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 in.

          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.