Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age by Blair Kamin '79 - An Excerpt


The Donald’s Dud
Trump’s Skyscraper, Shortened by the Post-9/11 Fear of Heights, Reaches Only for Mediocrity
December 19, 2001

It won’t be the world’s tallest building. And it’s no architectural world-beater, either.

Actually, I find it hard to say which is more disappointing about Donald Trump’s plan for a bloated blob of a skyscraper on the prime riverfront site now occupied by the Chicago Sun-Times Building—the mediocrity of the design or the facile, thumbs-up reviews it’s getting from Mayor Richard M. Daley’s top planners.

When Trump and his joint venture partners at the Sun-Times’ parent company, Hollinger International Inc., announced the massive, mixed-use project in the summer of 2001—hinting that it might bring the world’s tallest title back to Chicago—the flamboyant New York developer pledged that he would deliver quality architecture, not his typical brand of glitz. Then he signaled that he would make good on that promise by picking a talented Chicago architect, Adrian Smith of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, whose credits include one of Chicago’s top postmodern skyscrapers, the much-admired NBC Tower.

But Smith’s scheme, shown to city officials last week, fails to live up to the skyline standard set by its neighbors, including the Wrigley Building and the rest of the great ensemble of 1920s skyscrapers that flank the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

This shortcoming is all the more galling because Smith had designed a far superior plan for the Trump skyscraper, a beautifully sculpted, gracefully tapering tower that almost incidentally would have been the world’s tallest. Yet due to concerns that such an iconic presence might become a terrorist target, that design was shelved after September 11 and replaced with the present plan, considerably shorter and squatter.

The discarded plan underscores a stark set of choices facing Trump, who still must sign up office tenants and obtain financing, as well as city officials, who still must grant approval to the developer: Will the highly visible project, known as the Trump Tower Chicago, only be about real estate and private needs, or will it also be about architecture and the quality of the public realm? Will Daley and his aides stand up for good design, or will they give away the store?

The plan now on the table calls for a 78-story, 1,073-foot office and condominium tower that would replace the 7-story Sun-Times Building at 401 North Wabash Avenue. The high-rise reflects potential office tenants’ desire for large floor sizes (up to 45,000 square feet, nearly as big as Sears Tower). It also responds, though not satisfyingly, to the unique geometry of its site, which sits along a bend in the Chicago River.

The glass-sheathed building would not be a square or a rectangle, hemmed in by the Chicago street grid, but a parallelogram whose north and south fronts slice diagonally, following the river’s bend. In addition, the flat-topped tower would step back as it rises, its notches acknowledging the profile of the frilly white Wrigley Building to the east and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Building, an austere black slab, to the west.

There would be five levels of below-street parking as well as ground-floor shops. The high-rise’s major public amenity would be a three-tiered river walk on the building’s south side, with one level outdoors and the other two covered to permit shoreline strolling in bad weather.

Not Doing It with Mirrors

Perhaps because they won small but significant victories on urban design issues like the river walk, city officials had nary a discouraging word for the Trump plan. Indeed the Sun-Times reported City Hall’s reaction to be “a near endorsement.”

“It’s going to be exciting architecture,” gushed Alicia Berg, the city’s planning and development commissioner.

Another City Hall official, who declined to be identified, seemed positively relieved that Trump didn’t want to clad the building in his trademark mirror-glass. “It isn’t the sort of Krystle Carrington, mindlessly glitzy thing,” this official said.

Yet now that the plan has been made public, it’s clear that the key issue is not glitz, but girth. This is an awfully chunky building, and Smith’s decision to make it a parallelogram only adds to its feeling of enormous bulk. The reason: the unconventional shape accentuates the skyscraper’s size because two sides of the tower will come into view from key locations.

Seen from Lake Michigan or the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the building’s eastern and southern fronts (the latter as long as a football field) would appear to be a single, massive wall. The high-rise seems less a skyscraper than a sky-blocker.

To be sure, the tower will appear far trimmer from the north and south when the viewer sees its knife-like corners. But that is simply to acknowledge that this plan works from just about every vantage point except the most important one—the view from the lake and the bridge, which takes in the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, and the two 1920s skyscrapers (333 and 360 North Michigan) south of the bridge. Nearby are such midcentury classics as the IBM Building and the corncob-shaped towers of Marina City.

This is one of Chicago’s greatest urban spaces, and the quality that nearly all of its skyscrapers share is that they are not only tall, but about being tall, with design features that accentuate their verticality and draw the eye upward to focal points like the Wrigley Building’s clock tower or the Tribune Tower’s neo-Gothic crown.

Trump’s tower, by contrast, is a skyline dud, resembling a bunch of boxes piled on top of one another. It is equally unsatisfying when compared with the building that still sets the standard for marking a bend in the river and is Chicago’s finest postmodern high-rise, 333 West Wacker Drive. That 36-story tower, by New York’s Kohn Pedersen Fox, succeeds not only because its curving, green glass wall follows the river’s curve, but also because that arc plays beautifully against a wafer-like, flat-walled backdrop that gives the building a subtle, elegant top. In other words, 333 West Wacker has what Trump’s proposal now conspicuously lacks—exquisite overall geometry and an equally skilled articulation that makes the parts as satisfying as the whole.

The Michigan Avenue Bridge district will be permanently marred if Trump’s behemoth is built as currently designed. So it is baffling to hear city officials saying “hosanna” when they still have the leverage to press the developer and his architect to come up with a better design.

Better Design Is Out There

Actually, that shouldn’t be too hard; a terrific design for this site already exists, as I learned when I saw an architectural model of the pre–September 11 design during an interview in Smith’s office.

That proposal is for a 2,000-foot-tower, including communications antennas, that is shaped like a diamond rather than a parallelogram. It has notches, setbacks, and vertical features that would make it a soaring skyline object worthy of its setting. Even scaled down to the size of the present plan, its trim vertical look would make it a knockout.

It is easy to understand why, with the shock of September 11 still fresh, Trump doesn’t want to build such a tall tower. Clearly the floor plans of this skyscraper, smaller and more irregular than those in the present scheme, would complicate efforts to lease space to commercial tenants. Yet the point isn’t so much the alternative plan as what it stands for: the notion that the skyscraper can, and should, be a thing of breathtaking beauty.

In any tall building, there is a tension between designing from the inside out to snare tenants and designing from the outside in to make the building sympathetic to its surroundings. Yet the best skyscrapers resolve the demands of both art and economics, form and function. It still could happen here, at least if there is the right sort of encouragement from city officials and the right kind of accommodation from a developer who seems eager to shed his image as a prince of glitz.


In 2002, responding to concerns raised by this critique, Smith made public a dramatically revised version of the Trump skyscraper, which achieved a far better balance between form and function. By slicing off the previously pointed ends of the parallelogram-shaped tower, the architect cut the building’s river frontage to 380 feet from 500 feet. In turn, the proposed skyscraper grew to 86 stories, 8 stories taller than in the original plan, and it gained an asymmetrical spire that initially promised to be a strong visual focal point. The Chicago City Council approved the proposal.

In 2004—aided by the wave of publicity from his popular reality TV show, The Apprentice, and its signature line, “You’re fired!”—Trump attracted scores of condominium buyers, so many that the office portion of the project was eliminated and its residential component expanded. Later that year, Trump obtained financing, bought out Hollinger International’s stake in the joint venture, and held a ceremonial demolition of the Sun-Times Building. The Sun-Times, for its part, would relocate to a drab riverfront high-rise at 350 North Orleans Street.

As 2004 came to a close, Trump—who had flown to Chicago to promote his latest venture (Donald Trump, the Fragrance) at the former Marshall Field’s store on State Street—attended a secret meeting with Daley in the mayor’s City Hall office. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, the developer had decided to discard the tower’s spire because he could not sell antenna space. But Daley, who wanted the skyscraper to have an eye-catching top, told Trump to put the spire back. When the Chicago Tribune revealed the meeting, the headline read: “Daley to Trump: ‘You’re Spired!’” The completed skyscraper would open in 2009.