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Do you think glass box skyscrapers are the devil's spawn? Do you just want to drive a stake through their Miesian heart? Well, you may be in luck. A new report from ‘green’ consultants Terrapin Bright Green proposes demolishing and replacing pretty much every Manhattan skyscrapers erected from 1958 to 1973. (Maybe keep a couple like Seagram and Lever House as souvenirs, charms on a cheap bracelet.) Terrapin says all those modernist towers constitute a lost generation, too energy inefficient to ever be made environmentally responsible. And it must be true because they're not only ‘Green’ but ‘ Bright Green’. They say you can replace all those buildings with 44% more square footage and expend 5% less energy. Developers - not to mention architects contemplating those juicy replacement projects - are salivating. And all that embedded energy that would be lost in the carnage? Fuggaedaboutit! It'll be recovered by the replacement buildings in just a decade-and-a-half. Or maybe three. Just in time for a new generation of hucksters to discover how all those structures the Terrapin report is shilling for harbor defects so offensive to public morals that they, too, must be consigned to the chopping block.
Given how Chicago seems increasingly to judge itself on how close we ape New York (see streets turned into canyons and forward-facing subway seats), is it only a matter of time before we can rid ourselves of all of our own Miesian towers? Illinois Center? Equitable and Metcalfe? The Daley and Federal Centers? Dump 'em all in the lake and let 'em sink like Crown Hall in Stanley Tigerman's The Titanic.
Only don't expect the IBM, the Mies van der Rohe skyscraper now known by its address, 330 North Wabash, to be anywhere near the beginning of the line. Not only, as we wrote previously, is it much more energy efficient by virtue of being one of the first curtain wall designs in Chicago to include a thermal break, the building is adapting to its times in ways previously unimagined. Conceived as an office building, a large chunk of floors are in the finishing stages of conversion into the Langham Chicago hotel, set to open in July. (More in Part Two)
The story of the IBM is a case study of how the confluence of design, technology and real estate create a great skyscraper, and how it is used, abused and adapted it over time.
In the 1950's, no corporation said ‘modern’ more than IBM. Making its Chicago home a 1913 building at 618 South Michigan, it replaced the Burnhamesque classical facade with a flashy glass curtain wall. By the mid-60s, in the throes of explosive growth, IBM was looking both for more space and to make a architectural statement.
Chicago River. It then hired the most famous architect in Chicago, Mies van der Rohe, for what would be his last skyscraper design. When the 80-year-old Mies was taken to the location in his wheelchair, he gazed down at what was originally a crowded railyard and then an abject surface parking lot, and was said to have remarked “Where's the site?”
The challenges were many. The site was pinched in at the center by the angled right-of-way of Wabash Avenue. The IBM property had been acquired from Field Enterprises, then the owners of the Chicago Sun-Times, which in 1957 had opened a new headquarters building, designed by Naess and Murphy, just across the street. As part of the sale, the Sun-Times retained the right to use below-grade space on the southward portion of the IBM site as a storage facility for huge spindles of newsprint, making it impossible to address the river in any meaningful way. The new building would also have to be constructed so as to not disturb the below-grade train tracks that brought in the newsprint.
|photograph: The Chuckman Collection
The story that the IBM was deliberately placed to block views of non-Miesian round towers of Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City from Michigan Avenue was countered by project director Bruno Conterato, who said the IBM's placement was designed to relate both to Marina City and the Sun-Times Building. “By going well back on the site,” he told Inland Architect, “we in effect set up a line of three towers, since the Marina Towers are canted on their site, with the east structure farther north than the west one.”
As in other Mies skyscrapers, the effect of that open, clear lobby is to ‘dematerialize’ the building. The curtain wall stops at the lobby's ceiling. The outer columns descend to the ground, forming an open arcade around the recessed, glass-enclosed lobby. At night, the dark tower seems to float above a pillow of light.
|Left: Federal Center; Right: IBM Building
NEXT: The IBM Goes from Lost to Soft