Make New History: A Vertical City for the Innovation Economy

Make New History: A Vertical City for the Innovation Economy

“Today, history represents neither an oppressive past that modernism tried to discard nor a retrograde mind-set against unbridled progress. Instead, at a time when there is too much information and not enough attention — when a general collective amnesia perpetuates a state of eternal presentness — understanding the channels through which history moves and is shaped by architecture is more important than ever.” – Chicago Biennial

Last fall I spent three days in Chicago, taking in the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Make New History was the theme and participants — 140 architects and artists from around the globe — contributed a range of exhibits, from dioramas to live performances, to explore how history can be invoked to inform new ideas and forms in architecture. The Biennial was held in the Chicago Cultural Center (a grand former library built in 1897 and host to the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome), with associated events throughout the city, and it took place from September, 2017 through January, 2018.

“Vertical City,” 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial: Make New History

Of the many thought-provoking exibits, I was most taken with “Vertical City,” a contemporary take on the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower Competition. With the charge by the Tribune’s publisher Colonel Robert R. McCormick to make “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world,” the original competition attracted entries from over 260 architects, including Walter Gropius, Adolf Loos, and Eliel Saarinen (who took second). The wildly contrasting ideas influenced generations of architects to come. Resurrected in 1980 by Stanley Tigerman under the guise of “Late Entries,” the Tribune Tower competition (it was actually an invited submittal for a publication) once again attracted some of architecture’s biggest thinkers — Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, Bernard Tschumi, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

If the 1922 competition made evident a pivot point in architecture toward modernism, and the “Late Entries,” of 1980 turned largely on postmodernist metaphor, fun and sarcasm, how might we understand the “Vertical City” of 2017?

The architects practicing today revealed delightfully varied ideas, represented as scaled models that reimagine the landmark tower. The Cultural Center’s Yates Hall, a large expanse of a room with floor to ceiling windows that pull the city into the space, was given over to the exhibition, fusing the experience with meta. Wandering amid the towers, I felt myself inside a diorama of alternative histories of a building and of a city in which I could, in real time, hear the taxis honking below and feel the glare of the sun moving across the glaze of adjacent buildings.

Of the 16 entries, I found myself sparked by the ones that directly addressed core drivers of the innovation economy: work / life integration, community, connection to the public realm, and non-hierarchy.

Big Bang Tower by Ensamble Studio (far right) and Biennial Project by Kéré Architecture (second from right)

Big Bang Tower: A Column of Columns for the Chicago Tribune by Ensamble Studio 

Noting that “an office can be a cubicle and also an open co-working area, a cafe, a lounge, a lab, a multipurpose room, virtual substance in the cloud, a room in your house, and much more,” Ensamble Studio imagined “A Column of Columns” tied together with horizontal structures that vary their positions, heights and areas to frame the city and connect interior spaces. With cores pulled to the sides and located within the envelope (atypical in a traditional high rise) and the asymmetric columns resolving both vertical structure and infrastructure, the floor plates are open to receive a diverse and evolving program. The structure is one in which knowledge workers, who expect work / life integration, might just as easily take in a film as write a creative brief.

Biennial Project by Kéré Architecture

“In alignment with current trends, the design forecasts that people will value a balanced work and life ratio while retaining real and meaningful connections with each other and with the places that they live.” Inspired by the Tower of Babel metaphor of a community working together in shared aspiration, Kéré Architecture’s proposal anticipates a mix of housing, workplace, commerce, and recreation in one building. To free up the interior for a variety of amenities and opportunities to connect with community, the cores are pulled outward. Segmented blocks with central voids allow for more private functions, like housing, to be consolidated and located higher up, with more communal activities happening on the ground floor to support integration with the public realm. The proposal offers a microcosm of a neighborhood or a city, a one-stop live/work shop in a tower of the future.

Other Histories by Serie Architects

Other Histories by Serie Architects

“If the primary source of derivation for modern architecture is classicism, what would an architecture that is derived from a non-Western historical tradition be?” With its design inspired by ancient Chinese architecture’s central organizing concept of the pavilion, and with pavilions stacked vertically to form a pagoda, this proposal offers a structure freed from hierarchical organization, with spaces defined in relation to one another. “The spaces of this new vertical city are attuned to the nature of the knowledge economy and the contemporary media environment where performance dominates, flexibility sets value, and well-being is the ultimate cause. Pavilions frame theaters, meeting zones, restful landscapes, and hedonistic gardens: the true productive spaces for today’s media workers. This is architecture with a language not rooted in Western thought and with a history outside of the narratives of modernism.”

This was the model to which I returned, walking around it, staring into its corners, wanting to step inside and make myself at home.

Does the “Vertical City” — this third festival of ideas centered on iconic American skyscraper — offer a touchpoint, some indication of where urban architecture is going in response to changes in how we work to propel the innovation economy? If so, I’d take note of the Ensamble, Kéré, and Serie entries.