is my idea of fun, which itself is a bit sad. Well, this and reading. And coffee. And, lately, the Bulls.


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