NEETA KOLHATKAR explores the skyscraper-lined skyline of the windy city and is impressed
For a Mumbaikar camping in downtown Chicago for three weeks, the skyscraper-lined skyline was a constant reminder of her home city, which also boasts a high-rise hewn horizon. However, Mumbai has some old, solid Art Deco buildings juxtaposed with hideous high rises and initially it was difficult to imagine Chicago too would have distinctly varied housing, based on its demographic alignment and multicultural heritage.
Old and elite
The old arched doorway homes, actually villas, still exist. Seen in old black and white films, the typical Chicago homes in elite neighbourhoods have gardens, a back porch, arched doorways to allow horse-driven carriages. These homes, laid with old brick and stone, have tall Italian windows, with ivy running all over them, and of course, with their cost running into millions. Then there are other homes, again with red brick or stone, more nouveau riche, with concrete, in the same old style, again worth a few millions. Then there is South Chicago, with smaller homes and apartments, predominantly populated by African-Americans, with the quaint homes with less-manicured gardens and the obviously concrete infrastructure.
The windy city can take pride in having renowned architects who have designed some of the tallest buildings in the world. Tall claims apart, there are Art Deco style buildings with ornate sculpting, the neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune building and the glass facade buildings like Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower), which was one of the tallest buildings and John Hancock Center, at 1,451 feet.
The Tribune tale
Another story closer home, is that the Chicago Tribune building, which was recently sold, will soon house premium condominiums. Until then, one is allowed to go around admiring the mesmerising architecture, grand wooden ceilings and informative plaques. It is best to take the boat ride conducted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), a non-profit organisation offering these guided tours out of passion for their city’s architecture. The city boasts of William Le Baron Jenny, who built the first skyscraper, and the use of metal frame buildings, with his design for the New York Home Insurance Company. The Chicago river boat ride is a treasure of information and renowned names, with detailed styles of skyscrapers. The old famed architects like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, to modern-day Lucien Lagrange are some of them.
Lagrange, a French born architect, who moved to and studied in the US, set up his own firm. The firm constructed The Pinnacle and Park Tower, the Elysian and Ten East Delaware towers. The writer had the opportunity to meet Lagrange and listen to his personal story. The guide shares some inside information, anecdotes woven with humour. Like when speaking of the famous Wrigley Building, of the chewing gum fame, the owners had made a medical product and the chewing gum was handed out as an incentive to premium customers. That the gum became Wrigley’s largest-selling product is another story. Apart from this interesting anecdote, the design of this building was inspired by the Giralda Tower in Spain.
Talk about towers
The tour merely mentions a certain Trump Tower in passing, choosing not to dwell on it. The Friends of the River group, which conducts the tour of the Bridgehouse Museum, has a young worker casually slip in the fact – Trump Tower siphons 20 million gallons daily from Chicago river and pumps back the water 35 degrees hotter – and before you know it, the young guide has gone on to another issue.
The CAF, however, cares to highlight a central plant from where the water is circulated for a conglomerate of buildings, which does not include the Trump Tower. The Americans are unabashedly self-critical unlike back home in current times, where one must speak with caution.
Along with an endearing narrative style, the guide also weaves in humour to mock the existence of a committee for everything, like the height committee of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. CTBUH categorises all high-rises in the world and judges which is the tallest. Currently, the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, is 60 per cent taller than Taipei Tower. Then the guide shared a hilarious anecdote on Willis Tower, which added two antennae and applied to the CTBUH, which turned down their plea since the addition was way past the deadline. Interestingly, among the battery of architects who designed the Burj are from Chicago – Adrian D. Smith and George J. Efstathiou.
Along the river, one is shown how the buildings have been constructed to meld with the meandering of River Chicago. Every alternate building highlights the reflection of other buildings and the skyline. One building has a coloured glass facade reflecting the colours of the Chicago River, such is the passion that has gone into constructing these skyscrapers. A sceptic like me too was fascinated.
In the face of such ardour for construction and design, one of the popular touristy things to do is to visit the skyscrapers. The famous American marketing skills are on full show at the Willis Tower, which is by far the most popular. Tourists wait patiently for hours to get on the decks on the 113th floor. The sight one gets to see is undoubtedly spectacular. The problem is there are far too many queues and too much waiting in order to see this view. However, once you reach the top and clearly see a tiny boat sail away in the Chicago River, you can’t help but be mesmerised.