Kamin in Trib::
The new plan for long-vacant Block 37, designed by Chicago architect Ralph Johnson and quietly unveiled Wednesday, is just that -- a plan, not a finished scheme. Even so, its broad outlines are some of the best yet conceived for this crucial North Loop plot. They call for a mega-building of interconnected structures that would dazzle with digital decoration and provide a canyonlike atrium that would be a genuine civic space, not just another vertical mall.
But, of course, this is Block 37, which over the last 15 years has devoured and spit up grand architectural schemes like some fire-breathing medieval monster. So there's a catch -- actually several catches -- that could hinder the plan for the parcel bounded by State, Randolph, Dearborn and Washington Streets.
So far, not a single commercial tenant is signed up. And despite assurances offered by the developer and city officials, the atrium and other civic aspects of the plan are almost certain to be subject to powerful commercial pressures that could deeply compromise them.
What Johnson, of the firm Perkins & Will, and the developer, the Arlington, Va.-based Mills Corp., propose is nonetheless intriguing because it correctly confronts the urban design challenge of Block 37's 2.7-acre void: This block, which once buzzed with shops, movie theaters, fancy grocery stores and restaurants where corrupt Chicago pols hung out, should be re-urbanized rather than suburbanized.
On that score, Johnson delivers, but not by nostalgically re-creating Block 37, whose potpourri of buildings (except for a Commonwealth Edison substation) was cleared starting in 1989 for a Helmut Jahn-designed office and retail complex that never materialized. Instead, he wisely proposes to rebuild the block to meet today's needs -- and tomorrow's.
An aid for travelers
Underground would be a state-of-the-art Chicago Transit Authority Station where travelers headed for O'Hare International and Midway Airports could check their bags before boarding express trains. An electronic obelisk, flashing information from stock market updates to weather forecasts, would rise into an irregularly shaped atrium hollowed out of a five-story podium. The podium would house shops, restaurants, nightclubs and other entertainment.
The Loop's pedway tunnels would feed directly into the project's lower levels. The atrium would culminate in an enormous skylight, which would be surrounded by a "green roof" of grass and trees.
Three high-rises would pinwheel around the block, the first of them a 17-story office building at Dearborn and Washington that city officials say is likely to be built in the project's first phase. The other two high-rises -- a 10- to 13-story hotel at Dearborn and Randolph and a 20- to 23-story residential tower at State and Randolph -- would rise in later phases atop the podium.
If the city grants approval, the developers want to start construction next year and finish the project's first phase by 2007. Given the block's history, that sounds wildly optimistic, but it would be foolish to dismiss this plan, if only because it is so full of good ideas.
Among them: Dispensing with the idea that Block 37 needs an anchor store, like a suburban mall. In effect, Marshall Field's State Street store is its anchor, and so, in a way, is Millennium Park, which is drawing hordes of people south of the Chicago River.
One of the best features of the plan is that it promises shops of various sizes, an intricate mix of activities rather than a few big things jammed together. That's the kind of variety that makes cities hum.
The plan's fundamental strength, however, rests in its civic qualities: Instead of the fortresslike retail, hotel and residential complex proposed in 2000 for Block 37 by Chicago-based JMB Realty Corp. and New York architects Kohn Pedersen Fox, Johnson creates a far more city-friendly design.
Along State, for example, he invites pedestrians into the stores with glassy, showroom architecture (think Crate & Barrel on North Michigan Avenue) and into the atrium with grandly scaled, highly transparent corner entrances.
Tall but narrow passages would cut a diagonal path into the atrium. These mini-canyons would burst open to reveal the spatial surprise of the canyonlike atrium, which would become wider as it rises.
Overcoming the banal
This classic "press and release" move elevates the project above the banal, spatially mundane interiors of suburban malls and vertical malls. The civic gesture would extend to the green roof, which would be accessible to the public, unlike the one atop City Hall, and would have different levels, providing Chicago flatlanders some much-needed topography.
All this almost sounds too good to be true -- and it could be if Mills takes a bait-and-switch route, shrinking the skylight to save money, filling in the grand entrances with income-producing floor area, and plastering the now-crisp exterior with signs.
Steve Jacobsen, the company's executive vice president, assures that Mills is devoted to quality, and Denise Casalino, the city's commissioner of planning and development, says she will hold the company to its promises. But Chicago has a way of giving developers lots of rope with which to hang themselves.
Mills still deserves credit for releasing a design that suitably responds to the different character of different streets. It is appropriately retail-oriented along State, brassy along the Randolph Street theater district and civic along Dearborn, where the planned office building would create a much-needed "wall" for Daley Plaza's "urban room."
The plan has additional appeal because of its intelligent architectural response to the reality that the block can't all be rebuilt at once.
It's better to go with the podium now than to keep the block empty forever. But Johnson's design is far superior to the typical Chicago condo development -- the "plop architecture" combination of a slab tower dropped atop a massive parking garage podium.
Integrating podium, towers
Not only is his podium remarkably permeable. He uses interlocking masses to integrate the podium and the towers. He also joins them with the proposed digital decoration, which would zip across the podium's facade -- and straight up the residential and hotel towers.
But because those towers will be built in later phases of the project, they are sure to look different from the present model. The actual look of the digital decoration, which would mark the first time that digital design has been used at such a massive scale in a Chicago skyscraper, is equally undetermined.
Johnson's architecture is also coming into focus, though it already suggests a contemporary reinterpretation of classic Chicago School skyscrapers: Simple rectilinear shapes would give way to more assertively sculptural forms toward the project's core.
The gossamer-light exterior would work in effective counterpoint with such massive surrounding structures as the Field's State Street store. And the digital decoration would be a 21st Century version of the organic ornament that wraps the base of Louis Sullivan's nearby Carson Pirie Scott store.
There are trouble spots. Johnson, for example, should rework the repetitious rhythms of his State Street facade. In addition, it is essential that the developers bring in entertainment and other uses that give life to the project throughout the day. It can't just be a shopping mall.
Still, those are quibbles: This is a very impressive beginning. With its bold blend of contemporary art and architecture, Johnson's design promises to build on the triumph of Millennium Park. But it is one thing to create grand civic space on the lakefront and quite another to do it in the harsh commercial confines of the Loop.