3 jan 10 | Chicago Tribune

The tallest building ever (brought to you by Chicago)

By Blair Kamin

As a boy, growing up about two blocks from the beach in Southern California, Adrian Smith built towering sand castles -- only to watch the Pacific Ocean wash them away.

Now, the Chicago architect has designed a far more lasting legacy: the world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai, which will have its grand opening Monday in the debt-ridden city-state of Dubai.

The silvery, heat-deflecting skyscraper soars half a mile above the desert, rising to at least 800 meters, or more than 2,600 feet. That's taller than the John Hancock Center stacked atop the Willis Tower.

"The Burj is like a sand castle," said Smith, 65, whose mane of white hair contrasts with his elegant architect's uniform of black shirt and black pants. "It just keeps going up."

The $1.5 billion, mixed-use skyscraper represents a personal high point for Smith, who led the design of three of the world's 10 tallest buildings -- the Burj Dubai, Chicago's Trump International Hotel & Tower and the Jin Mao Building in Shanghai -- while at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).

Yet the Burj Dubai has a broader -- unmistakably global -- significance for Chicago, which invented the skyscraper in the 1880s, pioneered supertall structures in the mid-1960s and had bragging rights to the world's tallest building title from 1974 to 1996, when Sears (now Willis) Tower wore the crown.

These days, the city's cloud-busting architectural achievements aren't simply found in the downtown blocks girdled by the rough-edged steel structure of the "L." They're spread across the world, from Dubai to Shanghai and beyond.

"From the foundation established in Chicago, that legacy is now being exported to other countries," said Joseph Rosa, the Art Institute of Chicago"s architecture and design curator.

Smith personifies that global reach. He has accumulated nearly 3 million frequent-flier miles -- and that's just with United Airlines. He usually takes two overseas trips a month, keeping him away from his wife, Nancy, and their Lake Forest home, a white-columned Southern Colonial he saved from the wrecking ball in 1987.

Smith has never been on the cover of a slick men's magazine, like Chicago architect Helmut Jahn, who once appeared on GQ's cover. He is not renowned as an inconoclastic thinker like Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, whose CCTV headquarters in Beijing resembles a kind of twisted doughnut. Yet Smith brings to the table the traditional virtues of Chicago commercial architecture: a marriage of poetry and pragmatism.

"There's a reason why they go to someone like Adrian Smith -- he's known for building quality tall buildings," Rosa said. "And what's exciting about him building where he's building is that there are no constraints on the designers. So we'll see new invention coming from Adrian that will be a new model for others to follow in breaking the mold."

Indeed, Dubai -- a once-modest fishing village that experienced off-the-charts growth until its real estate boom went bust during the 2008 global economic meltdown -- is perhaps the world's best-known design play land. It has skyscrapers whose exotic shapes evoke everything from sailing spinnakers to Swiss cheese.

But the Burj Dubai, which houses an Armani hotel, condominiums, offices and an observatory on the 124th of its 154 occupied floors, is utterly unique -- a thin, three-winged tower that rises so high that the temperature outside its top has been known to be 20 degrees cooler than the temperature on the ground.

The skyscraper's developer, Dubai-based Emaar Properties, has kept the tower's exact height a secret, the better to incite media speculation and gain publicity. Yet in the wake of the recent debt crunch that shook Dubai World, a separate development arm of the sheikdom, Emaar has also had little to say about whether condominium buyers still plan to close their deals.

Smith bristles at the idea that the Burj Dubai is the ultimate symbol of the age of excess.

"Those critiques are critiques of society and not of the building itself," he said, sitting in his sleek corner office on the 23rd floor of the Skidmore-designed high-rise 111 W. Monroe St. The Burj Dubai "will stand the test of time."

Now the head of his own firm -- he broke from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 2006 to start Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture -- Smith was born on Chicago's West Side in 1944. He spent his early childhood in Evanston, then moved with his family to San Clemente, Calif., a planned community of white stucco houses with red-tile roofs that later became home to President Richard M. Nixon's "Western White House."

The Smiths lived in a Spanish Colonial-style house designed by Paul Revere Williams, an African-American architect who designed the homes of Hollywood stars and the futuristic Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport.

But it wasn't until high school that Smith discovered a fondness for geometry and tall buildings. One of his first drawings, he recalled, was of a skyscraper, though it was only about 40 stories.

"I was always interested in height," he said.

In 1967, while studying architecture at Texas A&M University, Smith started working for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the city's most prestigious architectural firm. After serving as a self-described "grunt" on the design team for the X-braced John Hancock Center, he rose through the ranks to become a design partner in 1980.

Taller and taller skyscraper commissions came his way, from the Art Deco-influenced 37-story NBC Tower in Chicago to the pagoda-inspired, 88-story Jin Mao building in Shanghai.

That richly detailed tower, completed in 1999 and clad in what Smith calls a "full metal jacket" of steel, aluminum and glass, was the one that put him on the global map. It was, until recently, China's tallest building and led Emaar to ask Smith and SOM to take part in a 2003 design competition for the Burj Dubai. In the characteristically hyperbolic Dubai style, Emaar mandated that the design produce the world's tallest building.

Smith acknowledges his role in such mega-towers is broad brush -- he relies on others to carry out details -- yet he stresses that his is a "very informed broad brush." Translation: He designs with an eye toward economical construction and function, not just surface dazzle. "Many towers get designed by people who aren't informed," Smith said. "They almost always don't get built."

Was he making a veiled reference, his interviewer wondered, to Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's stalled plan for the twisting Chicago Spire? "It's close," he replied, recalling his prediction that the Spire would not be finished.

In contrast to Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, best known for his chaotic collages of titanium and stainless steel, Smith has no signature style. His buildings are usually based on the idea of an aesthetic continuum rather than a sharp break with precedent. Even the oversize Burj Dubai draws inspiration from its environs, the contours of its floors evoking the pointed arches of Islamic architecture.

Smith's trademark these days is his commitment to energy-saving sustainable architecture, which is equally evident in his firm's plan to retrofit the energy-hogging Willis Tower and its striking design for a corporate headquarters in the nearby emirate of Abu Dhabi. Billed as the world's first large-scale office building to generate more energy than it uses, the building will have conelike wind towers that exhaust warm air and help support its undulating roof when it is completed in 2012.

"There really does seem to be a sincere investigation of sustainable values," said Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York City -- even if, she adds, Smith's commitment to green design "doesn't fit all that well with the world's tallest building in the desert."

After putting in 12-hour workdays, Smith tries to relax on weekends and spends time with his grandchildren who live a few blocks away. He and his wife have two children, Katherine, 38, and Jason, 36.

Like all high-profile architects, Smith has endured difficult times. He was shunted to the sidelines after the 1998 Beaux-Arts plan that he and SOM developed for Millennium Park was pronounced too ordinary. (Gehry was imported to design the park's metal-petaled Jay Pritzker Pavilion.) The criticism was perhaps too harsh, because the Skidmore plan laid out the park's essential contours, including its roomlike open spaces. The park opened to great acclaim in 2004, but Smith got little of it.

By 2006, Smith bolted to start his own firm in what he initially described as friendly parting. He later acknowledged that he left because of what he called a power struggle that would have diminished his design role and his influence in selecting new design partners. Twenty-five architects from Skidmore joined him, he said, and, although he stole no clients from the firm, the move created a rift with his former colleagues that persists.

Jeffrey McCarthy, the managing partner of SOM's Chicago office, disputed Smith's version of the breakup and stressed that the firm's emphasis is on collaboration, not individuals.

"The issue with Adrian was not a power struggle that would have diminished his design role," McCarthy said. "It was a question about the future of our firm, his unilateral view of succession and his inability to accept and promote a new generation of design leadership that the partnership believed would reinvigorate and elevate the quality of our designs."

Smith now goes head-to-head with his old firm for high-rise work -- a competition made fiercer by the way the recession has shrunk architecture's economic pie.

"That was not the way I wanted to end my career," Smith said of his last days at SOM. "I thought, 'I've still got my best work ahead of me.' "