One South Dearborn reflects beauty of thinking inside the box

January 08, 2006

Chicagoland News

Boxes are so out of fashion in these days of twisting, torquing, computer-generated architecture that the new and unapologetically boxy One South Dearborn office building comes as a sweet surprise. The 40-story tower makes a handsome skyline statement, carves out a civilized little plaza along Dearborn Street and reveals dazzling views of the Inland Steel Building, the shimmery, midcentury modernist masterpiece next door. Maybe this story should be headlined "Beauty and the Box."

Of course, there's a difference between any old box and a beautifully finessed box, and architect Richard Keating has achieved the latter in this cool but hardly standoffish tower. Working against classic Chicago constraints -- a tight time frame and budget – he has created architecture worthy of Dearborn Street, which is lined with history-book buildings that tell the story of the sky-scraper.

True, the tower has some less-than-perfect details and it exhibits no conceptual breakthroughs that will lead to the sort of hysteria that typically accompanies the opening of a geometrically outlandish building by the likes of Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid. But so what? Good is good. This is the kind of tough but refined beauty that makes Chicago Chicago.

One South holds down the southeast corner of Dearborn and Madison Streets, a site that attracted widespread attention in 1999 because it was the proposed site for a world's tallest building. That superskinny tower, the 112-story 7 South Dearborn, proved to be a developer's pipedream. So nothing much happened on this high-profile Loop corner until early 2003 when the law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood (now just plain Sidley Austin) signed on as the anchor tenant for an office building being developed by Hines, the big international real estate outfit.

Enter Keating, alumnus of the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the project's chief designer, has done a distinguished series of corporate towers, including Texas' Chase Tower, a 55-story Dallas high-rise with a 75-foot-high, 27-foot-wide opening, or "sky window," near its summit.
One South, which consists of an eight-story base housing a lobby, tenant parking and mechanical floors with the standard stack of office floors above, may be a box, but it's easily more playful than those banal cereal boxes that gave International Style modernism a bad name in the 1960s and 1970s. Let's call its disciplined, but freed-up, aesthetic "relaxed rationalism."

The most visible example of this loosening-up comes at the tower's top where Keating extends the building's east and west walls beyond the roofline with a slab of textured, translucent glass. Purists may sneer that this device resembles an Old West false front. Yet the glass screens simultaneously hide rooftop mechanical equipment and give the building's top a pleasing see-through character.

The architect further enriched the screen with an off-center cutout, or aperture, roughly 90 feet square. It consists of a wall of frosted glass that tilts inward. Beneath it is a balcony for Sidley's two-floor conference center. Keating has done this sort of thing before -- in effect slicing into a building and scooping out a void -- but rarely with such felicitous impact.

A giant light box

When the cutout is lit from behind at night, it becomes a striking beacon, making the aperture a superscale light box rather than a dark window. Even during the day, the cutout gives this relatively short tower a distinct skyline identity as it peers over the old masonry buildings facing Millennium Park.

To the architects' credit, the cutout's diagonal geometry introduces an effective visual leitmotif rather than being a one-liner.

It reappears, for example, in the saw-toothed translucent glass towers that protrude from One South's black granite base along Madison Street. Their sole function is to enliven that otherwise monolithic facade and to echo the visual rhythms of bay windows on the nearby Chicago Building. The architects clearly have thought through how this building will appear from different vantage points in the cityscape. Indeed, though its massing is modern and asymmetrical, One South has an appealing, three-part arrangement of bottom, middle and top that subtly recalls the composition of historic, human-scaled Loop skyscrapers like the Marquette Building.

Perhaps the most inspired aspect of One South is not the building itself, however, but how it sits in the cityscape. Keating worked at Inland Steel during his Skidmore years and his love for the Skidmore-designed building, still much admired for its graceful proportions, refined detailing and innovative layout, is palpable.

Rewards pedestrians

To showcase Inland, now called 30 W. Monroe St., he shifted One South back from Dearborn and toward State Street. That not only creates the plaza's roomlike space but also rewards pedestrians at the Madison-Dearborn corner with a new view of Inland's north facade, which used to be blocked by the turn-of-the-century office building that previously occupied the site. "It's the most beautiful wallpaper you've ever seen," he says.

The smartly furnished plaza, with its formal bosque of big red sugar maples and sensuous red-granite pavement, compensates for the tower's coolness and makes a modestly scaled addition to the string of grand public spaces along Dearborn (Daley Plaza, Chase Plaza and Federal Plaza). In the process it opens views of other surrounding towers, like the massive, slope-sided Chase Tower (the old First National Bank of Chicago tower), which soars over the plaza like a giant clothespin.

There is more visual richness as you approach the lobby. Above the main entrance, a backlit wall of thinly sliced, glass-encased marble shields the parking garage and provides a rich contrast with Inland's steel and glass exterior. Highly transparent glass walls ensure that the lobby's chief art feature, a pair of richly textured, cast-glass walls, is in effect, a work of public art, easily visible to passersby.

The lobby itself manages to be grandly scaled but not grandiose. It's sheathed in handsome slabs of white and gray marble without recalling a mausoleum. One gemlike touch: Hunks of recycled glass -- "glass fists," Keating calls them -- which are laid in the floor like rocks in a Japanese garden. Lit from below, they give the floor a dazzling sheen, striking up a conversation with the reflective ceiling in Inland's lobby.

One South's office floors are nice enough, with their floor-to-ceiling glass windows, but otherwise unremarkable. The lone exception occurs in the building's northwest and southeast corners, which continue the building's diagonal motif with small, saw-toothed window bays. That adds a little zip to the exterior and gives big shots in their corner offices the thrill of standing on a glass-encased ledge.

This is one of the most civilized office buildings to rise of late in the Loop, ranking with the new, football-shaped Hyatt Center as a bright spot in the cityscape. It manages to enhance its surroundings even as it makes a statement of its own. And that statement is all about the grace the architects have squeezed out of (and carved into) the box, enlivening the shape that remains the basic building block of cities.