Urban Referent

I know this is an oldie and really old news, but after zooming around Chicago in Google Maps earlier today, I remembered back to my college days and the first time I saw the Crate & Barrel flagship on Michigan Avenue. At the time I assumed it was a Richard Meier design, what with the white aluminum tiles, expanses of glass, and cylindrical corner.

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This image found here

Actually, the store was designed by local office Solomon Cordwell Buenz, in a design recalling not only Meier's signature style but the simple white boxes of the store itself. What I remember from my first visit more than the exterior though was the skylit top floor. This skylight, and especially the diagonal wall, are what made me really think it was done by Richard Meier, whose Athaneum, High Museum and other early projects used geometry (in particular diagonals) to relate to their context, usually pointing to something of significance.

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So, what's the diagonal wall of Crate & Barrel pointing to?

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Well, the John Hancock Center, of course!

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As this image (found here) clearly shows, the skylight and diagonal wall unmistakably point -- and therefore relate the new building to -- the Hancock, a Modernist giant in Chicago. So what does this gesture accomplish? I think it does a few things: 1. It gives a new perspective on the Hancock, from four floors above Michigan Avenue, rather than on the sidewalk; 2. It elevates the status of the Hancock, as an urban and architectural icon; and 3. It attempts to align the store with the Hancock, in terms of high Modern design ideals.


  1. Hello

    Thank you for the nice analyse.

    May be the diagonal is to define the corner (curved corner).!!!!

    Thank you

    Nice job


  2. May be it was just arbitratial like many architectural gestures, and we are trying to get a meaning of something that was never intended to.

  3. anon - I don't think in this case it was arbitrary. 45 degrees is arbitrary (like the building to its left), but here the slight angle appears intentional. In the same vein as snooky's comment, it does have a relationship to the corner (anchored in the circle's center) but the wall could just have easily been orthogonal from that point, paralleling Michigan Avenue. Perhaps at first the designer wanted an angle, then finding the relationship between C&B and the Hancock the angle was determined. Whatever the process, it's no accident...but even if it were arbitrary, our ascription of meaning to things without their intention is very important. We are intelligent creatures that create our own meaning, regardless of intentions. Even with a strong intention, that meaning may not sink into to some people, people who then take away something different, whatever that may be. That's one thing I like about the plethora of weblogs and other personalized media: the various and varied perspectives on things. It changes the way we see things and then what we take away from things and ultimately what they mean to us.

  4. or is pointing at the water tower pump house....hhhmmmmmm or maybe Water Tower Place, basically flipping it the bird saying "Now here is how you do retail"?

  5. Hello
    Very nice to see all these comments, John’s analyse of the building in relation to the urban element (Hancock) was great, but with (in my point of view) omission of some elements of the design process (geometry, program, cost), meaning: its one phase of developing architectural project by developing a relation with its urban context (I saw “Weather man” very gorgeous view of Hancock tower taken from the sea) we call that “appeal element” cause is the urban monument, urban compass; as well as developing a relation with adjacent building (like the one on the left side with Gradin form, as well as taking a curved form from the opposite building, from all around the neighbourhood a treatment of the angle (corner) (curve, oblique, 90ยบ…); all of these will give us the predefined volume of our building, (that’s why we can’t start from a white page, we need some constraints de work with).
    In the second phase, we have to develop the essence of the building (function, distribution, plan, void, shadow, light…), from here as well we try to model our building, to prepare it for his future live, by adding other constraints (function, distribution…), this process is like sculpture, we add, remove, rotate…, different elements, until the final outline (Esquisse) is approved by the client. This process is also fundamental as the integration to the urban environment is (we are not alone, so the building is).
    Finally, that what makes Architecture so complex and at the end a Masterpiece or Architectonic disaster.
    Thank you and See ya

  6. Provoked by your hypothoses that the diagonals in Meier's buildings point to something of significance, I checked out the Google map of the Getty Center in Brentwoord, Ca.

    The strong diagonal there points in one direction to some ridiculously huge Bel Air mansions, and in the other direction to the Getty's tram station. The tram station is in direct line with the main building's diagonal. So, the building seems to point to itself. Quite a Post-Modern gesture, but a little bland.


  7. That's a tidy bit of conjecture and some fine sleuthing. Kudos.

    "...but even if it were arbitrary, our ascription of meaning to things without their intention is very important."

    Deliberately allowing for this complex layering is all too rare in architecture, as your post on Burri's Cretto suggests. But as you aptly pointed out, new media acts like an exoskeleton, so to speak, of supportive and alternative significance. The web is like a virtual Christo - with a limitless memory and peer review.


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