15 dec 17  | Chicago Tribune

Best architecture of 2017: Apple Store, Unity Temple and the Biennial in a remarkable year

by Blair Kamin

With a new architecture biennial, a big Frank Lloyd Wright anniversary and a series of small gems, it was a very good year for Chicago architecture. Here are the highlights:

A Chicago double for L.A. architects: The second version of the Chicago Architecture Biennial built on the legacy of the first biennial with a show, titled “Make New History,” that explored how a new generation of architects is looking backward to move forward.

The curators of the exhibition, Los Angeles architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, shaped an elegant, albeit esoteric, framework that showcased work by more than 140 designers from over 20 countries. And they demonstrated how their “Make New History” approach can work in a modestly scaled but exemplary renovation of the common spaces inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

The right move for Mr. Wright: In a year that marked the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth, one of the most important events was the triumphant restoration of Wright’s Unity Temple, the Oak Park landmark that is the finest public building of Wright’s Chicago years and home to one of the most beautiful rooms in America.

A team of consultants led by Chicago’s Harboe Architects lavished exacting care on every aspect of the project, from the restoration of jewel-like art glass to the recreation of textured plaster walls. Chicago’s Alphawood Foundation contributed a $10 million lead grant.

Rising to the challenge: 150 North Riverside, a gutsy slope-bottomed office tower along the Chicago River, delivered a notable exception to the banality of Chicago’s high-rise building boom.

Wedged into a 2-acre site once considered unbuildable, the powerfully sculpted skyscraper wrote the latest chapter in the fabled Chicago story of integrating engineering and architecture. The design team was led by Chicago architects Goettsch Partners and Seattle-based Magnusson Klemencic Associates.

Good things in small packages, city: The much-awaited Apple store at 401 N. Michigan Ave. lived up to expectations with thrillingly transparent glass walls, an ultra-thin roof of lightweight carbon fiber and an expansive interior that overlooked the Chicago River.

The architects, London-based Foster + Partners, and their client, the Cupertino, Calif., computer giant, considered and then wisely rejected a rooftop Apple logo that would have made the two-story store resemble an oversized laptop. A gem of less-is-more modernism, the store marked the latest milestone in the city’s long-term push to upgrade its once-industrial downtown riverfront.

Good things in small packages, suburbs: Can a factory be beautiful? Yes, if it’s the Trumpf Smart Factory in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates.

Designed by Berlin architects Barkow Leibinger as an outpost of a leading machine tool manufacturer based near Stuttgart, Germany, the small but stylish factory shows potential clients what Trumpf’s digitally networked machines can make out of sheet metal. Its architecture, simultaneously robust and refined, is highlighted by a catwalk that threads through a spectacular row of roof trusses, giving an overview of its column-free factory floor.

An outdoor hub for Cub fans: A smartly designed outdoor plaza that replaced grungy surface parking lots outside historic Wrigley Field, the Park at Wrigley was a surprising public-space hit.

Young fans, apparently unable to remain in their seats for an entire nine innings, romped around its grassy section during games. The plaza’s brick-paved zone, which includes fountains and a bandstand, proved equally popular. There’s also activity on non-game days, including such winter attractions as an ice skating rink. The Chicago office of Edmonton, Alberta-based Stantec designed the plaza and an adjacent Cubs office building.

An indoor hub for future CEOs: At once visually dynamic and calmly ordered, the atrium of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management building created an instant indoor town square for students at the elite business school.

Linking the building’s four wings, the light-filled atrium features curving white balconies that echo the exterior’s water-inspired curves and two flights of wide wood steps where students check their smartphones, write on their laptops, eat and people-watch. Toronto-based KPMB Architects designed the building, which Northwestern calls the Global Hub.

An innovative new theater at Navy Pier: The pier’s ongoing transformation from gaudy, hyper-commercialism to an appealing public space took a significant step forward with The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare.

Designed by Chicago’s Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture with the British theater consulting firm Charcoalblue, the Yard features nine movable seating towers that can be arranged in a variety of configurations. Located inside the awkward tent of the pier’s old Skyline Stage, which had to be retained for financial reasons, it’s a solid example of working creatively within severe constraints of time, budget and a challenging site.

In Detroit, a downtown revival takes hold: After decades of being the poster child for urban decay, Detroit celebrated key steps toward recovery. The city opened a streetcar line on Woodward Avenue, its main drag, while the Red Wings and Pistons started playing in the city-friendly Little Caesars Arena, which joined the Detroit Tigers’ Comerica Park to create a cluster of downtown sports attractions.

There is still a long way to go, especially in the vast stretches of vacant land outside downtown. But Detroit’s planning director, Maurice Cox, has turned the city into a must-see laboratory for the reimagining and remaking of a shrinking city.

Fond farewells: We lost Ed Uhlir, the low-key Chicago architect who helped bring to life the high-wattage visual spectacle of Millennium Park and had an equally distinguished career at the Chicago Park District; John Macsai, the Chicago architect who designed Lincolnwood’s Purple Hotel and Lake Shore Drive high-rises; and Chicago architect Carter Manny Jr., a partner at the firm of C.F. Murphy Associates and director of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Further afield, deaths of major design figures included Gunnar Birkerts, the Detroit-area architect whose major buildings included an acclaimed addition to the University of Michigan Law Library, and the Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully, who enlightened generations of students with his theatrical lectures and served on the jury that in 1988 selected Chicago architect Thomas Beeby’s postmodern design for the Harold Washington Library Center.