Thursday, May 4, 2023

Flashback 2010: Overshadowed by his skyscrapers

Willis Tower (Photo by: Mike Innocenzi, aka @pantagapher. Used with permission)

     Here's a koan for you:
     Q: How can a man be busy writing, yet have nothing written?
     A: When he's busy writing something else, and has nothing for his daily blog.
     That's okay. Because I noticed that Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of the topping off of the Sears, of late Willis, Tower. That sent me wandering back, looking at my various takes on what for years was the world's tallest building. I like the one below, because it's a relic from slough after the 2008 recession, when half-built buildings dotted downtown and it seemed that the city had gone to hell. A reminder, as we struggle through our current civic woes: we've been through this before. Notice my use of "Trumpish" as a pejorative in 2010 — ahead of the curve.

     Shouldn't architects be better known, considering what they do? I'm not talking about Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Sure, they're famous and probably always will be.
     I'm talking about subsequent architects. When Bruce Graham died last week, and I read in his obituary that he had designed both the Willis (nee Sears) Tower AND the John Hancock Center, my first thought — and perhaps yours, too — was: "Never heard of the guy."
     Of course, 1973 — when the Willis Tower opened — was a long time ago, and the Hancock was completed even earlier, when I was in third grade. Graham could have been borne in triumph down State Street on a sedan chair over scatterings of rose petals and given the key to the city.
     But I doubt it.
     How is it that any promising Cubs rookie receives more enduring fame than someone who created not one, but two, Chicago landmarks? We have a better chance of being aware of a French artist like Jean Dubuffet, because of his god-awful Snoopy-in-a-blender sculpture jammed into the too-small plaza of the Thompson Center, than we are of the guy who designed the center itself, Helmut Jahn (of course, that might be a favor to him, depending on your opinion of the Thompson Center — post-modern masterpiece or horrific white elephant, take your pick).
     Perhaps the obscurity of architects is their own fault — they're always winging off to Bahrain to design something new. Were I Bruce Graham, I'd have spent at least one day a year hanging around on the sidewalk in front of the Sears Tower with a big "Ask Me About My Building" button, cadging conversations with passersby. But I am not an architect.

    Work in progress
     Spring peeked over the fence Thursday afternoon, and I celebrated by walking a cigar along Wacker Drive, admiring the Chicago River.
     At Clark, I paused to study the stalled construction across the street. "Waterview Tower — A 90-story elite residence," the battered signboard proclaimed.
     "No," I corrected, "Waterview Tower — a 26-story unsightly concrete shell."
     It isn't nice to smirk at somebody else's financial ruin — this forlorn, decaying edifice blew through someone's millions.
     The truth is, we're all cooking in the same pot. But they put it up, and now we have to watch it crumble. And there's something about that sign that invites contempt, something about its exultant, Trumpish phrases of enticement — "World-class lifestyle." What was that exactly? Gold-plated faucets?
     Bristles of rusty rebar poke up where construction left off, like shoots from a dying plant. I crossed the street and gazed through the fence. An overturned safety barrel. A port-o-john. "No HIRING ON JOB SITE" read a blue sign. No kidding; no hiring anywhere. Construction on Waterview stopped almost two years ago, and nobody expects it to start up again.
     We're not used to this. If you go to a Third World country, residents start building structures as soon as they scrape together a truckload of cinder blocks, halt while they earn capital for another truckload, then continue. The streets are dotted with buildings in every stage of completion, many going straight from new construction to abandoned ruin without ever being a finished building.
     Something for us to look forward to.
     The Waterview condos are advertised as ranging from "$562,000 to $2,316,000." You have to marvel at the specificity of that second sum -- not $2 million, not $2.3 million, but $2,316,000. That's so exact, as if it represented actual worth, the result of complex calculations. When it was just a guess, and a wrong one. The people doing this kind of thing — those who plunged the world into its current financial crisis — loved to pretend they knew precisely what they were doing. But they didn't.
     I was at the corner of Franklin and Lake when I noticed a man — 60ish, holding a scrap of paper and looking puzzled. I sensed that if I looked him in the eye, he would ask directions. I did, and he did.
     "Where is Wacker Drive?" he asked.
     Savoring the moment, I slowly raised both arms, straight out and perpendicular to each other, the right pointing north up Franklin Street, the left pointing west down Lake.
     "It's right there," I said, and let him gaze at me in bewilderment for a moment before explaining
     "Wacker Drive curves," I said. "There's a North, South, East and West Wacker. Where on Wacker are you looking for?"
     "Three Three Three West Wacker," he said. "A green, granite building."
     Now, it was my turn to be bewildered — 333 W. Wacker was directly in front of us. We were practically standing on its steps.
     "It's right there," I said, pointing to the number of the door. To my surprise, he argued.
     "No," he said. "That's 633 W. Wacker." Sure enough, there was some kind of scuffed area by that first "3" which, from where we were standing, made it look like a "6." We went closer and peered at the numerals while I pointed out that it was really a "3." He thanked me and went into the building.
     I walked away thinking, "Just goes to show the importance of details." Here you have one of the most attractive, beloved iconic, buildings in the city -- designed by Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, by the way — and one little flaw, some corrosion around a numeral, is enough to render the building practically invisible to someone standing in front of it. Architects matter, but so do maintenance men, and one of them needs to get out there with a rag and some solvent.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 14, 2010

Editor's note: In 2011, the owners conducted a study of the shell of Waterview Tower, at 111 W. Wacker, and decided it was salvageable. The project was scaled back from 92 to 59 stories, and completed in 2016. It's now dubbed OneEleven.


  1. Good stuff. I remember when that tower was a shell. I used to walk by every day going to work.

  2. Personally, I prefer architects to be somewhat anonymous. When they get to be stars, like Wright or Jahn (he's one by now IMO), that's when they start designing buildings where form is prized over function to the point where they're almost uninhabitable, with leaky roofs, summer sunlight blazing through windows and playing havoc with the air conditioning, etc.

  3. Lovely. And for the record... the Thompson Center is indeed a horrific white elephant.

  4. I've always been a fan of the former Thompson Center. Just a spectacular building -- so fun to view, especially inside. Of course, I never had to work in there when it was 125°...

    But lots of people hate it, of course. The local Twitter star @Chicago Bars thought it should be nuked from space. On the other hand, the fondest appreciation of it I ever saw was recently offered by another person on Twitter. An "Argentine-Japanese Brit Artist & Designer" from London just spent a week or two touring the city, marveling at the architecture and sharing some excellent photos. In this thread of tweets about the Thompson Center he offers an appraisal, as well as some fabulous photographs. There are many more photos of various Chicago buildings on his Twitter page before and after that thread.

    As to the actual point of today's post. Well-taken! This society is so fucked up that it's not surprising, alas, but the fact that the guy that designed the Sears Tower and the Hancock was not better known is telling.

    Any opportunity to see you trot out "Snoopy in a Blender" is one to savor. (Though I never disdained that sculpture the way that you do.) I appreciated the Editor's note about what were to be the Waterview Condos. Alas, it's an apartment building, so instead of paying $2 million for a condo, you can go with $7,060 rent for a 1571 sq. ft. 3-bedroom apt.!

  5. 333 may be my favorite of all the beautiful buildings in Chicago. I love the way it curves with the river and reflects the passing L trains.

  6. Never thought of 333 as a granite building, to me it is the perfect design for its' site. Sears Tower is a fitting symbol for Chicago, brutal and beautiful at the same time. The Hancock's taper lends a bit of elegance lacking in the Sears. When you look at the base of John Hancock it looks like the structure is sitting atop the base rather than being an extension of it. The steel structure appears a separate entity craned atop a stone base. And the lake views in summer are exceptional. Thank you Bruce Graham. I'm more with Jakash than Neil about the Dubuffet, but I would drive the truck out of town carrying the Miro across from the Daley.

    1. I'll be happy to ride shotgun while you drive the truck, JP!


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