|By Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 14, 2005 - Here's a new twist on Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's proposal for a 2,000-foot-tall twisting tower in Chicago: The idea of a tall building corkscrewing into the sky is as old as time, though Calatrava aspires to take it to new heights.
The concept goes at least as far back as the Tower of Babel mentioned in the Bible. And it has associations both good and bad. Reaching for the sky is perceived as either getting closer to God or an act of hubris. Architects have used it to celebrate a workers' utopia. Yet today they are harnessing its aesthetic power to shape homes in the sky for the superrich.
Whatever it expresses, the twisting tower clearly has struck a chord with the public. Consider the nicknames already given to Calatrava's skyscraper -- the drill bit, the big screw, the twizzler, the birthday candle. The twisting tower also is a hot topic today among architects and architecture students.
As designers explore new ways to break out of the old box, they prize buildings that suggest motion and feeling. Calatrava's design promises to bring to the skyscraper the same Baroque exuberance with which Frank Gehry has infused fresh vitality into the once-staid world of art museums and concert halls.
The twisting tower "is more sensuous. It's more dynamic. It offers an architecture seemingly in motion," said Donna Robertson, dean of the architecture school at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where students have been studying twisting towers for years.
There's a hitch, of course: cost.
An old-fashioned box is simpler and less expensive to build. Ask Chicago architect Helmut Jahn, who designed a handful of spiraling skyscrapers in the 1980s. "They are," he said, "a pain in the neck."
"To some degree, you are taking a shape and deforming it," Jahn explained. "The question is whether the building wants to have that done to it." Calatrava's $500 million hotel and condominium skyscraper, called the Fordham Spire, is expected to cost about 35 percent more than a typical condominium high-rise. As a result, many real-estate experts doubt it will ever be built.
History backs them up. It is far easier to draw such buildings than to construct them. History also shows that, for all Calatrava's design radiates architectural brilliance, it won't be something entirely new under the architectural sun.
The history of the spiraling tower begins in Genesis, Chapter 11. The Bible relates the story of a united humanity, speaking the same language, that endeavors to build "a tower with its top in the sky."
The Great Architect in the Sky feels threatened as He looks down at the tower. So He "confounds" the language of the builders, creating a multitude of tongues so they can't understand each other and can't finish their tower. Ever since, the idea of the tall tower and human hubris have been in-separable.
While the Bible doesn't specify what the Tower of Babel looked like, we get a hint from the extraordinary paintings of 16th Century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He portrayed the tower as a spiraling mountain of masonry -- with a pathway twisting around its tapering exterior. Frank Lloyd Wright would turn this ziggurat upside down in the great white spiral of his Guggenheim Museum in New York.
When Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava began designing the twisting, 2000-foot Fordham Spire, he had to come to terms with Chicago's great skyscraper past.
The challenge of designing in Chicago, he said in an interview before the project was unveiled last month, was comparable to the one Baroque architects faced after the Renaissance triumphs of Bramante and Michelangelo.
The answer, in both cases: Break the rules.
The energetic Baroque churches of Borromini reject the simple combinations of cubes, cylinders and spheres upon which the great buildings of the Renaissance are based.
Similarly, Calatrava's sensuously sculpted sky-scraper departs from the Chicago tradition of the austere, structurally expressive high-rise.
It also may owe something to another iconic Baroque design, the baldacchino, or main altar canopy, at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, by Bernini. The canopy is supported by four huge twisting columns that look like skewed stacks of poker chips.
No history of the twisting tower would be complete without a mention of Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, a design as radical as the revolution it was meant to celebrate.
Tatlin was the father of Russian Constructivism, which aimed to produce buildings whose vigorous undecorated form was a direct expression of their materials. His Monument to the Third International, commissioned in 1919 as the headquarters of world Communism, remains one of the great un-built designs of the 20th Century.
Tatlin proposed two spiraling steel frames that would rise to a height of 400 meters, taller than the Eiffel Tower.
The open frames would reveal three huge rotating buildings: At the top, a cylinder for the mass media that would turn once a day. In the middle, a pyramid for the executive offices of the international Communist movement that would rotate once a month. At the bottom, a cube for the legislature that took a year to make its revolution.
Even though it was never built -- some critics have maintained it was too technologically advanced for its time -- the Monument to the Third International has exerted enormous influence on architects, including those in the United States.
In the early 1980s, tired of cartoonish postmodernism, Helmut Jahn and other American architects seized upon Russian Constructivism as a new source of inspiration.
The result, in Jahn's case, was a series of spiraling tower designs, beginning with his proposal for the corporate headquarters of Humana Inc., a large Louisville-based health-benefit company.
The proposal, made for a design competition, consisted of an octagon-shaped tower with a helix-shaped skin that spiraled toward its mast-accented top.
Jahn lost the Humana competition to postmodernist Michael Graves, but he would end up recycling the idea in two towers that were built -- the squat 701 Fourth Avenue South in Minneapolis and the more elegant 362 West Street in Durban, South Africa.
Jahn's debt to Russian Constructivism was even more clear in his proposal for a towering helix in Los Angeles, meant to express the "cultural diversity of all the people in the Pacific Rim." A monorail was to ascend the helix and take visitors to platforms filled with exhibits about the nations of the Pacific Rim.
A nice idea, but the plan looked like a skyscraper version of a roller coaster.
Because of architects' newfound fondness for motion, either real or implied, twisting and spiraling towers are popping up in some of the most prominent projects on the planet. They are novel, all right. But are they good?
Not necessarily. In late 2003, after a stormy collaboration with ground zero master planner Daniel Libeskind, architect David Childs of the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill unveiled a plan for a 1,776-foot-tall torquing Freedom Tower at the former World Trade Center site.
But the twisting quality of the tower didn't disguise its ungainly massiveness. It was something of a relief that the clumsy design was shelved after the New York Police Department raised questions about whether the skyscraper would be vulnerable to a vehicle-delivered bomb.
A much better prospect is Calatrava's Turning Torso Tower in Malmo, Sweden, which rises more than 600 feet to be Scandinavian's tallest building. Based on Calatrava's own sculpture of the twisting human torso, the skyscraper consists of nine five-story cubes that twist as the tower rises. The uppermost section rotates 90 degrees from the ground floor. Exposed trusswork helps support the tower.
The muscular, structurally expressive design looks to be an instant landmark, soaring like a modern bell tower. If Chicago finds Calatrava's proposed 2,000-foot tower too tall for its lakefront site, then something like this could well work here.
Last but hardly least is the record-shattering, spiraling tower now under construction in the Persian Gulf playland of Dubai. Adrian Smith of the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed the mixed-use tower, which will include superexpensive apartments.
Called the Burj Dubai -- its exact height remains a closely guarded secret lest some competitor beat it for the world's tallest building title -- the skyscraper (left) is expected to rise to roughly 2,300 feet and be finished in late 2008.
That reach for the sky has some critics wondering if the Burj Dubai will turn out to be a modern-day Tower of Babel. They say that Dubai, once an undeveloped dot on the desert map, is taking its economic modernization too high too fast.
Smith, who also designed the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago, knows how to deflect such criticism.
"The tower goes up in steps in a spiraling way," he told BBC News in an interview published last week. "In Islamic architecture, this symbolizes ascending towards the heavens."
For now, the outcome of the Burj Dubai matters less than the fact that it's part of a long chain of spiraling towers. Together, they offer a peek behind the curtain of the creative process.
Architects often tout the originality of their work, but in truth, form grows out of form, whether that form is a pyramid, a cube or a spiral.
The test of a good twisting tower is how architects build upon the precedents of the past -- not mimicking them or stretching them to absurd heights, but synthesizing them into statements that reflect the distinctiveness of their sites, as well as the spirit and technology of their time.
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