Sunday, November 6, 2011

A tale of two skyscraper designs

The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition of 1922 is often cited by architectural historians as a major influence on the design of Chicago skyscrapers during the late 1920s and early 1930s.  And in some ways, it was.  The second place entry by Eliel Saarinen, for example, is mentioned extensively as being more influential and "forward looking" than the winning entry by the firm of Howells + Hood.

However, I agree with the assessment of Carol Willis that too much emphasis has been placed on Saarinen's entry.  In her essay "Light, Height, and Site: The Skyscraper in Chicago" (published in Chicago Architecture and Design, 1923-1993) Willis states that Saarinen's competition entry "has been emphasized far too much" as a formal model for Chicago's skyscrapers of the 20s and 30s.  I would go even further and venture that if any of the competition entries are to be noted for their formal influence, it should be Bertram Goodhue's instead of Eliel Saarinen's.

Here are Goodhue's and Saarinen's entries displayed side-by-side:

Two entries to the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition
Bertram Goodhue's entry (left) received honorable mention & Eliel Saarinen's entry (right) received second prize.

The main similarity between these two entries--and many of the other entries--is the architects' use of stepped massing.  Each design incorporates a series of set-backs that produce a tapered silhouette. This was a defining characteristic of tall office towers of the late 20s and 30s, not just in Chicago, but in New York and other cities as well.

The elegant massing of these skyscrapers, however, was not a purely formal exercise.  Their tapered designs were influenced by market forces and zoning ordinances as much as by aesthetic concerns.  In her published works, Willis writes about "economic height." Skyscrapers were seen by developers as "machines that make the land pay."  By building taller office towers, a developer could gain a greater return on an initial investment on an expensive piece of property.  Civic concerns about unrestricted building heights led to zoning ordinances in both New York (1916) and Chicago (1920 and 1923) that governed building heights and massing.  Greatly simplified, these ordinances allowed a skyscraper to rise above a particular height limit provided that the mass of the building gradually tapered, ostensibly to allow more light and air into the streets below.

Both Goodhue's and Saarinen's designs for the Tribune Tower follow the same basic formula governing height and massing.  Saarinen's design often scores more points with critics and scholars for its elegant proportions, flat-topped roof, and deep set windows accentuated by unbroken vertical piers. This vertical emphasis produces an illusion that the building is taller than it actually is while still adhering to the prescribed height/mass ratio. Saarinen's competition entry also receives more attention simply because it won second prize and is therefore better know -- Goodhue's entry is often overlooked in a sea of 50 entries that received honorable mentions.

I would argue, however, that Goodue's competition entry was ultimately more influential than Saarinen's. Most striking is Goodhue's flattened surface treatment and simple lines which anticipate the Streamlined Moderne. The building's smooth limestone exterior, reductive forms, chamfered corners (in the upper stories), and understated ornament add to the design's clean, modernistic aesthetic. Indeed, this aesthetic is reflected in Goodhue's two most important built works of the period: the Nebraska State Capitol (1920-1932) and the Los Angeles Public Library (1921-1926).

If you were to lop-off the the more decorative aspects of the penthouse of Goodhue's Tribune Tower, his design begins to resemble the signature style of Holabird + Root's skyscrapers of the late 1920s. Here's a period photo of 333 N. Michigan:

333 N. Michigan Avenue (1928)
Holabird + Root
In contrast to Goodhue's competition entry, Saarinen's  looks a bit old-fashioned with its historically-derived Gothic detailing, ribbed surface treatment, and decorative finials that protrude above the building's massing. However, Saarinen's entry did inspire several Chicago skyscrapers that featured Gothic ornament including the Pittsfield Building (1927), Mather Tower (1928), and the Steuben Club Building (1929). These buildings definitely receive much less attention from scholars than their more modernistic (in terms of detailing) cousins.

Which was the first office tower built in Chicago to incorporate the new stepped massing in its design?  More on that in the next post.

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