Left: IBM by MVDR Right: Trump by SOM

“The essential is what architecture is about, and we should not be afraid if that gets a little boring.” MIes Van Der Rohe.

A skyscraper is built by the powerful to show off their power. They are literal realizations of giant egos. Donald Trump has built a giant in the heart of Chicago set out to trump all the surrounding buildings for stature and glory (pun intended). Its location is a beacon of showmanship: “Look at me! I am better than all of you.” is what it says. This placement used to be dominated by the IBM Building by Mies Van Der Rohe, which before the Trump Tower was foregrounded by the low and unassuming Chicago Sun Times building. This used to be my favorite view of the city. The Trump tower nudged into the Chicago Sun Times spot and is now king of the mountain. In almost every article I’ve read about the building not once have I heard any actual examinations of the architecture. Articles about the Trump Tower are amenities driven, because that’s what it’s all about. The building is for the rich, to live downtown under the luxurious umbrella of Donald Trump. So what about the architecture of this powerful new kid on the block?

Trump Tower’s basic form evokes its nearby surroundings, most noticeably the Wrigley Building. The multiple levels tie it in to the various heights of the adjacent buildings making it less jarring as it surpasses them. Obviously the building is dealing with the issues of being right next to the IBM building by Mies Van Der Rohe. This is most clearly evidenced in the treatment of the all glass facade. The most obvious homage to Mies are the vertical mullions that separate the windows. These are spaced in similar proportion to that of the IBM building. The vertical mullions, however, are not I-beams (that would express the structural steel encased in cylindrical concrete columns), but extruded chrome shapes very similar to a clothes iron. These shapes go further to point out the main motives behind this facade, which is reflectivity. This shape clad in mirror-finish chrome is clearly that way to capture light and give the facade a shimmering quality. The blue tinted glass windows also reflect to a high degree. When the sun is out an arc of light blinds its way across the building. A band of chrome louvers at intermittent levels signify mechanical floors, similar to the band at the lower one-third portion of the IBM building.

Having these two building side by side can really teach us about the precious qualities of the IBM Building. No matter how hard the Trump Tower tries to evoke the graceful proportions and grid of the IBM building, something elusive prevents it from looking as elegant. I don’t know what this could be, but this deficiency is in the Trump Tower as well as 95% of all the Mies imitations that are out there. The brightness of Trump gives it a mass and a presence, whereas the blackness of IBM seems to suggest a void in space. It keeps Mies’ skyscraper architecture in the spiritual world, where reality doesn’t quite touch it. The Trump Tower is of the world and part of it, there is no detachment. It also is clearly less a progression of the Miesian spirit and more an homage to his style. This is a key difference, and goes far towards making the Trump Tower nearly irrelevant for its time. It looks badly dated, as if it was built in 1990, one of hundreds of towering glass skyscrapers that sought to use Miesian vocabulary but didn’t have the deft touch to pull it off. In contrast, the Ohio Fairbanks Condos by Helmut Jahn goes further towards crystallizing the ideas of essential epochal architecture in our time. Instead of copying Mies, the building seeks to take his concepts of the essential and apply them to the technological constraints of our time. Similarly, the Aqua Tower, even if the conceptual framework is muddled, is further in the Miesian spirit than the Trump Tower.

Like I mentioned earlier, I believe the driving force behind the materiality of the trump tower was reflectivity, which is a concept for energy efficiency, and also one of many of the residual themes that recurred in Mies’ work. I call it residual, because outside of the Glass Skyscraper project of 1922 reflectivity is an effect of the theories he chose to work with, they were not the driving force. Just like Jeanne Gangs’ Aqua Tower was mastered by the scrim, Trump is mastered by reflectivity. Both of these were residual effects in Mies’ work. An interesting, and I believe coincidental, component of the reflectivity theme (as well as the theme of Miesian homage), can be found in the serpentine glass mullioned facade of the lobby that weaves its way freely in undulating curves. On first impression I felt strongly that this was a wink in the direction of Mies’ Glass Skyscraper project of 1922. Walking along the perimeter of this glass lobby I noticed the fascinating and fragmented reflections it gave off: coincidence or willful effect? If this is indeed the reason behind the lobby facade then I am impressed, but I’m leaning towards coincidence. Either way, it is the best part about the building.

Lobby Facade of Trump Tower

One last note: walking around the Trump Tower I was depressed to find so many tourists pointing at it, and taking pictures of it, unconscious of the truly great buildings right around including, IBM, Marina Towers and the Wrigley Building. I’ve been compelled several times to go right up to the tourists and tell them they are taking pictures of the wrong buildings. For now, I will let the bully be king of the mountain. I’m confident the novelty will wear off soon.

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