14 aug 08 | The Chicago Tribune

Skyscraper wars part four: 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 worl'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.

The Skidmore proposal captivated the Jin Mao Building evaluation committee. "It didn't take us long to make up our minds," project director Zhu says. "The SOM proposal pretty clearly outshone the others." He said the committee particularly appreciated "the mix of East and West" in the pagoda cum skyscraper. Yet Jahn and other American architects sharply disagree, disregarding their profession's unspoken rule against publicly criticizing another designer's work.

"It's hard to translate a pagoda into an 88-story building, even though pagodas were towers" says Louie, the Kohn Pedersen Fox partner."I talk to clients, and they say, `Bring us into the 21st Century.' How do you do that when you look backwards?" Jahn  is even more critical of Smith's design and the whole notion of designing skyscrapers by reverting to traditional, indigenous architecture. He speaks of a "cultural gap" between East and West that cannot be bridged. He remembers how he discouraged architects in his firm, Murphy-Jahn, from taking German lessons when they were designing a project in Germany, where Jahn had lived until his mid-20s. Jahn's message is that it is easy to learn the language of a culture but far more difficult to learn its essence. It is a lesson he applies to the vocabulary of architecture, steadfastly sticking to his own design language rather than superficially exploiting someone else's

Walking through his studio at 35 E. Wacker Drive, Jahn stops at two wall-mounted pictures. They show his entries in the Malaysian architectural competition won by Pellis twin towers. Jahn's first design consisted of three structurally expressive office buildings based on the dynamic Russian Constructivist architecture of the late 1910s and early 1920s. They were rejected by the developer, who asked for something more "Malaysian." So Jahn responded with another scheme, distinguished by abstract onion domes and other half-hearted attempts to evoke Islamic architecture that was also rejected.

"Pelli's was even more traditional than this," Jahn says, looking at his second entry. "I'm glad we didn't have to build this. It's punishment enough that Pelli has to build his design."

Then Jahn takes aim at Smith's interpretation of the pagoda. "There is no Chinese tradition in high-rise building," he says. He believes he will take a more appropriate course in his tower, which is being built by a development company, the China Everbright International Investment & Trust Corp.

Jahn slowly walks around the studio, looking at five different versions of the Shanghai tower that are displayed in drawings on the wall and as models. He has designed all of them before traveling to Shanghai, the architect says without apology. When he gets to Shanghai, Jahn says, he will better be able to evaluate the site with specific alternatives in mind.

All the proposals are startlingly different from Smith's pagoda-influenced skyscraper. Their abstract geometric shapes include X's on the facade. "It's diamonds, see?" quips Jahn, who knows about fung shui. Another proposal is for a startling, structurally expressive high-rise with an 11-story triangular notch cleaved out of its base. Passersby might feel the tower is about to topple on them, but Jahn says his aim is humanistic-to leave open space at the end of a planned boulevard. And by putting a series of similar triangular notches to serve as mini-parks on the upper floors of the building, he has brought the boulevard into the sky. The mini-parks-or Winter Gardens, as they will be called-found favor with Jahn's clients, who selected this design, thus ensuring the sharpest possible contrast with Smith's Jin Mao Building.