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SKYLINES — Waveland Bowl

August 26, 2010

Waveland and Western, CNS 2010

The Willis Tower

August 25, 2010


CNS 2010

233 S. Wacker Drive

The Willis Tower is always making headlines. For 23 years it held the record for the world’s tallest building, and its height continues to be unparalleled in the Western Hemisphere. The tower was the source of public outrage when there was talk of painting it silver (that’s never going to happen), and again when there was talk of changing its name from the Sears Tower to the Willis Tower (that did happen). Most recently it has become a key subject of Chicago’s effort towards sustainable building practices. Silver? Everyone agrees that it would look best in green.

Completed in 1973 and designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), The Willis Tower stands 1450ft tall (1729ft including antennas) and contains 110 stories. It held the record as the world’s tallest building until the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur were completed in 1997. How did it get to be so tall? For that we can thank SOM engineer Fazlur Kahn. What Kahn developed is called a bundled tube structure. He divided the building into nine separate towers (each 75ft square) making the floor plan look somewhat like a tic-tac-toe board. Bundling or banding these sections together gives the building a great deal of stability. Kahn’s partner in designing the tower was SOM architect Bruce Graham who conceived of the idea to have the towers cut off at varying heights. Two towers terminate on the 50th floor, two more on the 66th, and three remaining towers on the 90th, thus leaving only two towers to rise to the full 110 stories. Supposedly, Graham’s inspiration for the design came from opening a fresh pack of Lucky Strikes cigarettes. Wherever his inspiration came from, the tower’s setbacks serve far more than just an aesthetic purpose.

Most significantly, the setbacks help to dissipate the force of wind – an important quality considering the tower’s tendency to sway back and forth about 6 in. from its center. The other purpose of the setbacks is economical. The Sears Roebuck and Company built the tower with the intention of consolidating all of their seven locations into one central building. The company occupied the lower fifty floors. Sears rented out the more enticing and expensive upper floors to help cover the cost of the $186 million project. The Willis Tower is therefore a perfect example of form following function.

And if all goes as planned it will also be transformed into a leader of sustainable building practices. The tower’s current owners are working with the architectural firm of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill to renovate the Willis Tower into a green building through a variety of measures such as: replacing and glazing the windows to cut down on heating costs, upgrading restroom water fixtures and investing in water efficient landscaping, installing automatic light sensors, and experimenting with wind turbines, solar panels and green roofs. This is a big deal considering the building is big enough to have its own zip code. In sum, the renovation would cut “base building” electricity by 80% which is the equivalent of 68 million kilowatt hours or 150,000 barrels of oil saved per year. Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill have also designed plans for a connected five star hotel that would draw net zero energy from the power grid. If built, the Willis Tower will make headlines yet again.

CNS 2010


To learn more about the history of the Willis Tower or if you are looking for visitor information, visit the Skydeck’s website. And for more detailed information on the greening of the Willis Tower visit Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill’s website. Click here to read Blair Kamin’s biography of Bruce Graham who died earlier this year.

To the left: the focal point of the Willis Tower lobby — Alexander Calder’s mobile, the Universe.

word of the week: TURRET

August 23, 2010

Ransom Cable House

TURRET: a small tower forming a part of a larger structure. Originally turrets were used as parts of military fortifications and palaces for defensive purposes but have since taken on more decorative uses.

St. Joseph's

Compare the classical turret on the Ransom Cable House with the space-age turrets decorating St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Catholic Church. (Note: some argue that turrets can not extend to the ground. This definition would mean that these are towers projecting from the church not turrets).

Uptown Broadway Building

August 18, 2010

CNS 2010

4707 N. Broadway

During the 1920’s Chicago skyscrapers were rising and so were hemlines. Money was flowing, women were voting and everyone was dancing the Charleston. People were showing off and so were buildings. Few buildings exemplify this more than the Uptown Broadway Building.

The Broadway Building was one of many buildings popping up in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in the early twentieth century. The neighborhood was originally a part of the Lake View Township – a quiet suburban community. In 1889 the township was annexed to the city of Chicago (thus increasing the city’s population) in conjunction with our bid for the Worlds Columbian Exposition. Ten years later in the year 1900 the Elevated trains came to Uptown. Over the next two decades Uptown’s population soared. It quickly grew to be the center of the entertainment industry. Charlie Chaplin began his career in Uptown before heading off to sunnier places. The Uptown Theater, the Aragon Ballroom and the Green Mill as well as numerous smaller theaters were all citywide destinations. Uptown was a happening place, and no longer a quiet suburban community.

And so though the Uptown Broadway Building was built to accommodate mostly doctor and dentist offices, it was designed with the same pizzazz as the neighboring vaudeville theaters. It was completed in 1927 and designed by architect Walter W. Ahlschlager. At the time Ahlschlager was a prominent Chicago architect. He designed a number of Chicago’s expansive apartment complexes, and numerous movie theaters in New York, Chicago and the greater Midwest. But he was best known for his towers: the Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago (the one with the gold Moorish dome at its top on Michigan Avenue), and the Carew Tower in Cincinnati. Today Ahlschlager’s name has fallen mostly to obscurity. If however, his Crane Tower – what was to be the tallest building in the world at 1,022ft – had been built on Randolph St. as planned, we’d all be very familiar with the name Ahlschlager today.

CNS 2010

The Uptown Broadway Building was designed in the Spanish Baroque style – a sculptural approach to architecture seen both in the form of a building itself as well as the ornament that covers it. In keeping with the “Roaring Twenties,” the Uptown Broadway’s use of ornament is nothing short of excessive. Musical instruments, military trophies, ram heads, cartouches, urns, and cornucopias decorate the building. Every inch of the façade is made of terra-cotta. It was built during the height of the terra-cotta industry. And with three of the largest terra-cotta companies located in Chicago, it was cheap and easy to completely cover a building in the easily molded material.

CNS 2010

That is what we know about the Uptown Broadway Building, but what is often more fun to think about is what we don’t know. Rumors have been floating around for years that Al Capone was involved in building the Uptown Broadway and ran a speakeasy out of the basement. Though the existence of a speakeasy hasn’t been proven, the building’s basement is connected to a tunnel system that Al Capone utilized when he needed a quick escape. And that’s a fact.


Interested in taking a virtual tour of the Uptown Broadway Building? Explore the building through the realtor’s website. The Uptown Broadway recently went through an impressive interior renovation and exterior restoration at the hands of the architectural firm, Space Architects + Planners. And if you’re interested in learning more about Mr. Ahlschlager, here is an impressive insert all about his work in 1921 issue of the American Builder Magazine.

word of the week: EAVES

August 15, 2010

EAVES: The overhanging lower edge of a roof.

Compare the prominent eaves of George W. Maher’s home at 2701  W. Logan Blvd with the immensely wide eaves on Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Notice how the Modern Wing’s eaves look as if they are floating above the building as if weightless, while the Maher home’s eaves look solid and heavy.

photo courtesy of Michelle Litvin, New York Times

The Medinah Temple

August 11, 2010

CNS 2010

600 N. Wabash Ave.

Buildings are Chicago’s greatest storytellers. They characterize the times they were built and the people who built them. Some buildings have a more obvious a story to tell than others. With its exotic onion domes and Islamic detailing, the Medinah Temple is one of those buildings.

It looks like an Islamic mosque. It has horseshoe shaped arches, geometric decoration, ornamental grills and onion domes – all typical of Islamic architecture. Bordering the front entrance are the repeated words “There is no God but Allah” written in traditional Arabic script. It’s far from a mosque though. Today it’s a Bloomingdales. And it was built in 1913 to be the meeting place and convention center for the fraternal social club — the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S), otherwise known as the Shriners. The club, established in New York City in 1872, evolved from the centuries old British “Freemasonry” stonemason’s guild. The Shriners saw themselves as embodying the serious nature of Freemasonry while also incorporating lighthearted rituals and entertainment. At the time Westerners romanticized the Middle East as a mystical place where men were indulgent and unencumbered by responsibilities. Naturally the Shriners chose to adopt Islamic styles and symbols as their own as seen in the group’s architecture and rituals. You’ve probably seen Shriners before – they’re the men donning red fezzes atop their heads.

CNS 2010

By the early 20th century Chicago’s membership of Shriners had swelled to large numbers necessitating a new building. They enlisted two architects from their membership in designing the temple: Harris Huehl (who served one term as a Shriner potentate or president) and his partner Richard Gustave Schmid. Schmid was a native of Chicago, who studied at MIT and previously worked under such nationally recognized architects as Henry Hobson Richardson and Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. Together they designed what quickly became known as one of the grandest Shrine temples in the country. It took up half a city block and contained an auditorium that sat 4,200 people and a banquet hall with room enough for 2,300. Apparently one of the architects traveled to the Middle East for inspiration after receiving the commission. It shows. They designed what remains as one of the country’s best examples of Islamic Revival architecture.

Though the Medinah Temple was the home to a private and exclusive organization, many of the events they hosted were open to Shriners’ families, and sometimes the greater public. The temple had some of the city’s best acoustics and most impressive organs. This facilitated a lasting relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who recorded over 100 performances at the temple over a fifteen-year period. It was also famous across Chicago for its long running annual Medinah Shrine Circus. The proceeds from all such benefits went to the Shriners’ many philanthropic causes.

The Medinah Temple has changed a lot over the years. The original balconies, sloping floor, chandelier and organ are gone (and those onion domes are not original – they’ve come and gone a couple of times). Today the Medinah Temple is the Bloomingdale’s Home Furnishing Store. Instead of being populated by fez-clad men and the occasional circus elephant, it’s full of bedding, crystal, and china. Reminders of the Shriners are everywhere though. The stained glass windows remain as does the domed ceiling and outline of a stage. The biggest change to the temple is less of what is found inside and more of what’s going on outside its doors. The temple now sits in the shadow of countless flashy condo towers. It seems doubtful that any of its new neighbors will ever develop half the story that the Medinah Temple is still writing.

CNS 2010


Interested in learning more about the Shriners? Explore the Medinah Shriner’s website here. The building is currently owned by Friedman Properties, and they have some information on their adaptive re-use of the building on their  website. The 2003 renovation of the Medinah Temple into Bloomingdales was designed by architects Dan Coffey and James Harb.

And last but not least, here is a comprehensive collection of historic photographs of the Medinah Temple.

word of the week: ORIEL WINDOW

August 8, 2010

Oriel Window, Nickerson Mansion

ORIEL WINDOW: a bay window that protrudes from the main wall of a building but does not extend to the ground. Oriel windows are frequently supported by corbels or brackets.

Old Colony Building

Compare the small oriel window of the Nickerson mansion with the large multi-story oriel windows on the Old Colony building. The Old Colony  is the only building remaining in the loop with oriel windows at its four corners.

Click on the photos to ENLARGE them!

Chinatown Square

August 3, 2010

CNS 2010

Chinatown, between Wentworth and Archer Ave. and the Chicago River

From its beginnings till today, Chicago’s Chinatown has been evolving to keep up with changing times and needs. By the 1980’s overpopulation was the community’s major dilemma. The construction of the Dan Ryan and Stevenson Expressways prevented growth in the area and caused many young residents to flee to the suburbs – threatening the community’s vitality. Chinatown was overpopulated. And still more Chinese were expected to immigrate to Chinatown in the coming years. In 1984 the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed decreeing that Hong Kong would pass from British to Chinese control in 1997. This agreement was met with mixed emotions in Hong Kong causing many to make plans to move. Chinatown needed room to grow – it needed Chinatown Square.

When the Santa Fe Railroad abandoned their yards adjacent to Chinatown (north of Archer Avenue), the Chinese-American community seized their opportunity. In 1984 the Chinese American Development Corporation (CADC) was formed to organize the purchase of the property. After a few setbacks, in 1988 they finally succeeded in acquiring the 32 acres of land at a cost of nine million dollars. Chinatown Square, a mixed-used development, was planned offering both commercial and residential units.

The first design by architect Y.C. Wong was rejected for being too modern. Instead one of Chicago’s greatest architects, and certainly its greatest city planner (at the time) – Harry Weese – was chosen to take on the project. Weese, who was famous for his design of the Washington D.C. Metro system, as well as numerous buildings in Chicago, had just returned from a trip to China when he was awarded the job. He was chosen due to his enthusiasm for the project and sensitivity to China’s architectural history.

Notice the similarities between Chinatown Square (above) & the Beijing Summer Palace

Beijing Summer Palace

Completed in 1993, Chinatown Square is a two-story 175,000 sq. ft. open-air mall containing retail shops, restaurants and other businesses (condos were also built which are found hiding behind the mall). The focal point and entrance of the complex is a central courtyard where celebrations and festivals are routinely held. Around the courtyard are twelve bronze sculptures of the zodiac from Xiamen, China, and two fifty ft. tall modern adaptations of the pagoda. On either side of the courtyard are long, tree-lined, bi-level retail corridors. It is a remarkably pleasant escape from the hubbub of Chicago. Elements of the design recall the Summer Palace in Beijing, especially seen in the geometric-shaped windows and red iron railings (see above).

Chinese food isn't the only cuisine found in Chinatown Square. There's sushi too. (CNS 2010)

In discussing Chinatown Square one of Weese’s designers commented, “This is Chinatown, not China. It’s a project of cross-cultural examination.” And so it is. Though it has some distinct Chinese references, it is a cosmopolitan center. Weese’s design of Chinatown Square bridges traditional Chinese architecture into a modern American city – a comfortable setting for a Chinese-American community.


Chinatown is always a fun place to visit. For information on upcoming events and places of interest check out Chinatown’s Chamber of Commerce website. Hungry? For a fun-filled guide detailing everything you’d ever want to know about the neighborhood, including where to eat, read Timeout Chicago’s Chinatown: Insiders Guide. And for more information on architect Harry Weese, read this short biography recently published in Chicago Magazine.

word of the week: CAISSON

August 2, 2010

The first of the Chicago Spire's Caissons

CAISSON: A watertight enclosure that extends from the base of a building to hardpan or rock below, inside of which construction work is carried out underwater or in marshy soil. Caissons are driven down to solid earth and then emptied of their contents, thus creating a dry space for working. Next concrete is poured into the empty tubes to create a foundation. Caissons can be critical in supporting heavy structures, especially in sludgy soil.

Look at the picture above of one of the Chicago Spire’s caissons running deep down through Chicago’s marshy soil. The Chicago Spire, designed by Santiago Calatrava, was intended to be the tallest building in the country. Due to the suffering economy, the building was never completed. Instead of being Chicago’s tallest building it’s our largest hole. Only the foundation was ever finished — supported by a number of caissons.

To the right see a picture of a caisson drilled into the earth prior to being filled with concrete.

Click on the images to ENLARGE them!

The Pritzker Pavilion

July 28, 2010

CNS 2010

55 North Michigan Avenue

What better way to design a music pavilion than to make it look like an explosion of sound waves? And who better to design an explosion of sound waves than Frank Gehry? Erupting with movement, his Pritzker Pavilion – the focal point of Millennium Park – is frozen music.

Ribbons of stainless steel burst outward from the band shell curling in every direction. The structure appears to be magnetized and charged with energy as its arms reach out welcoming the public into its arena. Whereas the skyscrapers framing the pavilion look private and inaccessible, the Pritzker Pavilion is entirely open – a reflection of its role as a public venue offering free daily summer concerts.

The pavilion is grand. Its stage has room enough for a full size orchestra and a 150-person chorus. Including the lawn, it accommodates 11,000 people. The lawn itself is the length of two football fields. Enveloping the lawn is a woven trellis of steel pipes supporting a network of lights and 200 speakers. Originally speakers were going to be mounted on a series of poles as is typical of most outdoor music venues. Gehry shot this idea down in favor of his trellis saying, “You would have had a yard full of vertical poles with speakers on them like lollipops, and that would have been kind of cheesy looking.” Luckily Gehry’s trellis idea prevailed and the 7,000 people who frequently picnic on the lawn have unimpeded sight lines as they enjoy a state of the art sound system.

CNS 2010

It uses a distributed sound reinforcement technique that allows musicians to easily hear one another as they perform. The reinforcement speakers time the relaying of sound so that what the audience hears from the speakers is in sync with what they hear coming from the stage.

Neither the trellis nor the band shell would be possible without the help of computers. And Gehry, who was 75 at the time of the Pritzker Pavilion’s completion in 2004, has professed that he will never touch a computer himself. Luckily he has a large team of architects working for him who will. They use the CATIA (Computer Assisted Three Dimensional Interactive Application) software program. Gehry’s designs are made up of thousands of uniquely shaped parts that would be impossible to fit together correctly without the use of this software. It works by waving a computer wand over a physical model. It converts the design into a graphic engineering grid on the computer that is then sent to the structural engineers to make sense of.

CNS 2010

Frank Gehry is a true starchitect – a title he is not fond of holding. The winner of the most prestigious prize in architecture – the Pritzker Prize – he is famous for his abstract undulating designs such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A . . . and today the Pritzker Pavilion. Gehry has called Chicago “the greatest city in the world as far as contemporary architecture [is concerned].” And what might be Chicago’s premier example of contemporary architecture? That would have to be the Pritzker Pavilion.


Millennium Park is the cultural epicenter of Chicago and it all only starts with the Pritzker Pavilion. It’s also home to Anish Kapoor’s iconic Cloudgate sculpture or the “bean,” Crown Fountain, and the Lurie Garden among other attractions. It’s a place worth exploring. Here’s their website complete with information on their never-ending list of events. And here’s the link to the Gehry Partners website.

SKYLINES — Ribbon Candy

July 23, 2010

Pritzker Pavilion, CNS 2010


July 21, 2010

photo courtesy of Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing

225 N. Columbus Dr.

Aqua is a topographical map of a city far hillier than Chicago. It’s the rippling waves of nearby Lake Michigan. It’s a landscape of undulating sand dunes and it is folds of fabric blowing in the wind. Whatever Aqua is to you, it’s more than just another skyscraper dotting Chicago’s skyline to any of us.

But what is Aqua to its now famous architect, Jeanne Gang? She says that her inspiration for the tower came from the layered topography of limestone outcroppings along the Great Lakes. Jeanne Gang is the principal architect and founder of the firm Studio Gang which has recently become the subject of great international acclaim. Headlining all of the papers is the fact that at 82 stories Aqua is the tallest building in the world designed by a female-owned architecture firm. Though this may be true, Aqua’s stardom really has little to do with the sex of its designer. Its design is innovative both visually and conceptually.

Aqua is in keeping with the trend of many contemporary buildings in its existence being dependent on modern computer technology. The balconies forming the building’s wave-like contours were made possible through the use of a surveying tripod with a built-in computer. This device allowed the contractors to bend the supporting steel shell to the exact specifications of Gang’s design. But the form of many other new similarly computer-dependent buildings lack in purpose. Form is all too often seen separate from function. However the function of Aqua’s curves is twofold. The irregular placement of balconies provides shade for the building’s occupants and helps in cooling the interiors. And the building’s contours effectively break-up and dissipate the wind – wind being a key problem in skyscraper design. Gang’s contours so successfully solve the worrisome wind problem that Aqua lacks a costly device typically found at the top of most skyscrapers: a “tuned mass damper” or a weight of hundreds of tons that stabilizes a building from the force of wind. How was it that Gang came up with such an ingenious solution to an ever-present obstacle? A problem-solver at heart, Gang’s original career plan was to be an engineer.

CNS 2010

But in actuality she’s an architect with a keen understanding of design. The plasticity of Aqua’s façade with its hills and valleys makes Gang’s sensitivity to design obvious. Every bulge was carefully considered. Gang’s team conducted multiple studies of the building’s site lines using both physical and computer models. That’s why regardless of where you may be approaching Aqua from, it always looks good.


Completed in 2009, Aqua is a mixed-use building containing commercial spaces, a hotel, apartments and condos. Have a look inside by visiting their website. And to see all of the other projects Studio Gang is working on across the globe here’s their website.

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