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‘Lake Wobegon’ in the sky: Apartment high-rises are above average, but nothing special


Fueled by a growing shortage of apartments and fears that condominiums will lose their value, Chicago’s apartment building boomlet is a welcome shift from the brutal recession years, if only because it will help keep struggling architects off the unemployment rolls. Yet as two new apartment towers reveal, the design consequences of this anticipated construction surge are complex and, in some ways, troubling.

The towers have much in common. Both were designed by the workhorse Chicago firm of Solomon Cordwell Buenz and were financed before the market turmoil of 2008. Both rise just west of the Wells Street elevated train tracks, a placement that makes you wonder whether their residents will ever get a good night’s sleep. And both have names that strive desperately to make them sound hip.

One (left) is called 215 West, which is shorter and snappier than its actual address, 215 W. Washington St. The other, two blocks to the north, is named 200 Squared, reflecting its location in the 200 blocks of North Wells and West Lake Streets but also suggesting (unintentionally, no doubt) that the building is crammed with ex-math majors. Fortunately, the architecture is better than the names, though nothing here is going to turn heads like the boldly undulating balconies of the Aqua hotel and residential tower.

This Lake Wobegon, all-the-buildings-are-above-average quality was predictable. These are apartment buildings, where budgets and architectural ambition tend to be considerably lower than corporate office buildings or condominium towers. If an apartment high-rise turns out not to wreak havoc on the cityscape and to give us some decent design in the bargain, then we have every reason to tolerate it. And that, with some notable exceptions, is what these buildings deliver.

Rising 50 stories and designed by SCB’s Drew Ranieri, 215 West is composed of three distinct parts, each housing a separate function. A ground floor lined with storefronts nicely addresses Washington Street. Above it rises a 600-space parking garage and, above the garage, a thin apartment slab housing 389 apartments. Most skyscrapers save their visual drama for the top. Here, it comes near the bottom.

Due to a difference in the size of their floor plates, the slab’s eastern end cantilevers over the garage by 25 feet. Indeed, the slab would seem to be in danger of falling off the garage were it not for the presence of a big steel truss (above) that reassuringly joins it to the rest of the building. The truss also gestures to the exposed structure of the “L.”‘Lake Wobegon’ in the sky: Apartment high-rises are above average, but nothing special

‘Lake Wobegon’ in the sky: Apartment high-rises are above average, but nothing special

The 42-story 200 Squared (left), designed by SCB’s Jim Curtin, is a more pleasing variation on the three-part theme.

Above its glassy, still-to-be-finished ground floor is a 547-space garage, outfitted on two sides with narrow ribbon windows and handsomely corrugated metal panels. Above the garage rises another thin slab, this one housing 329 apartments. It is noticeably glassier than its counterpart at 215 West because its columns, unlike its barely visible floor slabs, are hidden inside. The slab is divided into four wafer-thin layers, including a hard-edged plane of concrete that confronts the “L.”

Any detailed consideration of these buildings must begin with a glaring contradiction: By virtue of their downtown location, they will encourage people to walk rather than drive. But their parking garages contain far more spaces than their residents will ever need. Their extra, or “non-accessory,” spaces invariably will make it easier for people to drive, limiting or even canceling the buildings’ energy-saving benefits. Memo to City Hall: Stop green-lighting these garages on steroids.

All those extra spaces also make the garages ridiculously tall — 12 stories at 215 West, 10 stories at 200 Squared (left). Thankfully, though, the high-rises don’t give us a repeat of the brute towers plopped atop faceless parking garages that marred River North over the last decade.

Their proportions are pleasingly vertical. Their bottoms and tops subtly interlock. Their slabs, which cover only a portion of their sites, create welcome openings in the Loop’s thicket of high-rises, letting daylight filter down onto the streets below. And their ratio of glass to concrete is high enough, especially at 200 Squared, that the high-rises don’t look like concrete hulks.

Still, these buildings suffer from the blandness bug. The grid patterns of their painted concrete walls, an SCB visual trick that’s become tiresome, lack the rich sense of depth and texture that uplifts the Loop’s office buildings. Even the big move at 215 West, its large steel truss, comes off somewhat feebly, its fire-proofing and light-colored paint making it look indistinguishable from the building’s concrete.

215 West has more serious problems at ground level, notably its failure to strike up a convincing relationship with its richly textured Victorian neighbor to the east, a post-Chicago Fire office building called the Washington Block. The Washington Block, which holds down the corner of Washington and Wells, looks marooned. Its brick side walls are artlessly exposed to the passers-by. It’s as if the architects couldn’t move the building, an official city landmark, so they decided to dwarf it instead.

The worst damage comes along Wells, where an outdoor, curving parking ramp (left) that serves the tower’s garage brings a discordant touch of car-happy Sun Belt cities to the pedestrian precinct of the Loop. The ramp replaces a surface parking lot, meaning that a critical opportunity was lost to flank the Washington Block with a building of complementary scale. The architects have decorated the ramp with perforated metal, but that’s nothing more than perfuming the pig.

The interiors of both buildings are skillfully done and reflect SCB’s decades of experience in this genre. Each has a spacious, tastefully designed two-story lobby. Amenity floors provide indoor exercise areas and access to outdoor decks.

The apartments — $1,350-a-month studios to $5,000 three-bedrooms at 215 West, and $1,450-a-month studios to $2,750 two-bedrooms at 200 Squared — have floor-to-ceiling glass that takes advantage of the surrounding open space. At both buildings, glass is thicker than normal to shush the racket of the “L.”

The architects and the developers — Jupiter Realty Co. and Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers at 215 West, and Midwest Property Group Ltd. at 200 Squared — haven’t produced any masterpieces in these buildings, but they haven’t saddled us with any eyesores either. Let’s hope that they and other design teams learn from the strengths and shortcomings of these apartment buildings and reach higher in the next wave.

Via Chicago Tribune City Scapes

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