Block 37

Block 37 in Chicago, Illinois by Solomon Cordwell Buenz, 2001

A vacant city block since 1989, after Mayor Richard M. Daley approved its demolition to erect a multi-use skyscraper with retail, hotel, office, and residential spaces, Chicago's Block 37, as it has come to be known, is finally on the verge of healing the wound that the demolition wrought (many developers backed out due to insufficient funding). The most recent scheme, by Chicago firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB), cannot bring back the character of the block previous to demolition, which included the landmarked McCarthy Building and, ironically, two theaters in an area now referred to as Chicago's Theater District, though the design admirably attempts to find a balance between the city's rampant historicism and Modernist history, within a program that values money over neither of these ideals. Aside from the design's stylistic values the most interesting questions arise from the design's response to its surroundings in scale and location of program elements.

SCB's scheme (preceded by a Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) design dropped due to overwhelmingly negative criticism) places a 66-story residential tower above a 12-story "L-shape" hotel, both sitting on a retail base, anchored by a flagship Lord & Taylor store. The residential tower would be oriented in an east-west direction at the southwest corner of the site, adjacent to Daley Plaza and its famous Picasso sculpture. This simple gesture opens up views to the northeast and strengthens the street wall of Washington Street. Turning the corner, with an entrance on Dearborn Street, the hotel helps to contain the space of Daley Plaza, already bordered by the Modernist Daley Center, the mammoth City Hall, and the old Brunswick Building to the south. The Commonwealth Edison substation, the only permanent structure currently on Block 37, is buried out of sight, behind the facade in SCB's design.

The retail base in the development is the design's biggest disappointment. Taking care of many crucial site and design issues, after KPF's design, SCB kept the same base massing as previous, cladding the facades in a different manner: more transparent and articulated. A simple change in envelope though does not remedy the base's utter lack of scale in an area with significant buildings of at least eight stories (the Lord & Taylor entrance is across the street from the 10-story Marshall Field store). Why is this the case? Is it to accommodate the rooftop plaza (at left), definitely the most refreshing aspect of the design? Or is it based on zoning bonuses? Although the latter may not be the reason it is definitely a problem in Chicago, where bonuses are given for setting back above a base, enabling one to build towers higher and higher. It may be called the Michigan Avenue Effect, that street littered with residential towers above indoor shopping malls. In the case of Block 37 the hotel and residential components are lifted above, not inserted into, the base, decreasing the size and scale of the base accordingly.

The most recent Block 37 design reflects the current state of architecture in Chicago: developer- and market-driven, with little room for innovation in design. The days of Modernist glass boxes are long gone, but the ideas behind their impetus need to be revisited, in this case the trade-off of plaza space for a higher building (Daley Plaza is a perfect example). SCB's scheme seems to be aware of this part of Chicago's built history, as some of the usable open space lost by the retail base is regained in the rooftop plaza. The success of this raised urban garden, and the development that hinges upon its use, will not be know for a long time, but it's chances of becoming a lively city space can only be achieved if it is never forgotten, not by the client nor the public. And hopefully the negative attention that one open space has generated over the years will shift to positive attention upon completion of this important development and its open space.