Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
 

Seven Cities Winter Spaces Walking Tour: Chicago
January 29, 2015
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CHICAGO – Approximately 20 people gathered in the 23rd-floor conference room of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG) in downtown Chicago for a lively introduction to the CTBUH Winter Spaces Walking Tour of the city, led by Richard Wilson, City Design Director at AS+GG. With handsome brochures in hand, the group, consisting of a motley mix of Chicago Architecture Foundation docents, city planners, students, architects working and retired, and journalists, started out with an introduction to the building containing the conference room.

AS+GG’s offices occupy a 23-floor 1957 addition by SOM to the original E.C. Harris Bank building, which dates to the late 19th Century. Formerly the Harris Bank boardroom, then a luncheon club for area realtors, the top-floor space in the midcentury modern structure had gone unoccupied for 10 years before AS+GG took up the lease, Wilson said. The top-floor space had a few surprises, including its own private “winter spaces,” two light-filled exterior courtyards that serve as spillover space for events and contemplative breaks in warmer months.
The tour group gets an introduction in the offices of AS+GG The lobby of the Marquette Building
The tour group then bundled up and trundled off into the cold, finding quick relief through a pedestrian passageway through the Marquette Building, an 1895 gem by Holabird & Roche, with an elaborate domed lobby space depicting the trials and tribulations of the region’s first European settlers.

Passing outside, the group turned in to the Chicago Federal Center plaza, which sets the graceful orange arc of Alexander Calder’s “Flamingo” sculpture against the stern black lines of Mies van der Rohe’s Dirksen Courthouse, Kluczynski Federal Building and US Post Office. Constructed between 1964 and 1974, the plaza and its buildings epitomize the formalism of the area, and while it is enlivened by farmer’s markets, political protests, and performances in the summer, in the winter it is mainly a windblown storage location for plowed snow and a convenient shortcut for commuters dashing between heated buildings.
The barren Chicago Federal Center plaza
Chase Center Plaza viewed from the basement cafeteria
The next stop was the Chase Center Plaza, one of several sunken plazas in the city, which the tour viewed from the comfort of the tower’s basement cafeteria. While the large space is positioned on the south side of the massive 259-meter Chase Tower that anchors the block, the winter sun angle is too low to overcome the surrounding tall buildings and warm the plaza. Further, concerns about liability seem to be actively preventing exploration – on the day of the visit, yellow tape roped off the entrance to the staircases that descend from the street, lest anyone slip on the ice. While one of the most engaging places in the Chicago Loop to sit and have lunch in the summer, the Chase Plaza and its Chagall sculpture look pretty lonely in winter.

Benet Haller, director of planning and urban design for the Chicago Department of Planning and Urban Development, noted that plazas like this one, completed in 1969, would probably not be built this way anymore, following a 2004 adjustment to the city’s zoning laws that required a design review, something the city’s prior Central Area Plan, dating from 1959, had lacked.

“Up until 2004, any private development had self-executing bonuses,” Haller said. “All that mattered in terms of their calculation of bonus FAR was, ‘how big is this plaza?’. Its area was multiplied against the bonus factor. There was no review by the city whatsoever. You could just provide that space, and it didn’t matter if it was useful.”


The counterpoint to this condition was found across the street at the One South Dearborn project, in which a 2005 tower is set back from the street, providing a place for lunching and relaxing with a clear view of the ground-breaking Inland Steel building, a Modern masterpiece tower from 1958. The plan originally called for the Chicago Transit Authority to move its subway entrance into the plaza and make it more of a focal point for the development, but that plan fizzled, although it did make for more space, Haller said.
Looking across to the plaza of One South Dearborn
Daley Plaza with Picasso's "Untitled"
A return to International Style characterized the entry of the group into Daley Plaza, which has similar characteristics to the Federal Plaza a few blocks away. It is anchored by a large, black Cor-Ten steel building by C.F. Murphy Associates, completed in 1965. It also has a large expanse of granite paving and a sculpture by a famous artist (Picasso’s “Untitled,” also rendered in Cor-Ten).
 
But it is considerably livelier than the Federal Plaza for several reasons. It has a burbling fountain that, while turned off in winter, still provides edges and definition to the space, breaking up its expanse. It is the location of a winter market and the city’s official Christmas tree, and is available by permit for any number of live performances, demonstrations and events. It has played host to events as diverse as a tank parade on Armed Services day and a circus, neither of which did the pavers any favors, but nonetheless activated the space. In one of the few cases in which post-9/11 security concerns improved a public space, the anti-vehicle bollards emplaced in Daley Plaza now provide places to sit and take in the action.

“It was good from a public use standpoint, because you had art and usable space, instead of having to choose between one and the other,” Wilson said.

The tour then descended into Chicago’s intricate Pedway (pedestrian subway) system, which links together public and private spaces one level below the street, through the basements of many key office, government and retail buildings across more than 40 blocks of the Loop. Although its entrances are marked with an identifiable logo, there is no consistent look to the Pedway, and its interior design varies from bare-bones and dingy to sleek and animated, depending on who worked on the segment, and when. Wayfinding is not particularly straightforward, and unpleasant “dead ends” can occur when one building shuts its portion for the night before its neighbor, but happening into the Pedway system and realizing that one’s walking commute need not be buffeted by subzero winds and slush-spewing taxis nevertheless makes it feel like a magical paradise in winter. It is well-used and trusted by its daily denizens.
An early section of the Chicago Pedway
The Chicago Pedway entrance to Block 37
More recent additions to the system, such as the high-ceilinged atrium space in Block 37 shopping mall that links two subway lines and will soon support a residential tower, and the remodeled Millennium Station, with an undulating dropped ceiling, show a (literally) brighter future for the Pedway.

“There is beginning to be a shared idea that the Pedway need not be just a rectangular tube anymore,” Haller said.
The undulating ceiling of Millennium Station
The plaza of the Aon Center
The uneven, if interesting experience of the Pedway continues underneath the Prudential Plaza, and the Illinois Center, emerging eventually at the sunken plaza of Edward Durrell Stone’s Aon Center. Along the way, branches lead off to the hardscaped plazas of the 1970s Fujikawa & Johnson / Mies van der Rohe Illinois Center, and to the grassy public square at the center of the newer Lakeshore East development. Intrepid pedestrians can find their way to numerous destinations in the area east of Michigan Avenue and north of Millennium Park, so long as they are willing to negotiate labyrinthine level changes, and adjaceny to underground motor and rail traffic.

Wilson and Haller explained how this section of the city, which counterintuitively slopes upwards as one progresses towards the lake, was a product of a flawed but earnest interpretation of the 1909 Burnham Plan, which called for separating service vehicles, taxis and pedestrians through a system of multi-level roadways. The next chapter in this story will be characterized by a Studio Gang-designed tower for China’s Wanda Group and Chicago’s Magellan Development Group, which will not only be a supertall in the city’s top height ranks, but may also provide a formal pedestrian link between the Lakeshore East park and the emerging Riverwalk, currently somewhat blockaded by the multi-level Wacker Drive through a kind of grand arch.

“Some of our roughest edges in downtown are where you run into a ledge and there are two levels below you, and it’s a dead end. So certainly those are opportunities,” Wilson remarked.

Over 50 years, overlapping political dynasties, a succession of owners, land value changes, and land-use priorities shaped the district from a thoroughly industrial rail yard, to a glorified parking garage with some office buildings and hotels on top, to something resembling a neighborhood, on the edge of one of the most celebrated urban spaces in the country, if not the world – Millennium Park.
Millennium Park from Lakeshore East
The Skating Ribbon in Maggie Daley Park
“When land is not valuable, it just sits there and things are considered too expensive or difficult to implement,” Wilson said. “But when it is valuable, you find ways to thread structure through active rail yards, construct multiple levels of parking, and one of the largest green roofs in the world.”
The tour noted the oddities of the Aon plaza, which is below street grade and separates the building’s street-level lobby from the street itself, though the arrangement is well-calibrated for those emerging from the Pedway or parking garage into the building’s double-decker elevators. Like several of the other private, sunken developments seen on the tour, the Aon space is a bit listless in winter and jam-packed with sun-worshippers in the summer.

The knowledge that the recent Millennium Park and the brand-new Maggie Daley Park are right across Randolph Street has probably prevented anyone from addressing what concerns there may be about the Aon Plaza, as these parks provide fantastic amenities year-round.
Pritzker Pavilion seen from the BP Bridge
The group walking along the Crown Fountains
Wilson led the tour along the winding skating rink and whimsical playground equipment in Daley Park, then across the serpentine BP Bridge and past the Pritzker Pavilion (both designed by Frank Gehry). The outdoor portion of the tour culminated near the Art Institute of Chicago’s formal gardens, after traipsing past the giant head sculpture and Crown Fountain with its illuminated supergraphic faces presiding over the frozen plaza. Though it would be many months before this area would be warm enough to support the hordes of kids who like to run through its waters, the winter-scape was surprisingly peopled for a weekday afternoon in January. The entire walk through the parks was against a backdrop of hundreds of revelers and the twinkling lights of the Chicago skyline at twilight.
The view from the Cliff Dweller's Club atop the Borg-Warner Building
“Look at what Millennium Park did for the city,” Wilson said. “It’s attracted a new generation of investment and residential construction. It reminded people of the value of a major public investment. People around the world see Chicago as an exemplar of that model and are really interested in it.”
Standing in front of a warm fireplace on the top floor of the Borg-Warner Building in the Cliff Dweller’s Club, gazing out at the sparkling lights of the Chicago lakefront, adult beverages in hand, it was easier to be philosophical about the blur of spaces and scenes the tour had just negotiated.

“These projects are always bloody; someone always gets a black eye,” Wilson said of the hard-won success of Millennium Park and its environs. “But then it works out, all is forgotten, and it was everybody’s good idea. And if you can’t handle that, this city planning thing is not for you.”
The tour group warming up in the Cliff Dweller's Club
Tour Attendees
Name Affiliation
Soeun Lee Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Richard Wilson Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Joel Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Megan Mazzocco Architectural Products
Barbara Gordon Chicago Architecture Foundation
Judith Kauffmann Chicago Architecture Foundation
Royce Lewinsky Chicago Architecture Foundation
Pam Mann Chicago Architecture Foundation
Cheryl Tan Chicago Architecture Foundation
Benet Haller Chicago Dept of Planning and Urban Development
Jason Gabel CTBUH
Daniel Safarik CTBUH
Amy Horn Illinois Institute of Technology
Jacob Insera Illinois Institute of Technology
Skylar Moran Illinois Institute of Technology
Jim Nowak Perkins + Will
Robert Lau Roosevelt University
Patricia Sticha Sauganash
Nimay Blumenthal Streeterville Association