The City And Its Tower

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.


39 thoughts on “The City And Its Tower

  1. I will be enjoying this series… I told the Cootch, that I worked in the shadow of the Sears Tower once. My friend and I would walk the Loop, between shifts, looking at the buildings… I know then well.

    The Hancock is indeed a marvelous building. I loved your line A siren in steel fishnet stockings

  2. I went on an architectural tour of Chicago run by a local society. The guide loved her city and its buildings, giving us both the standard history and her own preferences.

    We did ‘t go up the hancock as we were told the queues for the lifts on a saturday were dreadful, but looked at it from the second tallest’s viewpoint. I did rather like the criss cross but didn’t know what lay under the stonework. It is good to hear more about the design.

    1. Like everything worth doing, it is worth doing again. Next time brave the elevator wait and make it to the bar….same view as the more popular observatory, but no admission charge, unless you feel the need to buy a drink.

  3. I like buildings. I like the storm damaged corrugated iron roof of the barn that I see over the wall of the garden as we have a sundowner. It’s a wonder of the world that it keeps the rain out.My wonders tend to be more parochial and the 7 best are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and what happens on those days until they stop for me.

  4. An excellent choice to lead off the series, I have been there and enjoyed its presence, although never had the opportunity to visit the 96th. Great pics on Queen A’s blog.

    1. Physics, actually. It means that for each second you travel, you accelerate by 32 feet per second…so after five seconds, you’d be travelling at 160 feet per second. From that, you could figure out how long it would take you to reach the ground if you jumped from the top (1,127 feet). It won’t tell you how much it hurts when you decelerate upon impact.

  5. I must admit you cause me to really think differently about architecture. You paint such a glorious picture with your words, and the admiration you hold for the way a skyscraper impacts the very history of a place is breathtaking in its own way. Any good writer should create impact that changes a reader’s view, and you do that here. I will have this “wonder” on my list of places I must see. I would love to experience the skyline view from the top of the Hancock…as well as the No. 1 tinkle spot! Debra

    1. Thank you for the compliment. I visited the 96th many times, but never appreciated its unique Tinkle spot until I took Andra there. (or should I say until Andra went there?)

  6. There. You have put your finger on the audacity of this building, and I might never have given it a second glance. I had never thought of Chicago as a wide city, nor of a skyscraper as a challenge to that which is horizontal, but of course it is. My favourite sentence: not how tall it is, but how it is tall. How many different ways there are to be tall, now I think about it: and a duel between the skylines of two great American cities is something which is also new to me. So many avenues of enquiry from 600 words!

    I don’t think I shall ever look at a skyscraper in the same way again.

    Lou’s not far wrong with his ninja schtick, MTM. This is Samurai-sword writing. It cuts cleanly to the heart of things.


  7. Beautiful post, MTM . . . and great idea for a series of posts causing folks to blog hop back and forth from Kate to Andra like so many jackalopes. 😀

  8. Having been to Chicago only once, and that long years ago, I’ve never stood next to the John Hancock Tower. But two lines from your encomium strike me forcefully with their own kind of syntactic architecture: “What makes the Hancock my choice is not how tall it is, but how it is tall” and “Its elegance is its directness, brutish in Carl Sandburg’s City of Big Shoulders.” Thank you for using these muscular words to describe the building. I look forward, someday, to viewing it and perhaps also entering the “vertical city.” Peace.

  9. Going up the superfast elevator to the observation floor in the Hancock building was a highlight of my 8th-grade trip to Chicago. It was a grand experience that has stuck with me for many years.

  10. Upon reading this post where you refer to the Hancock Center as ” a siren in steel fishnet stockings,” that made me recall an iconic building from my youth in San Francisco, the Alcoa Building. It was completed in 1964, five years before the Hancock Center and is much smaller, but like the Hancock Center it also sports steel fishnet stockings. Both buildings have Skidmore Owens in common, too.

    Note to Kate: sorry for showing up late to the party; I was pretty obsessed with US Open Tennis the past few weeks. I’m very proud of your countryman Murray finally winning his first Grand Slam in my town — and in such an impressive victory.

      1. That was one of the best men’s finals I’ve seen in thr four decades I’ve been watching US Open tennis. I’m so happy it went his way, but there were moments when it was such a nail-biter! It just wasn’t Djokovic’s day for he played his guts out, too.

  11. I have to say, your prose is as impressive as the architecture! This remarkable building seems to have been the inspiration for I M Pei’s Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong!!

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