Carl Sandburg got it right when he penned these words about an earlier Chicago building boom: "Put the city up / tear the city down / put it up again / let us find a city."
Chicago is again re-inventing itself, and the view is mesmerizing, terrifying, a real-life, high-stakes Legoland. Passersby press up against a chain-link fence on Wabash Avenue and stare into a great pit out of which Donald Trump's 92-story hotel-condo tower will soon soar -- for better or, perhaps, for worse.
Forget the theater district. Trump's riverfront site offers one of the best shows in town, and it's free. But for my money, the show is equally captivating for what it reveals around the construction site: views of skyscrapers that we, the pedestrians on the sidewalk, have never seen before.
Take the vista you get from just north of the Trump hole, at the corner of Wabash and Hubbard Street. Before, you saw the bargelike Chicago Sun-Times Building, which was torn down to make way for Trump's tower. Now you can look clear across the Chicago River, where the old Jewelers Building at 35 E. Wacker Drive seems to have appeared by magic. It's all Roaring '20s exuberance, with its domed top and corner tempietti.
Or gaze westward from the Michigan Avenue Bridge, where Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's One IBM Plaza rises in solitary splendor, a regal slab of exquisitely proportioned steel and glass. With the Sun-Times Building no longer masking its lower floors, you can see it from head to toe, and the view is at once spectacular and supremely understated: nearly 700 feet of modernist minimalism and black-tie elegance.
One IBM Plaza, which was Mies' last American building, has been there since 1971. But a lot of us, I suspect, feel as if we're looking at it for the first time. The view of it from the Michigan Avenue Bridge, of course, is temporary, as is the stunning, down-the-alley view of the river you get from the building's glassy, ground-floor lobby.
But that's the nature of the vistas opened by construction sites: They appear. They disappear. Catch them while you can.
Such was the fleeting pleasure many of us experienced three years ago after construction workers tore out Soldier Field's old seating bowl and demolished the old Chicago Park District headquarters, which filled in the open north end of the U-shaped stadium.
With the headquarters out of the picture, you could suddenly experience a view the building had obscured for decades: The elongated classical facade of the Field Museum, framed perfectly by the stadium's flanks. It had all the grandeur of the palace of Versailles. That sight is gone now, although, as if to compensate, the seating bowl of the renovated stadium cracks open to reveal the spike-topped Two Prudential Plaza and other peaks of the downtown mountain range. Not all temporary views disappear, of course, Sometimes, they go on and on, like the Energizer Bunny. One example: Block 37, the in-famously vacant lot bounded by State, Dearborn, Randolph and Washington Streets. To call it a construction site would be an exercise in civic boosterism. It has sat embarrassingly empty since it was cleared in 1990 for a Helmut Jahn-designed commercial-retail complex, which never materialized.
Think about it: That's 15 years of temporary.
Fifteen years of seeing a single structure, the Art Deco Com Ed substation, on a block that once had five tall buildings and pulsed with theaters, restaurants and the food emporium called Stop & Shop. Fifteen years of having no building acts like a wall that frames the eastern edge of Daley Plaza's "outdoor room."
Today, as the city pushes a fine new plan for Block 37 by Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will for offices, shops and condos, the block seems eerie, provisional, weirdly temporary compared with the illusion of permanence conjured by such mighty neighbors as the City Hall-County Building, with its colossal columns,
Yet there are those who see beauty in this surreal openness, such as Devyn Caldwell, who lives in an apartment across Washington Street from the block.
He regularly takes pictures of the block and posts them on his blog, www.iconeon.blogspot.com. A recent shot showed a nighttime view -- State Street ablaze with light, the Marshall Field's State Street store all lit up. Caldwell will miss views like that if Block 37 finally gets developed. But he's pragmatic about it: He figures the new buildings will be good for property values.
Some designers would rather cherished views not disappear, and they have the power -- or, at least, the creativity -- to do something about it.
Consider what architects Jim DeStefano and Rick Keating did at the under construction One South Dearborn office tower: Instead of bringing the 40-story high-rise out to the sidewalk, they moved it back from the street, behind a plaza. In the process, they created (and preserved) a new, southward view of the Inland Steel Building, an icon of postwar modernism designed by their old firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It remains to be seen whether this plaza helps or hurts the urban-ism of Dearborn Street, whose three great plazas -- at the Daley Center, the Federal Center and the Bank One Plaza -- depend upon street-defining buildings to sharpen their identity as open spaces. But with One South Dearborn rapidly taking shape, the architectural effect already is clear.
As you stroll south on Dearborn, Inland Steel comes powerfully into view: not only its structurally expressive office wing, with its projecting columns clad in stainless steel, but also its innovative services tower, which contains elevators and makes possible the building's unobstructed office floors.
The high-rise is thus transformed into a dazzling sculptural object -- every bit the equal of the Jewelers Building and One IBM Plaza, except for one big difference: This delightful piece of urban serendipity won't go away.
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