13 aug 08 | The Chicago Tribune

Skyscraper wars part three: egos clash and cultures collide as Chicago architects reshape Asia's skylines

By Blair Kamin

Fourteen years ago, long before anyone knew that Beijing would be hosting the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the following story of mine ran in the Chicago Tribune Magazine. At the time, Sears Tower had reigned for 20 years as the world's tallest office building and the skyscraper remained synonymous with the United States. But all that was about to change, as the piece makes clear. The story chronicles the conflicting design philosophies of two of Chicago's leading architects, Adrian Smith (then a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) and Helmut Jahn, still the head of Murphy/Jahn, as they shaped skyscrapers in Shanghai. Smith's 88-story Jin Mao Building (now called the Jin Mao Tower) was built. Jahn's 21 Century Tower was not. With the Olympics focusing attention on China, I'm offering the story as a five-part serial that will appear on this blog from Monday through Friday. I'll return next week.

A gong sounds. The fluttering melody of the shamisen, a Chinese bamboo flute, is heard. Then come the sweet strains of the koto, a guitarlike Chinese instrument.

One almost expects the TV screen to show a picture of the Last Emperor striding through the Forbidden City. Instead, it's the chunky figure of Smith, his mane of whitish-gray hair set off by his dark-blue suit. The chief executive officer of Skidmore is standing in front of several drawings of a skyscraper. The drawings, about 4 feet tall, are surrounded by red borders with yellow Chinese letters.

This is the beginning of a 14-minute video, produced at a cost of $5,000, that Skidmore submitted to the consortium of foreign trade companies, the China Shanghai Trade Centre Co. Ltd., as part of the competition to design the Jin Mao Building. The consortium invited one Chinese firm, plus one each from Japan and Hong Kong and three from America-Skidmore; St. Louis-based Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum; and Atlanta-based John Portman & Associates, best known for producing hotels with dizzying atriums. The trade consortium included the non-Chinese designers "because they are more experienced than we are in China when it comes to supertall skyscrapers like this," says project director Zhu. "For us, an 88-story building is unprecedented." Further demonstrating that they did not wish to take chances with a building of such size and scope, the consortium's executives convened a 15-member evaluating committee that included two American architects and an urban planner; the vice chairman of the Hong Kong Architectural Society; and Kisho Kurokawa, the distinguished Japanese architect and author of "Intercultural Architecture."

"Jin Mao" roughly translates into "gold," which, figuratively speaking, is what Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and all large American architectural firms are in search of these days. Skidmore was once the undisputed titan of commercial architecture in the United States. By tastefully purveying the steel-and-glass aesthetic of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to corporate America, Skidmore turned out such modern monuments as the Lever House in Manhattan and Chicago's Inland Steel Building, John Hancock Center and Sears Tower. So faithfully-some would say slavishly-did the firm follow the Miesian aesthetic that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill became known as "three blind Mies."

But as architectural attitudes shifted in the 1970s and 1980s, Skidmore's fortunes went into decline. A new style, known as postmodernism, rejected the austere forms of Mies and embraced a more eclectic brand of architecture. It sought to relate skyscrapers to their urban surroundings more sympathetically than the often-forbidding steel-and-glass boxes that had become Skidmore's forte.

In part because Skidmore shifted slowly to postmodernism, office developers in Chicago and around the nation began looking elsewhere for architects. One firm they began hiring was New York-based Kohn Pedersen Fox, which made major inroads in Chicago during the 1980s, winning such prize commissions as 333 West Wacker and the retail, hotel, office and condominium tower at 900 N. Michigan Ave., the so-called Bloomingdales Building. Combined with the collapse of the building boom and the tumult caused by internal power shifts within Skidmore, the changes took their toll. At the end of 1989, Skidmore had 1,200 employees in its offices around the nation. Today that total has been halved to 600 people who work in Skidmore offices in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C. and London, as well as a satellite office in Hong Kong. (There are about 250 people in Skidmore's Chicago office, compared to at least 550 at the end of 1989). Though the firm's top managers say Skidmore is making money and that they are able to work more efficiently with a smaller staff, these clearly are not boom times.

In keeping with his contextual design philosophy, Smith did not want the Jin Mao Building to come across as a spaceship from an alien world. Yet the architect had never set foot in Shanghai. So, soon after he learned that Skidmore had been invited to compete for the tower, Smith walked to the firm's in-house library and began paging through books about Chinese design.

The form that intrigued him was the pagoda, which developed in China about 500 B.C. and served as a Buddhist shrine, memorial or tomb. Typically, pagodas were built of wood or brick and had tapering silhouettes and curved eaves at each story. That gave them the appearance of tile-roofed houses piled one on top of another. Some pagodas rose as high as 260 feet, or about one-fifth the height of Smith's Jin Mao.

"I felt it was an evocative shape, an interesting point of departure," Smith says, seated in his office at 224. S. Michigan Ave. He sought to reinterpret the pagoda in a contemporary manner, not to literally reproduce it. The form he developed for the Jin Mao Building, with its pagodalike setbacks and projections, creates a rhythmic pattern as the tower steps upward. It is intended to identify the skyscraper as an urban icon, a civic symbol like the Empire State Building.

Now, as the video rolls, Smith is explaining his design rationale to his prospective clients. "This building was designed specifically for Shanghai," he says earnestly. To firmly establish Smith's architectural precedent, the video shows pagodas, including a trio of towers in a rural, mountainside settlement. Then the camera pans across a profile of the proposed Jin Mao Building. "Upon reflection," Smith says,  "one feels that this building has the qualities of the pagoda-the nature of its setbacks, the characteristics of its profile and the welcoming presence of its form could be nowhere else than in China, nowhere else than in Shanghai." At the same time, Smith explains, the Jin Mao Building should be a skyscraper for the 21st Century. So it will be clad in high-tech materials such as aluminum and stainless steel that will shimmer in the sunlight.

Leaving nothing to the imagination, Smith takes his clients into the lobby, the elevator and offices of the building. These features are pictured with already-built Skidmore designs. The tower will have roughly 50 office floors. Above them will be a 35-story hotel with an artificially lit, 35-story atrium carved out of the tower's center, a dramatic feature perhaps never before included at the top of a skyscraper. Smith describes the spectacular night-time views of Shanghai from the hotel, though what the video shows are actually evening shots of the Chicago skyline. He discusses the Jin Mao Building's one-level observatory, which will be open to the public. The skyscraper will have parking for 1,200 cars and 1,000 bicycles, China's most common form of commuting. As the shamisen, the koto, a gong and chimes play in the background, the video concludes with the firm's initials-SOM-flashing like a mantra across the screen.