15 aug 08 | The Chicago Tribune

Skyscraper wars part five: Ego 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 (left). 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.

What happens when contrasting cultures come together through the medium of architecture? There is tension, to be sure, but significant aesthetic transformations can also emerge.

A creative synthesis of this sort may have occurred when young Frank Lloyd Wright ventured to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and strode past the neo-classical Palace of Fine Arts (the present Museum of Science and Industry) to a wooded island in the middle of Jackson Park. There sat the great fair's Japanese pavilion, the Ho-o-den, its upward-curving eaves projecting well beyond the walls of its three interconnected houselike structures. Although the egotistical Wright denied that Japanese architecture ever influenced his work, scholars now speculate that it was one of several strains of design that the architect brilliantly incorporated into his famed Prairie Style. Later, the cross-cultural ethos would flower in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, completed in 1922 and destroyed in 1967 to make way for a bland, modern hotel. In the new book, "Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan: The Role of Traditional Japanese Architecture in the Work of Frank Lloyd Wright'" the architect Kevin Nute writes that the Imperial Hotel "was meant as a bridge between East and West, and by all accounts . . . it was in fact popular with both locals and foreigners alike."

One would like to imagine the Jin Mao Building in the same vein. It is being built, after all, by a consortium of foreign trade companies, and the essence of trade is exchange-not just of goods and money, but of culture. Yet ultimately, the extent to which the skyscraper succeeds in bridging gaps will depend on Smith's ability to convincingly transform traditional Chinese architecture into a contemporary design with a distinctly Asian resonance.

In a sense, that aim is not unprecedented. In the Tribune Tower, architects Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells drew upon the soaring verticality and handcrafted ornamentation of medieval French cathedrals and transformed them into what is now regarded as a quintessential American skyscraper. Similarly, Jahn's Liberty Place tower in Philadelphia has transformed the Jazz Age exuberance of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan into a shimmering skyline symbol that is loved by the City of Brotherly Love.

A tall building, beautifully designed, has the power to capture a culture's image of itself and, in effect, the image it projects worldwide. That is the view of Pelli, who has attempted to incorporate Islamic design principles into the twin towers of the Kuala Lumpur City Centre, which will be occupied by the national petroleum company Petronas and its subsidiaries. Yet Pelli acknowledges that his skyscrapers will have a "unique" presence, in part because there is no Malaysian tradition of supertall buildings.

In that sense, Pelli predicts, the Kuala Lumpur City Centre will be like the Eiffel Tower. Had that essay in ironwork been built in London, he reasons, it would have been seen as the epitome of English architecture, a cousin of the Crystal Palace. Had it been built in Berlin, it would have become a symbol of German engineering. "Once it was built in Paris," Pelli says, "it became completely French. It was the symbol of Paris. In a way, that is what these towers will do for Kuala Lumpur."

Though Smith is more prone to compare the Jin Mao Building to the Empire State Building, clearly the creation of an instant landmark is his aim too. Yet Jin Mao remains a work in progress on both political and aesthetic fronts. The $400 million-to-$500 million project, which is due to be completed in late 1997 or early 1998, still has to receive final approval from Shanghai's municipal government, though Smith says that an agreement in principle has been reached with local authorities. The architect also is working to sculpt the towers's top more sharply, fully aware that it must have a powerful presence when seen from several miles away.

That essential quality is lacking in Smith's otherwise well-handled AT&T Corporate Center in Chicago, a reinterpretation of 1920s setback office towers. For a skyscraper that will be among the tallest in Asia, Smith clearly wants to do better. And one senses his personal stake in the outcome as the architect bends his knees and glances upward at a plexiglass model of the tower that sits on a ledge in his office. How will it look to the man on the street, he wonders? Will it be seen as a beloved urban icon, quintessentially Chinese, or a botched American transplant?

As a business proposition, there is no denying the positive impact the Jin Mao Building has had on Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. About 30 to 40 architects and engineers are working on the tower. Some of them might have gotten pink slips had the project not come along. Although Skidmore's managers decline to publicly discuss fees, sources familiar with the firm's finances say that Skidmore commonly received $3 million to $4 million during the 1980s for skyscrapers roughly half the size of the Jin Mao Building. Based on those figures, it can be safely estimated that Skidmore will receive at least $5 million and perhaps as much as $10 million for the job.

In a sense, both sides already have been transformed-or, at least, enlightened-by Jin Mao. Project director Zhu acknowledges that the Chinese, who have a penchant for all-steel construction, learned from the American architects that it would be more efficient to use a core of high-grade concrete surrounded by a steel superstructure. (Implementing this solution is almost sure to require participation by non-Chinese contractors, perhaps from America, Hong Kong or Japan). And Zhu is enthusiastically looking forward to a visit to Chicago, the mecca of modern architecture, for a final review of the skyscraper design later this year.

For his part, Smith has gained a new understanding of Chinese cultural, karaoke and culinary customs. Some gaps, though, just can't be bridged. Smith, a picky eater, was dining last year in Shanghai with consortium chairman Zhang when live lobster was served. A piece of the quivering gray flesh soon found its way to his plate. Smith stared at it, petrified. Then a Skidmore colleague whispered a solution into his ear: Pass the lobster meat to Chairman Zhang as a gesture of generosity. With his chopsticks, Smith diplomatically did so, a kindness the chairman appreciated.

Only when the Jin Mao Building is completed will it be possible to discern whether out of such exchages, a great skyscraper was born.