The height of style
Nearly a century after a competition to design the Chicago Tribune’s HQ, the contest is being restaged to take the contemporary pulse on high-rise architecture. Oliver Wainwright reports
It was billed as “the greatest architectural contest in history” – a hunt for “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world” to house “the world’s greatest newspaper”. The Chicago Tribune’s owner, Col Robert R McCormick, had no shortage of ambition when he launched the open call to design a dazzling new HQ for his newspaper in 1922. And he wasn’t to be disappointed.
The glamour of the brief, along with the lure of $100,000 in prize money (around $1.5m today), saw 263 architects from 23 countries submit designs. The entries provide a fascinating crosssection of the aesthetic preoccupations of the day, ranging from neoclassical wedding-cake confections to modernist slabs, reflecting a moment on the brink of radical change.
The winning entry, which stands proudly on the corner of Michigan Avenue, was a neo-gothic fantasy of stone piers and flying buttresses, a rocket ship conjured from 16th-century France. It remains one of the finest and most intriguing towers in Chicago, if not the world, its facade encrusted with rocks and chunks of other famous buildings brought back from exotic lands by the newspaper’s reporters. But it was the competition itself that had the bigger impact on the architectural imagination. The sheer range of entries sparked an international debate on what direction the future of the skyscraper should take, providing a stylistic smorgasbord for generations of towers to come.
It is a discussion the curators of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial hope to reignite this month, with an exhibition that will restage the Tribune Tower competition 95 years on, asking contemporary architects to respond to the brief.
Choosing “make new history” as their theme,e, Mark Lee and Sharon Johnstonton set out to ask a new generation what a high-rise could be today. The LA-based duo, founding partners of the Johnston Marklee architecture firm, say that coming to Chicago as outsiders, they “wanted to generate a discussion on that would have an international resonance like the original competition did”.
That 1922 contest was the ultimate battle of the styles. The majority of US architects, then stillll trained in the Beaux-Arts Arts manner, favoured a traditionalist approach, and their designs ranged from teeteringg romanesque campanilesles to gothic piles. These were office buildings as cathedrals, their mighty hty stone shafts crowned with domes, globes and spires. ires. Columns were piled on n pilasters, rusticated plinthslinths groaned under heavingng cornices and every juncnction was elaborated with a twiddly moulding. It was the post-industrial capitalist society searching for legitimacy in the fancy dressess of yore.
European entries were much more diverse,erse, from colossal art deco monuments to stark steel frames stripped of all ornament. There was expressionist pyramid by Bruno Taut, an asymmetrical planar composition by Bauhaus maestros Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer and, perhaps most famously, a tower in the shape of a gigantic doric column by Viennese provocateur Adolf Loos. On the eve of the publication of Le Corbusier’s seminal manifesto, Vers une Architecture, you can sense the palpable excitement about capturing the “spirit of the age” in glass and steel.
The competition has echoed down the generations, and Johnston and Lee are not the first to revive the contest to sample the mood of the day. In 1980, Chicago architects Stanley Tigerman and Stuart Cohen invited “late entries” to the competition, asking such luminaries as Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry to submit designs. As Tigerman wrote: “The original competition occurred at a time that was near the end of one era and the beginning of another. This exhibition takes place during a time of revisionism in which modernism is being safely relegated to its place in history.”
The entries were a riotous postmodern hotch-potch of reference and collage. The designers sampled promiscuously from different periods and used their proposals as vehicles for critical commentary. Gaetano Pesce
The curators wanted to give a younger generation the chance to make a statement about building tall
proposed a building as a fractured portrait of the newspaper, embodying “violence, liberty, politics and technology” in its sculpted facade. Helmut Jahn exploited the available air rights above the existing tower, building a mirror-glass doppelganger of the Tribune building on top of its gothic crown. Ando proposed a characteristically mute grid, while Gehry submitted a mad sketch of a tower topped with an eagle, from whose wings visitors could dangle in an aerial fairground ride. Just as the 19 1922 competition revealed a new generatio ation of modernists, the 1980 version cele celebrated the return of historyh and ornament, t the “complexity and co contradiction” called for by Robert Venturi. “Our own gene generation has gained new vitality,” wrote Tigerman, “through its desire to find formal meaning in our cultural origins now that the barrenness of modernism is behind us.” So what will the 2017 edition tell us about the state of contemporary architecture? Limiting the selection to 15 architects, all from a similar-ish school of thought, is unlikely to give the full picture. Rather than taking the temperature of global practice, the curators wanted to give a younger generation the chance to make a statement about building tall. There are no obvious big names – no globular “parametric” stalagmites from Zaha Hadid Architects, no Lego ziggurats from Bjarke Ingels, no obelisks from Peter Zumthor, no white pillars from Sanaa. Instead, there will be thoughtful, critical reflections on the Tribune competition, exhibited as an immersive grove of 3m-high models.
London architect Sam Jacob continues the witty strain of the 1980 competition. Referring to the archaeological fragments embedded in the facade of the existing tower, his proposal has an octagonal cupola perched on arched colonnades that rest on modernist grids. With this playful layer-cake, Jacob is reflecting on how “architecture is not something that we create but something that already exists, just waiting for us to discover it”.
Swiss practice Christ & Gantenbein have gone down the ready-made route too, recreating an automated concrete garage tower built in São Paulo in 1964, as a celebration of “the pristine architecture of pure tectonics”.
Others have rather lazily recycled previous projects, with Mexico’s Productora stacking one of their framed proposals on top of another, and France’s Éric Lapierre scaling up a faceted column from a student housing block he’s built in Paris. 6a Architects follow a similar path, but with a more elaborate narrative, asking a number of American woodturners to lathe sections of their tower according to profiles taken from their London gallery, whose Georgian interior was, for a while, on display in the Art Institute of Chicago.
The models will make for a series of diverting art pieces, but there seems to be too much interest in concocting a clever story and little attention given to actually designing a high-rise media headquarters for the 21st century.
Some entries touch on the changing media landscape, but don’t take it very far. Serie propose a vertiginous stack of pavilions, like nested coffee tables, conceived as a landscape of “theatres, meeting zones, restful landscapes and hedonistic gardens: the true productive spaces for today’s media workers”. African architect Francis Kere imagines a mixed-use neighbourhood, with housing, work space and cultural facilities arranged around voids in a tower of cylinders. Mexico’s Tatiana Bilbao imagines a “vertical community” of 192 plots, given to a range of collaborators.
Visitors expecting a cross section of contemporary practice will be disappointed. But you only have to visit Manhattan to find Bob Stern building classical stone skyscrapers next to Herzog and de Meuron’s staggered glass Jenga tower. When every kind of high-rise imaginable is already being built, from Stefano Boeri’s vertical forests to Calatrava’s kilometre-high spider’s web in Dubai, it seems many of the young practices here would rather retreat into commentary and critique than add to the melee.
The exhibition comes at a poignant moment for the Tribune itself. The newspaper is moving out of its iconic HQ after it was sold to a developer, which plans to convert it into luxury apartments and a hotel: neither newspapers nor architects have the power they once had.
Vertical City is at Chicago Cultural Center as part of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial until 7 January. chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org.
The Tribune Tower in Chicago city centre, top; Sam Jacob’s ‘playful layer cake’ and, below, Serie’s vertiginous stack of zones and gardens for this year’s contest