This is the first post of seven, each a response to Kate Shrewsday’s request for an itinerary of MTM’s Seven Architectural Wonders. Each text post has a corollary visual post; the text and image posts will alternate between the blogs of Kate Shrewsday and the Andra Watkins. So for today’s post click over to Andra’s for the photographs: here.
Since I am no longer a paid pedant, I will try to make these as entertaining and enlightening as possible in 600 words or less. One ground rule: I cannot include a work of architecture I have not experienced directly and personally, just as one’s list of Great Books should not include a book one hasn’t yet read.
To build tall has always been an act of aspiration and of defiance. Even for the Ancients, to vanquish gravity and reach for the heavens was an irresistible impulse. The first Wonder of the Ancient World documented by Kate Shrewsday was so dubbed mainly by virtue of its height.
It is appropriate then for a skyscraper to fill this first slot in MTM’s Seven Architectural Wonders.
I was born a Badger, but burrowing was never a fit for me. Though my professional education began in my home state of Wisconsin, it was Chicago that provided my architectural baptism. Chicago was America’s incubator for Modernism, a vibrant laboratory of aesthetic asceticism and structural innovation.
Ironic that this flattest of cities is the birthplace of the skyscraper. In the absence of topography, ego and economic value became the magma that thrust Chicago’s epidermis upwards. Beginning in the 1880’s various architectural landmarks leapfrogged each other as Chicago and New York built New World skylines that flipped off Old World cityscapes, just as today the countries of The East compete to eclipse American exceptionalism.
Being the tallest is too fluid a metric for representing the wonder that is the modern skyscraper. Being anointed the No. 1 Tinkle Spot by The Accidental Cootchie Mama–while significant–cannot be enough either, but it does help frame the argument.
The John Hancock Center in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
It has never been the tallest building in the world, and it has slowly descended down the list of superlatives, although it remains in the top five–if one is inclined to include the twin antennas that sit atop it.
What makes the Hancock my choice is not how tall it is, but how it is tall.
The Hancock holds no envy of its superiors; it has the purest expression of the soaring muscularity necessary to resist crashing back to the earth at the acceleration of 32 feet per second per second. A simple tapering obelisk, it builds upon a proud tradition, from Luxor to Rome to Washington, DC. And where its historic predecessors were often carved with hieroglyphs, the Hancock is striated with the structural X-bracing that helps it resist the battering of this Windy City. A siren in steel fishnet stockings.
Its elegance is its directness, brutish in Carl Sandburg’s City of Big Shoulders.
Its profile on the skyline is commanding and distinct. Approaching its base, the overwhelming scale is somehow comforting; anything more effete would be unctuous. Its tapered form accentuates stereoptic distortion, thrusting towards infinity.
Spiraling upwards as one’s eye follows a diagonal filament, a babble of urban activity takes shape in 100 stories….shopping, parking garage, offices, condos, bar, restaurant and observation deck: A building and a vertical city.
Ascend to its alcoholic aerie, The Signature Lounge at the 96th. Here at this pinnacle, in quietude amongst the din of this den, the Hancock tempts as the sun sets and the city lights up. You are on the cusp, squarely between black infinity of Lake Michigan to the east and the radiating grid of this great city to the west.
More than any other skyscraper, the Hancock claims its place through aesthetic authority. Its strength is defiance of the grave horizon. Its honesty is not purity, but the principle of purpose. Having scaled to its top, enveloped by this panorama….for a moment, you might think you could own the world.