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More than a century ago, the modern skyscraper was born in Chicago. It was nine stories tall. Then human nature--and advancing technology--unleashed a century of competition, much of it between New York and Chicago, to build the world's tallest building.
In recent decades the competition has gone international, with the current record-holder in Taiwan, a 101-story structure that rises about 1,670 feet. Another huge skyscraper, possibly twice the height of Chicago's John Hancock Center, is rising in the United Arab Emirates, its actual height a closely guarded secret. Donald Trump is building his tower on the Chicago River to measure just shy of the Sears Tower. And now a Chicago developer is joining the competition with his proposal for a slender, 115-story, rippling glass tower with a spire that could soar to about 2,000 feet. That would surpass the Sears Tower and the planned Freedom Tower in New York to become the nation's tallest building.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, there was speculation that such behemoths would never again be built. But that prediction, like the suggestion that irony was dead, proved to be premature.
Chicago is a city of architectural wonders and the proposed Fordham Spire would tower over the lakefront like a twisty birthday candle, another breathtaking spectacle for tourists. Its extreme ambition almost makes the Trump Tower, currently under construction and set to top out at a measly 1,360 feet, seem timid.
Whether the building, designed by superstar Spanish-born architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava, actually gets built is another question. There will certainly be vocal opposition from those in the Streeterville neighborhood, who will be horrified to find such a congestion-inducing titan in their midst.
There's something undeniably awesome--even romantic--about such proposals. Famed architect Louis Sullivan wrote in 1896 of the "glory and pride" in building tall buildings. "The man who designs in this spirit...must be no coward, no denier, no bookworm, no dilettante....He must realize at once and with the grasp of inspiration that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities...ever offered to the proud spirit of man."
Sullivan wrote at the giddy beginning of the era of tall buildings. More than a century later, such grand plans still exert fierce power.
But as technology has advanced to build ever higher, this question has grown more urgent: How tall is too tall? When does a tower exceed dreams to become an object not of inspiration but of ridicule for its overweening adolescent pretension and waste of resources? The first skyscrapers were built to solve the riddle of how to use scarce space more efficiently. Why are they being built now? That's the question Chicago must ask.
A gigantic skyscraper reflects a city's dream of itself, a portrait of its collective ego. But as Dan Friedman, director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, once said: "A city is not a bunch of big objects." What ultimately constitutes Chicago or any city is the spaces between those buildings, be they skyscrapers or something shorter--the flower-bedecked street medians, the graceful plazas, the engaging parks. Go ahead and dream of vast towers in the skies. But remember, it's not what happens in the stratosphere that really counts.