11 aug 08 | The Chicago Tribune

Skyscraper wars part one: 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.

Adrian Smith is a tasseled-loafer kind of guy from the North Shore suburb of Lake Forest who wouldn't be caught dead performing in a karaoke bar. But late last year, at an exclusive restaurant in the booming Chinese city of Shanghai, the head of one of the world's most famous architectural firms got ready to pick up a microphone, follow a bouncing ball across a TV screen, and belt out a karaoke version of "Old Man River." It was, in a sense, a command performance.

Among the luncheon guests in a small private room were representatives of the Chinese foreign trade consortium that will pay Smith's firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, up to $10 million to design a Shanghai skyscraper that will be 1,295 feet tall-45 feet taller than the Empire State Building. Not wishing to offend them, and thus risk the loss of a much-needed commission, Smith gamely took the microphone and stared at the TV screen. It displayed the words of "Old Man River" in Chinese characters that were completely unintelligible to the architect. The screen also displayed a Chinese version of the Mississippi River. Instead of a paddle-wheel steamboat lumbering over its surface, a speedboat zipped across the river, pulling a water skier.

Smith sang as many words of "Old Man River" as he could remember and hummed his way through the rest of the song. His Chinese clients smiled politely. Then, adding to the architect's embarrassment, the chairman of the trade consortium, Zhang Guangling, crooned a karaoke song in Japanese. "Adrian Smith's public singing skills are not quite as excellent as his architectural designing skills," quips Zhu Qihong, project director for the skyscraper, the Jin Mao Building, who was present at the luncheon.

The episode represents the sometimes-awkward coming together of East and West as American architects shape skylines in East and Southeast Asia, home to some of the world's fastest-growing economies. To signal their arrival on the international scene, leaders in China, Malaysia and other Asian nations are raising high-tech megabuildings in cities where there still are shacks with minimal plumbing. Two of these towers, designed by New Haven, Conn., architect Cesar Pelli and now under construction in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, will be 1,476 feet tall-22 feet taller than Chicago's Sears Tower, currently the world's tallest office building-when they are completed in 1996 as part of a mammoth development. Yet another cloudbuster, a 1,500-foot office and hotel building, designed by New York-based Haines Lundberg Wachler, is planned for the Chinese city of Chungqing, though all financing is not secured. But more than a paragraph or two in the Guinness Book of World Records is at stake.

For the American architects, many of whom are struggling to stay in business because of a major commercial real estate bust in the United States, survival is the issue as they battle one another as well as top British, Japanese and Hong Kong designers for plum jobs. For their ambitious Asian clients, the goal is the forging of a new national identity, one that propels them from Third World to First World and is symbolized by that most Western of building types: the skyscraper. Yet what image the skyscraper should project-on postcards, travel posters and brochures and in the carefully selected backdrops of television reporters-is a matter for sharp disagreement among the architects, whose egos tend to be as big as their towers.

In a way, the debate is personified by two designers from Chicago, the city where the skyscraper was born more than a century ago: the understated Smith, who favors dark business suits and is little known to the public despite his high-profile designs, and the flashy Helmut Jahn, a fashion plate who once appeared on the cover of GQ and has the superstar aura once associated with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Both men are extraordinarily talented, yet their approaches to architecture could not be more different. The 49-year-old Smith's skyscrapers tend to be shaped by their surrounding physical context. His stone-clad NBC Tower, one of the most widely admired Chicago office buildings of the late 1980s, is a doff of the hat to neighboring Tribune Tower, with its Gothic crown and flying buttresses. The 54-year-old Jahn, as most Chicagoans know, is boldly inventive, far more likely than Smith to push the edge of the envelope. In Chicago, at least, the results of his work have been mixed. Jahn's futuristic James R. Thompson Center, formerly known as the State of Illinois Building, initially was bedeviled by air-conditioning problems and later came under fire for its cheap-looking curtain wall. Yet the architect's United Airlines Terminal at O'Hare International Airport, with its airy, steel-framed concourses and a dazzling underground walkway with a kinetic light sculpture, is one of the finest transportation facilities in the world.