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3am Feature





INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN - THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE AND UNDENIABLE SIGNIFICANCE OF SKYSCRAPERS IN OUR CULTURE



"Adrian Smith recalls where he was on the morning of 9/11. In what can only be described as sickening irony, he was with representatives of Donald Trump, preparing to go live with a press conference to unveil his new design for Trump Chicago, a roughly 125 story, 2000 ft skyscraper that would have finally repossessed the controversial title of "World's Tallest Building" from the Petronas Tower's in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But rather than showing the world his beautiful new model, he instead stared at it and realized that it would never be built."

By Charles Shaw

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED




IT WAS NEW YEAR'S EVE. I WAS SITTING AGAINST THE WINDOW ON THE WEST SIDE OF THE SIGNATURE ROOM ON THE 96TH FLOOR OF THE JOHN HANCOCK CENTER with my guests for the evening, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a solitary bright light in the distance moving across the sky in a parallel direction to the building, an airplane circling off in the distance over O'Hare. The plane was the only aircraft in the sky, which one might consider abundantly strange considering Chicago has the busiest airport in the world. But there it was, one light that gradually seemed to be moving closer and closer to us. The bright wing-mounted spotlights intensified as the plane banked east towards the skyline…and us.

At some point I turned around and noticed that the entire west side of the lounge was staring out the window at the exact same point of light circling in the distance. Mumbles began to ripple through the crowd, and a few couples were seen headed for the elevators. My sister leaned in and asked, "Do you think we should go?" For a split second, I almost agreed with her. The panicked look on everyone's faces was threatening to unravel the reverie of the evening before the proverbial clock had a chance to strike Midnight. In our mind's eye, back in the deep recesses of our psyches, a voice kept reminding us that it would behoove us to be below the point of impact, or else we would be trapped. Before any of us could make a decision one way or another, the plane had banked sharply and descended into O'Hare.

The effect that few minutes of circling had on us, as a collective group, was unnerving, like a palpable stress fracture that ran through everyone's face as not-too-distant memories of 9/11 came flooding back. We all remember where we were that morning, or more appropriately, where we weren't, where we prayed we would never be. Three and a half months later, there we were, at the top of an eleven hundred foot tall building, feeling totally helpless and terrified…

Moments later we all felt like fools. But should we have? Probably. In this writer's humble opinion, the days of using commercial aircraft as weapons are over, a one shot deal that scored a direct hit. As a long devotee of the skyscraper, one who used build scale models as a child, I was increasingly angered that the skyscraper had been vilified in the ensuing months after the 9/11 attacks. After all, the World Trade Center was not hit because it was a skyscraper, but because it was the World Trade Center, America's financial hypothalamus gland. More money went through those buildings in the course of a day than the people of Afghanistan have ever seen. And after seeing a slew of speculative articles and news clips about the immediate future of these buildings, I endeavored to set the record straight. I went straight to whom I believe to be the foremost authority, Adrian Smith, Lead Designer for the Chicago office of world-renowned architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, LLP. (SOM), "a partnership engaged in architecture, engineering, urban design and planning, interior design, and graphics."

Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill essentially wrote the manual on skyscraper design, to put it mildly. They have offices in four US cities, London and Hong Kong, and Smith's first project, fresh out of UIC in the late Sixties, was to assist with the design of "Big John", The John Hancock Center, arguably the world's most recognized building, at least before 9/11.

Many years and many buildings later, Adrian Smith recalls where he was on the morning of 9/11. In what can only be described as sickening irony, he was with representatives of Donald Trump, preparing to go live with a press conference to unveil his new design for Trump Chicago, a roughly 125 story, 2000 ft skyscraper that would have finally repossessed the controversial title of "World's Tallest Building" from the Petronas Tower's in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But rather than showing the world his beautiful new model, he instead stared at it and realized that it would never be built.

This must have seemed to Smith to once again be the interceding of fate to thwart his noble quest to build the World's Tallest Building (WTB).

After a career that every architecture student on earth would most willingly sacrifice one or perhaps two limbs to experience, Smith's most recent major accomplishment was Shanghai's Jin Mao Tower, currently the third tallest building in the world. He is also the designer and tireless lobbyist behind two high-profile projects that have been mired in snafus and tumults, Trump Chicago, and 7 South Dearborn (7SD).

7 South Dearborn, a brilliant, innovative 2000 ft modern multi-function skyscraper, was to have been nearing completion right about now. But instead, it was not built, and now bears the sad and almost impossible to shake distinction of "proposed project". Details on that particular debacle will come later, as it holds particular significance in the sometimes-shady world of the Skyscraper.

And then of course there is Trump Chicago, the biggest pre-9/11 hoopla to hit the city in a long while. Why? Because it's Donald Trump. Because The Donald can build anything he wants. All one has to do is look at some of the travesties he has pulled over on the Manhattan skyline to confirm that notion (Trump World Tower at UN Plaza as the one notable exception). And because he can get it built, we knew the 125 story Trump Chicago would get built and then Chicago would finally get back what the Council on Tall Buildings took away from us in 1997 when Ceaser Pelli, designer of the Petronas Towers, lobbied to have the title.

All things considered, the World's Tallest Building should be in Chicago. We not only invented the skyscraper, we perfected it. They are part of our collective identity, one so deeply ingrained that my entire generation grew up with the knowledge that just a few miles away was the tallest building in the world, something we saw whenever we looked towards the Downtown. To have this distinction removed on a technicality was reprehensible, and something we have neither forgiven nor forgotten.

It took a wholly benign attempt at pacification on the part of the Council on Tall Buildings to put the issue into some perspective. Their solution was to create four distinct categories of height:

HEIGHT: The height of a building is measured from the sidewalk level of the main entrance to the structural top of the building. This includes spires, but does not include television antennas, radio antennas, or flag poles. Height is listed in both meters and feet and is rounded to the nearest integer. This is the official criterion used by the Council in determining ranking.

OTHER MEASURES OF HEIGHT: In an effort to reflect other aspects of the statistical height of a building, additional information is shown for buildings ranked in the top ten. (All of the following measurements begin at the sidewalk level of the main entrance of the building.)

To Structural Top: Height to structural top of the building (the Council's official criteria as defined above).

To Highest Occupied Floor: Height to the floor of the highest occupied floor of the building.

To Top of Roof: Height to the top of the roof.

To Tip of Spire/Antenna: Height to the tip of spire, pinnacle, antenna, mast, or flag pole.

(from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat)

But, here, you be the judge. These are the "big three" in order.


1. Petronas Towers
88 Stories
1483 ft.
 
2. Sears Tower
110 Stories
1450 ft.
 
3. Jin Mao Tower
88 Stories
1381 ft.

As you see, a person standing at the window on the highest occupied floor of the Sears Tower will have to look down a couple hundred feet to see the people standing on the highest floors of both its competitors. Is this a valid distinction? For purists like Adrian Smith, the answer is "absolutely." Ask which structure was actually built higher, which structure had the highest construction workers, tenants, even observatory. In each case, it is the Sears Tower. Just so you understand, the only reason the Petronas Towers even had a claim was because the tip of it's spire is 33 feet higher then the top floor of the Sears Tower. The Sears Tower's antennae are not included in its overall height measurement. If they were, the total height would top 2000 ft. Again, which is tallest?

I rest my case. Ceaser Pelli can fax me his disputes.


  Part II - Orwell and Architects



ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Charles Shaw is a fourth generation Chicagoan. In the 1920's and 30's his paternal great-grandfather was Alderman of the 37th Ward (Austin District) and West Chicago Park Commissioner before the new Chicago Park District was formed in 1934. He is Politics and Non-Fiction Editor for 3am Magazine, and writes a daily sociopolitical column, SIGNS OF THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION - A Daily Dose of Doltry. 2003 will see the release of his debut novel, Unfinished Portraits, and in 2004 he will release The Politics of Recreation: Ten Political Battles that Shaped Chicago Public Land through Lake Claremont Press.










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