|Here's a prediction about the dazzling new Skybridge
condominium tower just west of the Kennedy Expressway: Some day,
someone will shoot a movie there and the film will seize on the building's
most dramatic feature: a series of giant holes sliced in the tower,
as if it were a Swiss cheese skyscraper.
I can see Halle Berry in a James Bond movie, escaping a gun-toting villain
as she runs onto one of the glassed-in bridges that cross a canyon-like, 25-story
notch in the middle of the tower. Maybe she'll gaze through the bridge's floor-to-ceiling
glass at the downtown skyline. Maybe she'll take a flying leap and crash through
the glass -- only to be rescued by a giant trampoline.
In the end, of course such reveries are less important than the fact
that Chicago finally has a condo high-rise that can inspire them.The cityscape
and our senses have been taking a pounding lately as one monstrous concrete box
after another has saddled downtown with a new form of visual blight. Even Mayor
Richard M. Daley blurted out a few months ago that he was sick of the boring
boxes. But the $75 million, 39-story Skybridge shows that the words "exposed
concrete" and "striking design" do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Designed by Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will and developed by Howard
Weiner and Bill Moran of Chicago, Skybridge firmly fits into the city's tradition
of bold, innovative architecture, yet it brings to the skyline something completely
fresh and captivating -- a twin-towered building punctuated by enormous,
see-through openings. They are topped by a bridgelike structure of steel and
concrete that soars over the uppermost holes like a giant trellis.
It sounds gimmicky and more expensive than the usual condo tower, which
it is, but in Johnson's skilled hands, the results are exemplary: A stunningly
powerful form, carefully modulated, that takes full advantage of a site that
allows it to be seen from top to bottom.
We tend to take such sites for granted. But they're what make Chicago
such a fantastic place for building-watchers, especially when the city is compared
with a certain oversize, overstuffed metropolis out East. If it's not the Chicago
River that allows you to take in a building from head to toe, it's the highway,
with its river of asphalt cleaving an opening in the dense cityscape.
Though Skybridge preens along the Kennedy, it does not turn its back
on the low-rise brick buildings of Greektown, where it sits on a narrow rectangular
site between the expressway and Halsted Street. It actually is a model for
making a tall residential building fit its surroundings. And if the experience
of the first group of condo owners is any indication, it isn't one of those designs
that sacrifice the comfort of its occupants for the glory of its architect.
So in the late 1990s, Weiner and Moran held a competition, inviting
Helmut Jahn, the firm of Nagle Hatray Danker Kagan McKay and Johnson, whose previous
credits include the international terminal at O'Hare. Johnson's winning plan
stood in bold contrast to the concrete hulks that are turning River North into
a soulless, slab city. By cutting enormous, windowlike openings into Skybridge,
Johnson sought to make it resemble a series of interconnected towers rather than
one of the massive monoliths.
There have been condo towers with a hole in them before, of course.
In the early 1980s, Arquitectonica's brash essay in tropical modernism, the 20-story
Atlantis in Miami, sported a palm tree-filled sky court and made the opening
credits of the TV show "Miami Vice." But the Atlantis sky court was
a single 37-foot cube. Skybridge flaunts holes that are easily that tall, plus
the 250-foot notch that divides its two sides. While not exactly empty, the notch
is breathtakingly transparent because it's crossed by those glassy, see-through
bridges. All that makes Skybridge the height of holiness.
It's a kick to watch the sky and the clouds play peekaboo through the
tower's voids. Normally, you can only see sky around a skyscraper, not within
Skybridge could have been a Chinese wall, a sky-blocking barrier between
the Near West Side and downtown. And it's true, as some Near West Side residents
point out, that Skybridge interrupts views from the west toward downtown. But
any tall building would have done that. This one, thankfully, is open and permeable.
What could have been a wall is more like a window.
There are other urban design plusses, most notably the way Johnson
relates Skybridge to the low-rise buildings to the west. He wisely pushes the
tower along the expressway so it doesn't crowd Greektown. At the same time, he
extends a six-story base westward to Halsted Street, with a colorful glass curtain
wall that masks its parking garage and a ground-level Dominick's that brings
the street the right touch of human scale.
This is a modernist high-rise that has learned from modernism's past
mistakes, including the "tower in the park" prototype that gave us
all those chilly 1960s slabs on desertlike plazas. It also offers an alternative
to the present plague of the "tower on a parking lot," which has produced
those ungainly new condo high-rises plopped atop parking decks.
The architectural key to Skybridge, which Johnson shaped in association
with Perkins & Will senior designer Curt Behnke, is that it's artfully
composed rather than mindlessly massive.
Take its parking garage, whose stripelike metal louvers echo the motion
of the streaking cars on the expressway. The garage slides gracefully southward
from the tower rather than sitting directly under it. That step alone goes a
long way toward breaking up the tower's bulk. And there are others.
The 25-story notch makes what actually is a very wide building seem like
two narrow ones, sleek and vertical. Yet it's not a one-liner. The smaller holes
balance the big one and enhance the impression, as does the superscale trellis,
that this concrete tower is an airy, lightweight structure.
The crowning gesture, of course, is the bridge, which was lifted into
place by a crane. It prevents Skybridge from looking like a tuning fork, with
the transparent opening between its towers bleeding meekly into the sky. Instead,
the feature gives the tower a sharply defined skyline presence, which synthesizes
bridge and opening, solid and void, into a remarkable whole. As a bonus, the
bridge provides structural stability for each of the towers, like a lid laid
over two wood blocks.
Skybridge is not a perfect building from the outside. Its western facade
is less graceful than the favored, eastern front along the expressway. Some of
its colors look trendy and out of place, as if they'd been lifted from "Miami
Vice." And at ground level the building's exposed concrete simply can't
match the richness of detail you get with granite or limestone.
As if to compensate for the less-than-satisfactory material, Johnson
uses stiltlike columns to give Skybridge a soaring carport and pedestrian entry;
deep yellow walls endow this gateway with inviting warmth.
Step inside and take an elevator to one of the glass bridges, and you
instantly see the logic of the big notch in the middle of the building.
Instead of the usual hallway, where there's precious little daylight, Skybridge's
corridors offer light and views. Another advantage of the notch: The twin-towered
plan creates eight corner units, not four, as in the typical high-rise.
The units themselves, which range from one to three bedrooms, are intelligently
planned, with wraparound views that make the apartments seem more spacious.
"The views are excellent," said one of the new residents,
Mindy Kyle, 36. "I can look down and see my own traffic report on the Kennedy." She
also loves looking out from both sides of the glassed-in bridges. "You feel
like you're kind of suspended in air," she said.
Johnson and his clients have fashioned a remarkably creative
solution that shows how a condominium tower can respond to both the private needs
of its occupants and to the public realm that all of us inhabit. There have been
other good condo towers erected in the present building boom, such as Lucien
Lagrange and Associates' Erie on the Park and Solomon Cordwell Buenz's The Sterling. But
Skybridge towers above them all.