Chicago’s Ego

You might not have heard of Scott Toberman, but he could come to be known as the man who gave Chicago, and Capitalist America, its ego back. Toberman wants Chicago to be home to the“World’s Tallest Building” again. Using Asian capital, he plans to pour enough concrete on the city’s broad shoulders to take the title back from present holder Kuala Lumpur.

But, content with being the birthplace of skyscrapers, Chicago–as well as New York and other cities in the United States–has long since given up on such empty pursuits as tallest building contests. It took Toberman more than a year to get the nod from the Chicago Plan Commission.

He’s using capital from a consortium of financial institutions in Asia and the Pacific Rim. Yes, Toberman had to look beyond Lake Michigan, the Allegheny Mountains, and the skyline of the world’s financial capital to find interest in a project that’s better only because it’s bigger.

William Penn's HatIn the world of Mao Tse-tung and the Petronas Oil Company, the race has been heavy throughout the past decade to build symbols of capitalism in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. In the land of Louis Sullivan, George Pullman, J.P. Morgan and Louis Armour, interest in reaching for the sky has been limited, if not non-existent, in recent decades. Donald Trump sought several times to bring the world’s-tallest-building-of-the-month to New York, but hardly anybody cared. A few skyscrapers were built in Philadelphia after a regulation that limited building size to the top of a statue of William Penn was lifted–but none this decade. And across the state in Pittsburgh buildings are still limited to the top of the US Steel building, forever keeping the city in the grimy steel age.

Braggart’s Glory

“The age of the skyscraper is gone. This is the age of the housing project. Which is always a prelude to the age of the cave.” So said Gail Wynand in Ayn Rand’s classic architecture novel The Fountainhead. And Weekly Standard architecture critic David Gelernter seemed to agree when he wrote that where the U.S. once boasted of the Empire State or the Sears Tower as the tallest building in the world, now “we find the exuberance of the skyscraper builders incomprehensible and damned annoying.”

Empire State Building“Tall buildings do not reflect brazen, adolescent cultures on-the-make,” Gelernter wrote. “They emerge in fact out of eminently mature cultures flaunting their wealth, technology, design genius, and sheer radiant self-confidence. America no longer wants them, that’s for sure, or at least her spokesmen don’t. But that’s not because we are too mature but because we are too passive and tired.”

As we see architecture moving from modernism to post-modernism and perhaps back to classicism, it would be hard to argue that the United States as a culture is anything but passive and tired.

The destruction of a vintage 18 story building on the site of Toberman’s slender, proud and poignant skyscraper seems to be an aggravating loss for something as meaningless and selfish as another new tallest building. Once the supreme symbol of a corporation, capitalism, progress and America itself, the skyscraper isn’t an emblem we need or want anymore. In America modernity now means sprawling office parks with shoebox-shaped tilt-ups squatting among broad gray parking lots.

But buildings aren’t always built because they are useful. The original skyscrapers were, for the most part, billboards boasting of capitalism and commerce as well as the more mundane manifestations of business such as insurance (Metropolitan Building), sewing machines (Singer Building), cars (Chrysler Building), railroads (New York Central Building) and even media empires (Chicago Tribune Building).

Architect Phillip Johnson, famed for the post-modern AT&T and PPG Buildings, asked blatantly if land values were the reason for the skyscraper, why were they being built in China? (And try to find a skyscraper in Mainland China or Malaysia that’s over half occupied). Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t seem to like the idea of the vertical building and thought that if they were to be built at all, they should be alone in a field rather than in mid-town Manhattan or inside the Chicago Loop. Le Corbusier said, “The skyscrapers of New York are too small and there are too many of them.”

An Eye on the Sky

Flatiron BuildingEarly American skyscrapers, ornately decorated and lavishly furnished were unmistakably more than utilitarian. After the positive public response to the Flatiron Building in New York and Monadnock Building in Chicago around the turn of the last century, the race for the sky was underway. Soon the towers of commerce included the magnificent Singer Building (1908)and the still present Woolworth Building (1913), to name a few.

As Witold Rybczynski pointed out in his 1995 book, City Life, in medieval Lucia, Bologna and San Gimignano there was competition among merchant families to build towers up to three hundred feet, but later they were demolished as communal authority “affirmed its power over private interests.” But little outside of a few restrictions in such cities as Washington D.C. and Philadelphia slowed the race for the “worlds tallest building” in twentieth century United States. Today New York City Planning Commission is considering building height restrictions.

As later skyscrapers were built, and some older ones remodeled, the buildings lost their ornament and it could be assumed that instead of being monuments to industry, the new buildings were in fact being built for a practical economic reason (even if they were often in part publicly financed in the name of economic development). The new breed included the Pan-Am (now Met-Life) Building (1963), the World Trade Center (1976) in New York, and the Sears Tower (1974) in Chicago. But as the new glass and steel buildings reached ever higher, some, like Paul Goldberger, author ofThe Skyscraper, asked “The truly vast size of the new generation of skyscrapers seemed to make certain questions valid again. Did it make sense to build so tall?”

My Skyscraper, Myself

“I like to see man standing at the foot of a skyscraper,” a character, Newspaper Magnate Gail Wynand, said in the Ayn Rand novel. “It makes him no bigger than an ant–isn’t that the correct bromide for the occasion? The God-damn fools! It’s man who made it–the whole incredible mass of stone and steel. It doesn’t dwarf him, it makes him greater than the structure. It reveals his true dimensions to the world.”

If ego is the reason for building tall buildings, it shouldn’t be a secret that there’s more of it lately on the other side of the globe. While Americans raise their eyebrows and groan, in the East, buildings are rising to new heights. Using special construction techniques involving a high strength concrete, this month’s tallest towers are twins built by the Petronas Oil Company. They are the first skyscrapers built on foreign soil to break height records.

The towers barely surpass the Sears Tower, and in actuality the highest occupied floors in Petronas are lower than those in the Chicago landmark. Steel masts capping the Malaysian buildings were determined by the Council on Tall Buildings to be integral to the design, while antennas on the Sears Tower were not, forcing Chicago to lose its standing. Maybe it doesn’t matter in the U.S., but then again in Malaysia I’m sure it does.

The race will not likely allow Malaysia to hold the record nearly as long as the twenty-two years Chicago had. Other “tallest” buildings in Shanghai and Hong Kong, some delayed because of the economic crisis, are waiting approval or completion as many more attempt to reveal the dimensions of emerging cultures and companies to the world.

A Return to Form

Emulating America at the turn of the 21st century apparently isn’t so easy as emulating her at the turn of the twentieth. The new Asian towers in some ways more closely resemble the Art Deco examples in New York than such blank relics of the 1960s and Seventies as the US Steel Building in Pittsburgh. The Petronas Towers mirror each other in a manner similar to the World-Trade Center towers in New York, but Malaysia’s twins spire upward in a Gothic fashion rather than ending in a good solid Modernist flat cap. The Jin Mao Building, which had been planned for 1998 completion in Shanghai, tapers upward like a pagoda and stylistically would probably feel quite comfortable in the company of Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building.

Outside Asia other new tall structures have been built, though they didn’t really aim to break records. Inside the United States, Philadelphia saw Two Liberty Place in the 1980s, Charlotte welcomed NationsBank Corporate Center in 1992, and Toronto put up the 68-story Scotia Plaza in 1989. Nashville built the boldly styled BellSouth building (known affectionately by locals as the Bat Building because of twin spires resembling the superhero’s mask) in 1994, but it hardly competed for the title of world’s-tallest at a mere thirty stories.

In Europe, the Commerzbank Tower was completed in Frankfurt, Germany, last year and became Europe’s tallest building, and a “Millennium Tower” is being built in London to be completed in 2001, in time to celebrate the first year of the new century. At 1,265 feet, the latter would dwarf the tower in Frankfurt (984 feet) but not come close to the Petronas Towers (1,476 feet); it would surpass the Empire State Building by a mere 15 feet.

Of the fifty tallest buildings listed in the 1996 Universal Almanac, 31 were in the United States. Of the top ten, four are in the U.S. and three of those in New York. Of the 31 American buildings in the top fifty, ten were built after 1989. One building under construction in the United States today will join the 100 tallest. In contrast, Xiamen, China has two buildings under construction that will immediately enter the top 25.

Outstanding, or Just Standing Out?

If a building isn’t the tallest, it doesn’t get much attention. What Kaoshiung, Taiwan and Shenzhen know, Chicago has forgotten: that building to be the tallest, even if only for a month, is something that goes with making a self-respecting skyscraper, one that makes more than just economic sense to an assertive culture.

In New York and Chicago they knew, and in Asia they they are coming to know, that Capitalism means more than just an efficient use of resources. It means asserting to the world that the city, the company, and the individual have arrived.

“This is very beautiful and exciting,” Toberman said. “What an exciting time this is in Chicago.” But the rest of the city must decide if another new skyscraper in America is excitement or merely irritation.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me