Thursday, July 28, 2005

All Calatrava - All the Time (My Head Hurts)

The good news is that the Calatrava Spire is getting us almost as much attention -local, national and international - as Millennium Park did last year. The bad news is that its thrust into the "world's tallest" sweepstakes is being hyped with the kind of sloppy inanity usually found in spam emails for penile enlargement. Think I'm kidding? I've just watched a typically breathless ABC World News Tonight piece that included an interview with Calatrava that ran under a supertitle that spelled his last name with a "K."

There's no question that Calatrava's design is a stunning piece of architecture. Like Jean-Paul Viguier's Sofitel Chicago Water Tower Hotel, it reimagines the Chicago-style skyscraper far more potently than those officially "post-modernist" works of the 1980's that failed to conceal the strain of breaking free from the Miesian box. If it survives the triple whammy of a post 9-11 impulse to concede defeat and crawl back into caves, the "history stops with me" dictates of the NIMBY levelers, and, above all, the economics, it will transform the character of Chicago's skyline in a way no building has since Sears Tower was completed three decades ago.

But am I the only one getting a little tired of how stories like this suck up all the oxygen? Not unlike cats, critics and the media are easily mesmerized by bright, shiny objects, and have grown fat and lazy on low-lying fruit. When's the last time you read an architecture story by Blair Kamin that didn't seem like it was inspired by a press release? Not that I claim to be any better. I'm hoping this blog will help expand the range of topics getting coverage.

Calatrava has been quoted to the effect that he "designs for the service of mankind," but in the case of his spire, mankind boils down to a handful of people with millions of dollars to throw around for an in-town apartment. For the rest of us, it'll be look, but don't touch.

There's a lot more to architecture than that, especially in Chicago. Right now, there are two rather wonderful shows: Visionary Chicago Architecture, exiled to the back of the Harris Theater in Millennium Park, and Five Architects, currently at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. They're ripe with fresh ideas. Many are wonderful. Some - especially in the case of Visionary Chicago Architecture- are fairly appalling. For the moment, I'll leave it up to you to decide which are which. Ultimately, however, it's how ideas like these eventually play out, in buildings made by architects with an ongoing commitment to Chicago, that will have far more effect on defining the future of our city's built environment than any vagabound architect, no matter how talented. How great it would be if just a fraction of the ink spent on Chris Carley's mad, twisting dream could be diverted to the kind of stories that don't just fall into your lap.

So to Mr. Calatrava, welcome and bon chance. To the Donald, take a pill. To the press (as I look into mirror) wake up: there's more to architecture than this. . . . and to Chicago's architectural community, help me make this blog a real resource, or tell how I should be doing it better.

5 comments:

bobbi said...

Lynn:
Did anyone notice that our own Helmut Jahn is designing a building in Streeterville that might be a little more contextual and a little less showplace? Let's hear some news on that one and leave the rest to the planning commission. By the way, my brother claims he went to Von Stueben with you. Is he right? Bobbi Pinkert

Lynn Becker said...

The building is 600 North Fairbanks. If you click on the link you can see a couple of renderings. It's definitely a hopeful sign that we're finally getting condo developers committed to superior design.

LEEBEY said...

Helmut's building looks like it will be a solid architectural contribution to the city--and that's no small feat given what's being built these days. But to find these kinds of gems, an architecture critic has to get out of the office, walk the streets, get out in the neighborhoods.

Jake F said...

The implication of Lynn Becker's pooh-poohing Calatrava for saying he "designs for mankind" is that the rich would be the primary beneficiaries of this tower. I disagree. Of course, if the tower is built, we can all (presumably) enjoy the Fordham Spire from dozens of vantage points across the city.

In fact, the public gains much more from the Fordham Spire than prospective buyers. With or without the tower, wealthy people in the real estate market will be buying amazing condos with fabulous views. The addition of the tower generates what an economist might call a positive externality; long after the tower's debt is paid off, it will continue to pay dividends disproportionately to the public at large.

E said...

Helmut's building, at least from those few renderings, does NOT look very interesting. Especially when compared to what he designs for Germany. This is also not as interesting as his fine dorms at IIT. The 600 North Fairbanks project doesn't seem to say much. The curtain wall might be nice, but he can do better than that.