Tag archives for | Chicago

Tag archives for: Chicago

‘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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‘Masterpieces’ on hold, waiting for better times

Hat tip to CNN Living

This article focusses on the job market as well.  Give it a read.

Aqua Building, Chicago, IL.


Some stunning buildings have appeared in American cities the past four years — buildings, like the Aqua skyscraper in Chicago, Illinois, that attest to the creativity of 21st-century architecture.

But there might be fewer of them in the near future, because the recession has forced many architects to tone down their ambition.

“A lot of projects have been delayed, a lot of projects have been scaled back, a lot of projects have been scrapped. … It’s not a time to see a lot of architectural masterpieces being created,” said Kermit Baker, chief economist of the American Institute of Architects.
Baker said the emphasis today is on value.

 “I think most buildings that are being built are very much focused on managing cost,” he said. “So you tend to see less creativity in that environment, less exciting designs, less upscale materials being used in them.”

 At Aqua, the curved terraces vary slightly from floor to floor, giving the 82-story tower a soft, billowy look — as though Chicago’s celebrated winds are ruffling its façade. It’s an award-winning structure that stands out for its innovative design by Studio Gang Architects. But its construction was well under way before the recession.

 Now “we are hearing that there’s more renovation work than construction work — kind of retrofitting existing buildings rather than building new ones,” Baker said.

It’s really difficult … for students coming out of school to find appropriate positions … we’re afraid that we’re going to lose a generation of architects.
–George Miller, president of the American Institute of Architects

It might not be the most stimulating work for innovative minds, but at least it’s work in what industry experts say has become an intensely competitive market. Where there were once two or three firms competing for a small project, now there are 20 or 30 as larger firms move in to take whatever jobs they can get.

The larger firms might “rather do a skyscraper, but if they can get a much smaller job they will, to keep the firm going and to keep people employed,” said Robert Campbell, a free-lance architecture critic for The Boston Globe. “And that drives people out of the field at the bottom who would otherwise have been getting those small jobs.”

Many firms have had to lay off employees to stay afloat. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employed architects have dropped from an average of 233,000 in the first quarter of 2008 to 217,000 in the first quarter of 2009 and 198,000 in the first quarter of 2010.

George Miller, the president of the AIA and a partner at world-renowned architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, worries about the long-term effects this job shortage will have on the industry.

“It’s really difficult, of course in these last several years, for students coming out of school to find appropriate positions in the field,” he said. “That really concerns all of us because we’re afraid that we’re going to lose a generation of architects.

… There are going to be fewer of us around to do the work that really needs to be done in the future.”

What will be the architectural work of the future? Miller says it will likely be energy-efficient design and a renewed focus on infrastructure, especially in urban areas.

“We’re going to be considering not only the individual building solution, but also the way in which our buildings fit in neighborhoods and communities and regions,” he said. “We really have to have a plan now that considers the infrastructure of our communities. … I think if we’re smarter in terms of designing our urban centers, we’ll be more efficient in terms of the utilization of our natural and physical resources.”

Experts agree that architecture is a cyclical industry and that the market will eventually rebound. The question is when.

“It’s always been highs and lows, highs and lows,” said Campbell, who is also a registered architect. “I remember in 1975 I was working for a prominent firm in Harvard Square, and we dropped from 68 [employees] to 20. And that was the oil embargo, ’74, and that led to an extremely steep recession but a short one — not like this one that’s lasted so long.”

Some architects think recovery might be around the corner.

“We are seeing the private sector picking up,” said Thomas Fridstein, head of global architecture for AECOM, a provider of technical and management support services. “I feel like we’ve been through the worst, we’ve sort of hit the trough of the recession and things are on the upturn. We’ve had some major commercial clients contacting us about projects potentially starting up again, so that’s a very positive sign.”

It’s a positive sign for the nation, too, because busy architects are a bellwether of economic stability.

“If you don’t design it, you can’t build it,” Baker said. “So [architects] are really the first step in the process toward seeing a recovery.”

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Mies won’t shed a tear

This is a Mies van der Rohe building…?  It is.  Located in Chicago at the corner of 35th and Federal Streets, not far from several of his famous steel and glass skyscrapers…

The Test Cell

The Test Cell

Take a last look.  The building nicknamed the Test Cell for its World War II usage as a test site for explosives is slated for demolition.  In it’s place, a new Metra Station.  Read more.

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