Sofitel Hotel

Sofitel Hotel in Chicago, Illinois byJean-Paul Viguier, 2002

As the concrete frame of the Sofitel Hotel in the Gold Coast area of Chicago climbed higher it was apparent that the Midwestern city would finally have a remarkable contemporary (late 20th-century) building to call its own, even if its designer needs to cross the Atlantic to book a room. Open since early summer 2002 the 478-room hotel, by the Parisian architect Jean-Paul Viguier is a striking, yet sensitive design that fits into the city's context with ease that raises the question, "Why aren't more buildings like this?" As Chicago finds itself mired in an environment of new buildings sporting the typical reactionary garb of brick, stone and painted concrete, it's refreshing to see a building that responds to the city's influential Modernist structures without itself being reactionary to that movement or aesthetic.

The building's angular footprint responds to both its context in the city and its relationship to Chicago's Midwestern climate. Directly east of the site, across the street, is a small, triangular, pedestrian park that guarantees the hotel a prominent facade to its neighbors. The architect extended this visibility further, to Michigan Avenue a few blocks east and even the lake beyond, by cantilevering the building to the south. Within the network of Chicago's grid system the cantilevered portion seems to lean over the street to be seen, attempting to attract attention to itself. Seen from the south (at left) the building resembles a blade, with the east and west facade barely visible beyond the leaning, cantilevered prow. Viguier indicates the hotel's footprint tries to "bring the sun into the project" as the two large-expanse facades present themselves to the shifting sun, guaranteeing ample natural light for the rooms and suites.

The Sofitel's program includes 415 rooms, 63 suites, meeting and banquet facilities, a ballroom, a fitness center, a cafe, a gourmet restaurant, and a street-level bar, all within an envelope containing 35,000 sm (375,000 sf) of space. While the hotel's amenities - fairly typical of urban American hotels - do not overtly convey a European way of life, it is nevertheless intriguing to see the Sofitel in relation to its Modernist predecessors in Chicago, particularly Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. While local critics and architects are upset over high design commissions, like the Sofitel, going to foreign architects, they are forgetting that the influential skyscrapers that brought fame to the city as a bastion of Modernism were designed, or directly inspired by, foreign architects. While Jean-Paul Viguier is not in exile, he designs at a time when foreign commissions are a growing trend, one that Chicago architects participate in elsewhere as much as non-local architects come to Chicago to build. And it is apparent that Viguier came to Chicago and captured its character, while injecting some of his own, in the hotel's design.

Viguier's "contemporary contextualism" is evident in two primary gestures: the facade and the plaza. The former realizes that Chicago's early skyscrapers expressed themselves through the vertical structure while infilling the remainder of the facade with decoration, usually between window openings. Later facades were hung off the structure enabling them to be lighter with greater area for glazing. Viguier relates to both with small random openings located between the columns and an all-glass facade made of transparent and opaque, white pieces. Here the facade refers to both while appearing new. In the plaza the architect concedes to the city's urban open spaces generated by zoning trade-offs with the low mass bound by a convex, curving facade which in turn creates a small hardscape. These gestures, combined with the angular cantilever of the hotel floors, have created a building that Chicago is proud to call its own.