Big John


I was in Chicago recently for the Driehaus Prize ceremony, and I was staying in a hotel across North Michigan Avenue from the John Hancock Center, in fact my fortieth-floor room looked directly at the building. Built in 1969, and designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, this has always been one of my favorite Chicago skyscrapers. The characteristic tapered silhouette is much more successful than the Sears Tower (another Graham-Khan collaboration), and the crisscrossing bracing remains an evocative expression of its structure. I could see Mies’s 860 Lake Shore Drive from my hotel room, and the Hancock tower seemed like a perfect hommage to the master, yet making its own way. I had always seen Hancock from a distance, or from the street, but never from this vantage point. I must confess to being disappointed. The matte black curtain wall appeared crude. The heavy diagonal braces were crude too, not just in execution but in the way they relentlessly enclosed the Miesian curtain wall in a clumsy corset. You could argue that the Hancock Center was not meant to be seen close-up. Yet immediately next to it is Holabird & Root’s Palmolive Building (1930), topped by the Lindbergh Beacon. This early example of a moderne style presents a lively and articulated mass that rewards close inspection. There is something appealing—dare I say humanist?—about Holabird & Root’s delicately articulated skyscraper, in contrast to its burly and somewhat intimidating neighbor.


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