spring studio–chicago skyscraper

IMG_5856The curricular gods aligned this year to give me a fifth year option studio to teach, and I couldn’t resist proposing a high rise in Chicago as the subject.

When I started teaching in 2000, I proposed doing a longspan and a high rise studio more or less back to back, to make a point about the role of technology in design.  The idea was inspired by Myron Goldsmith’s dictum that the greater the structural challenge, the more nearly architectural form would assume purer structural shapes.  Super long span?  Something’s going to end up looking like a funicular, or a space frame.  Super high rise?  The building will eventually look like a giant wind-resisting cantilever (see Khalifa, Burj).

The longspan studio was a happy reminder that architects will still find a way to do some precocious formal innovation, even faced with a 300-foot span.  And our department’s commitment to comprehensive design, coupled with new initiatives on competition studios, put the high rise studio off again and again.


So the first chance I’ve had in a couple of years to propose a pure option studio, we’re doing it.  The program is for a million square feet, on the site of the old Morton Salt building on Wacker Drive between Washington and Randolph (I’ve stolen the site from Larry Booth, who did a similar project for his Northwestern architecture program in 2011).  I’m holding students to the byzantine FAR rules for downtown–setback calculations, outdoor plazas, etc.  But mostly I’m enjoying the process.  We have a mixed studio of architects, interior designers, landscape architects, and a brave community and regional planner, so the ideas and discussions come from every conceivable direction.  Yesterday’s pinup included one structural scheme getting hammered because the column grid wouldn’t jibe with a reasonable cubicle layout.  Form follows Steelcase?  Yes, absolutely in this environment.

And rightly so.  Part of the whole point is that the commercial office building is basically the resultant of a dozen or so major economic, political, and technical vectors.  The finances squeeze every square inch out of a floor plate (and core), the city’s civic desires mold the building’s form, especially at street level and near the top, and structural and environmental needs do most of the rest of the work.  There’s a definite sense of enlightened problem solving going on, here, alongside the realization that  ornament is what you do when the problem is more or less solved, and you’re not yet happy with the results.

Some loyal readers will be pleased to know that we’ve added a ground floor program that splits the footprint between a greengrocer (badly needed in this part of town) and new facilities for the Chicago Architecture Foundation.  In addition to gallery space and a slightly larger lecture hall, the riverfront site suggests that the River Tour could have a new home, integrated with the rest of the Foundation’s activities.

We head east this week for a site visit, a hike around the Loop looking at precedents, and a handful of firm visits with ISU alums and former colleagues of mine to see some current skyscraper design work and to do some socio-cultural research…

2 thoughts on “spring studio–chicago skyscraper

  1. Sounds fun and very ineteresting. I remember our apt highrise project in 3rd year. though not nearly as compelling or guided. Ideas of Hugh Farris, Walter Gropius and Phillip Johnson come to mind. I’ll be interested to see how the various building components and systems are handled. In highrises it is harder to not let pure function guide every decision because of such a need for effiency of materials and money, but first I think that having some strong/simple artistic guidelines push how solutions are found. It is critical to keep the detailing and orinmentation from having just an applied feeling. I think Chicago has always viewed their buildings to be art just as much as they are structures, much more than most other cities.

    Also another thought that few tackle is the 100 year reflection. Which I think is very important. With these large buildings as they are very likely to last such a long time. So much like we look back at the buildings from the back at the turn of last century (which Chicago has a few) How will the students designs inspire future designers? How do their designs capture the current day social/polical realms? What impressions do they want to leave?

    Again very cool! and excitied to see the whirlwind of ideas. keep us posted


  2. Good to hear from you, Jason. You’re right about avoiding the applied nature of ornament…Tom Beeby has a great essay (from maybe 30 years ago) where he talks about ornament being what’s often called “detailing” today, and that’s how I’m hoping this goes.

    Also appreciate your thought about the 100 year reflection…one response, of course, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. What’s going to change to make the buildings we do today obsolescent? No idea, and no real way of knowing what decisions you make now will doom the building in a generation. But thinking about those four (or seven!) generations ahead is sorely lacking, not just among architects, but more critically among developers and–sometimes–cities.


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