Chicago's bid for 112 stories of glory

Today it's known as the Windy City. But pretty soon we may be calling it Cloud City.

After the Chicago City Council gave its unanimous go-ahead on Wednesday for construction of the world's tallest building, this Midwestern American metropolis is back in the running to claim the ever-harder-fought crown in the global game of king of the hill.

The move highlights Chicago's burgeoning high-altitude culture in which office workers aren't surprised to see hangers swaying in closets as their mighty monoliths bend in the wind.

But it also came on the same day that the Japanese developer of a massive Shanghai skyscraper announced he's rejigging his design to make the building taller - and furthermore won't disclose the new height so cities like Chicago can't one-up him.

Behind this building brinkmanship are telling lessons and symbols about global centers of money, power, innovation, and technology. Even though the world's tallest tower may soon be in Chicago, for instance, funding will likely come from the newly rekindled Asian economy.

Yet even though Asia's got the cash - and is home to many big building projects including the world's current tallest towers in Malaysia - if Chicago's new contender were completed today, it would make the Windy City home to five of the 25 tallest skyscrapers. That's more than any other place on the planet. (Its other biggest buildings are the Sears Tower, the Amoco Building, the John Hancock Tower, and the AT&T Corporate Center.)

The design of the new 1,550-foot-high structure, which Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley called "unusual," resembles a stick that's stacked with marshmallows and is about to be thrust into a campfire for making smores.

The 112-story, $500 million slender spire will have 765,000 square feet of office space atop 70,000 square feet of retail space and an 800-slot parking garage. Above that will be 350 luxury condos, fetching an average of $450,000 each. They'll be the world's highest residences.

And because of the building's unique design, there won't be any outer-support columns on the condo levels, so residents will have floor-to-ceiling glass and an unimpeded city view.

Atop the condos will be several floors of offices from which workers will operate the two towering 450-foot antennas that will broadcast high-definition television signals. In fact, the need for a 2,000-foot-high broadcasting spot is one of the major drivers of this project - which is not a done deal as funding appears still shaky.

This technological impetus contrasts with the economic one in Shanghai, where developers aim to create a financial center by constructing such a dramatically big building.

In all, Chicago's svelte new structure will take up just one-quarter of a city block. And it will be another edifice in which Chicagoans can live, work, shop, and eat - a useful thing in a city with notoriously bone-chilling winters.

Across town, in the John Hancock Tower, for instance, there's a grocery store and dry cleaners on the 44th floor. Residents can live in condos on one floor and commute via elevator to offices on another. In this building, home to celebs such as Jerry Springer, there's even a sky-high swimming pool with floor-to-ceiling windows.

On cloudy days high-living Chicagoans have to phone folks down on the ground to find out if it's raining. It's all part of a culture spawned after the world's first steel-skeleton skyscraper was erected here in 1884. Ever since, Chicago has been a big-building powerhouse.

One partner at the Chicago firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill designed the new project here, as well as China's tallest building, the 1,380-foot-tall Jin Mao in Shanghai, and another world's-tallest hopeful, a 1,780-foot-high project in Hong Kong.

In fact, many see Chicago's design dominance as proof the US is still the architectural innovation leader. Why? Many say it's an ego thing. But others say in a city known for its grittiness - hogs, railroads, gangsters - architecture is the one artistic-industrial endeavor. As former Chicago Tribune managing editor Richard Ciccone puts it: "In a town that's always been known for its hustlers, architecture is Chicago's one pristine treasure."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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