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

The Guardian - Review - - Arts -

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

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