The proposed 150-storey Chicago Spire promises to throw an architectural curve into a city that has always paid strict homage to the straight line.

LISA ROCHON Saturday, April 19, 2008

It’s always dangerous to declare somebody a genius. Sometimes it’s dangerous even to think it.

Yet there is a man in our midst who wanders about with a palette of watercolours in his back pocket; who hardly cares to know the date; who is a gentle, approachable soul with a Valencian accent; who designs museums and bridges like birds in flight, and a promenade for the new PATH train station at the World Trade Center with ribs like those of a whale.

Translating the endless wonders of the natural world – the tight curl of a seashell, a man’s sculpted torso – is what he has pursued and achieved for 20 years. If a requirement for genius is a boundless imagination, then sketches depicting the outer luminosity of the moon, a design for a flying machine, and a section of an unborn infant nestled into a womb illustrate Leonardo da Vinci’s. The mind of Santiago Calatrava could be similarly cast, because he draws door handles resembling bones, and buildings as containers of unfettered light; but also, as part of that continuum of creativity, because he pushes past convention and acceptable protocols. For his 150-storey residential Chicago Spire, he has sculpted doorknockers in the shape of the heads of a man and a woman with gaunt faces and hollowed-out mouths, of people married for too long.

Anyway, for now, the question is not really what Calatrava is, but whether his Spire upholds or scatters our belief in his genius.

Redeveloping the peninsula that juts into the Chicago River east of Lake Shore Drive has been on the books for decades. The city was keen, even desperate, to kick-start the process. Originally, with a different developer, there was a design for two towers of about 40 storeys each; they’d been given, unbelievably in retrospect, a building permit for an above-ground parking deck.

Since then, Calatrava has presented two different schemes, with a 2006 rendering indicating the most fluid movement – more seashell spiralling than machined – with its form tapering naturally to the top. The addition of more floors has meant that fluidity has been seriously undermined, so that the latest and final scheme – currently under construction – is the hybrid creation of a man who wrestles daily with reality and utopia.

The Spire bears the signature grace of Calatrava in the sail-like form of its structural columns at the public terrace; the undulating maple ceiling within the 18-metre-high main lobby; and in the way its twists, accomplished through curved stainless-steel spandrels.

But measured against the Chicago skyline, the Spire does deserve the now-public chorus that it resembles a drill bit. The demands of its extreme height have forced an accelerating helical form without the possibility of, for instance, the spreading of monumental wings at Calatrava’s remarkable Lyon-Satolas train station (1994) in France. Otherwise, there is much that is shag-a-delic about the Spire’s custom-designed interiors, such as the circular bed enclosures made of tinted glass to provide extra privacy. The shower stalls use drains hidden under white, Portuguese- marble floors. The three-bedroom units feature walnut, wide-plank floors in a herringbone pattern. Among the public amenities are a rock-climbing wall, a cigar room and personal wine cellars. It is a standard of living rarely seen. Yet, ultimately, this is a 150-storey modulated machine boring deeply into the Earth.

Let’s be clear: The structure is all straight, but, between the ninth floor and the 150th, rotates 360 degrees. A lesser rotation was achieved by Calatrava’s Malmo tower in Sweden, at 54 storeys, the highest residential tower in Europe. For his Swedish clients, Calatrava considered the many planes of a man’s torso.

None of this really matters should the construction of the Spire be cancelled. The Chicago press speculates that, given the beleaguered economy, it’s a possibility. Still, Shelbourne Development has launched a dozen showrooms in some of the richest cities in the world. The foundation work is well under way, and the ramp off Lake Shore Drive is complete.

Gerrett Kelleher, Shelbourne’s executive chairman, his wife and seven children are planning to move permanently from Dublin to Chicago later this year. Niall Collins, Kelleher’s man in Chicago, is also moving his family to the Windy City. “The clients that we’re talking to are not struggling for their mortgages, and they’re more resilient to the world market,” says Collins. “To be part of this is incredible. We have changed our lives to be part of it. Yes, it’s going ahead.”

For Irish billionaire Kelleher, the question is whether Calatrava’s pedigree – no matter how it is understood – is powerful enough to sell 1,194 units in a city that, let’s face it, is not quite Dubai. They are selling for about $750 (U.S.) a square foot, but that can climb, depending on height, view and amenities. The penthouse, occupying floors 141 and 142, will provide 360-degree views of Chicago, and carry a price tag of $40-million.

The Spire occupies 2.2 acres – half of which will become DuSable Park, a muddy tract of land that Calatrava will design with local landscape architects. The tight fit within a large city means that the Spire – minus the walnut floors – can be defended as an exercise in sustainability. (How many people will actually live full-time in the tower will be interesting to learn.) The building will likely achieve a LEED Gold environmental rating, in part because of the 400 bicycle stands in the below-grade parking, and in part because Chicago River water will be used for cooling.

For close to 200 years, despite its wealth and civic boosterism, Chicago has laboured under its reputation as the city second to New York. Only when it won the competition to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, then built the fair on reclaimed swampland, was its reputation seriously realigned. Daniel Burnham and John Welborn Root’s masterful understanding of how to build tall towers on Chicago’s perversely wet soil – requiring the laying of steel grillage before filling it with concrete to provide a stable foundation within the sandy-wet gumbo – allowed the triumphant construction of the Montauk in 1882 to 10 storeys, and then the masterworks by Louis Sullivan long before the modern giants appeared.

The colossal success of the 24.5-acre Millennium Park, with its Frank Gehry performance pavilion, distinguished by a bed head of titanium curls and graced by a lawn vast enough to seat 7,000 people, has sparked a worldwide interest in Chicago. The streets are clean, the roofs are green. It is intriguing people more than New York these days. And, what’s this? Something that curves? Not only Calatrava’s Spire, but the 82-storey Aqua tower by Jeanne Gang, formerly of OMA/Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam, midway through construction. Gang is a woman whose firm has been catapulted onto the world stage ever since it started sculpting towers with solar panels. Aqua’s architect of record, Loewenberg & Associates, assigned Studio Gang to overturn the “deadly Soviet qualities” of Loewenberg’s previous attempts at towers, in the words of Benet Haller, the city of Chicago’s director of urban design, who met with me at Chicago city hall last week.

To walk through Aqua in the pouring rain the other day with project architect Mauricio Sanchez was to experience a shift of significant proportions to the classic Chicago tower. The glass-curtain wall appears as an organic pattern, with vertical islands of highly reflective glass next to clear glass. Many of the windows are operable. Balconies, often 3.7 metres deep, are generously curved not only as a stylistic trope but in order to reduce the harshest angles of the sun. Depending on where you are standing in the city, the $300-million Aqua can look like a mostly slender rectangle, while, from some angles, it becomes a highly sculptural tower.

With the exception of the corn-cob-like Marina City complex (1964), the curve in Chicago is a relatively new idea. We know it, of course, as home of cities in the sky. The John Hancock Tower (1969, 100 storeys), the hulking, stepped-back Sears Tower, (1974, 110 storeys) and the Amoco Building (1974, 82 storeys) pay strict homage to the straight line. A celebration of the right angle. Strictly Cartesian.

The question is whether Calatrava will ultimately do for the curve what Mies van der Rohe did for the straight line. The answer is: He already did, pre-Chicago. Not so long ago, Calatrava’s work was primarily concerned with the creation of light spaces. It’s impossible to enter the BCE Place atrium (1992) in downtown Toronto without being zapped by Calatrava’s good karma. Even on the bleakest winter day, the light descending from the glass roof into the six-storey Allan Lambert Galleria is instantly energizing. In these spaces, the focus is on a kind of imperial space-making – dictated from on high. And yet melodrama has no place in his work. His training as both an engineer and architect has seen to that.

Look for it if you like, but there is no pathos in Calatrava’s work. It is built, beautifully articulated reverie. Perhaps he is a utopian wearing the clothing of a realist. Or he might be a realist disguised as a utopian. What determines his status as a genius? It’s impossible to know.