The sixth design for Santiago Calatrava's Chicago Spire has been approved by the the Chicago Plan Commission. This design figures to be the final one before construction begins if Irish developer Garrett Kelleher keeps to his original plan to break ground in June. The project is being conducted Euro style, meaning Kelleher is building 1,200 condos stacked up to a harrowing height on the wet side of Lake Michigan's original shore--entirely on spec. Details about the funding are hazy; only a single Dublin bank has ponied up any money. One gets the feeling that Kelleher is funding the project with an ATM card.
The developer is sweetening the deal by including something called DuSable Park, which promises to be a 3.2 acre windswept slab of land crammed in between Lake Shore Drive and the lake. It will be a small urban miracle if the the park, named for the first permanent settler in the Chicago area, turns out to be anything more than a crap-filled dog park by day and a squatter's camp by night. A local community group is fighting the design for the park, apparently because they need to show there's actually a community in the neighborhood to be offended.
How does the latest design look? Certainly better than the notorious Twizzler design. Calatrava's latest proposal seems both more refined and less audacious than the original design presented in July of 2005. (The Chicago Tribune has a good presentation on the history of the design.) Calatrava has restored one of the most appealing features of the original design: its slender grace. He's also resolved the one major shortcoming of the 2005 proposal: its relation to the street. This is a sensitive aesthetic issue here because of the poor way the Sears Tower relates to the street.
On paper, the design looks terrific. The Spire could replace the Hancock Building as the city's synecdochic structure, i.e., the image that stands in for the city as a whole. We won't know until the building is actually built. As Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin puts it,
At best, this will be a new Eiffel Tower, a scale-shattering yet superb skyline statement that becomes the new postcard image of Chicago.
At worst, as less persuasive renderings of the tower suggest, it will be a visual cartoon, a supersize, superskinny version of a soft-serve ice cream cone.
We already have the worst-case scenario playing out on the riverfront. After several revisions Skidmore, Owings & Merrill finally presented an acceptable design for the Trump Tower on the Chicago River. But watching it take shape is like a slow-motion horror film. It's as if Donald Trump's hair has been rendered in glass and steel and it's coming to roost in the middle of the city. Calatrava's Spire looks like it could be a fantastic addition to the city. Let's hope it doesn't turn into another mistake by the lake.