One Museum Park East raises the bar for Near South Side architecture.
Bland and faceless, or gussied-up Disneyesque “traditional”: For the past few decades, Chicago’s residential tower design has gravitated toward those two extremes. Lately, though, with a sleek, dynamic and distinctly contemporary design direction, some new high-rises signal that things are looking up for the skyline.
A fine place to see that is the Museum Park area (so-called for its proximity to Grant Park’s Museum Campus), bounded by Roosevelt Road, Lake Shore Drive, 16th Street and Michigan Avenue. Townhouse construction began there in the early 1990s, and the first high-rises went up about ten years ago. The tall buildings lining LSD south of Roosevelt were built more or less in chronological order from south to north; looking at them sequentially provides a fair idea of how the skyline is changing.
The earlier high-rises at Museum Park reflected the then-prevailing design directive of “context.” Here, that meant referencing Soldier Field’s classical limestone colonnades in poured concrete, which produced a generally clunky and awkward aesthetic that, to be fair, became more refined with each subsequent addition to the row. One Museum Park East (OMPE), at the corner of Roosevelt and LSD, represents such a quantum leap forward that it’s surprising to discover its designer, Pappageorge/Haymes, is also responsible for the other high-rises along the strip. A streamlined, gleaming retro-futurist vision in blue glass, the 62-story OMPE—currently the tallest apartment building in the city—cleverly rejects the rectilinear forms most high-rise designs employ. In plan, it’s made up of several interconnected football-shaped masses, and its winged form exploits its unobstructed views. Architect David Haymes refers to it as a butterfly, which is a lot more than a design affectation: It’s central to the functionality of the building, laid out so that all the units face east toward Lake Michigan, north across Grant Park or south down Lake Shore Drive. The west facade (facing all the new South Loop construction), while sheathed in the same reflective skin as the others, mostly houses mechanical and circulation areas, not apartments. The payoff: None of the units have “bad” obstructed views.
OMPE is one of a surprising number of smart, stylish apartment buildings recently or nearly completed. Murphy/Jahn’s curved glass cylinder at 600 North Fairbanks Court is a small triumph of minimalism. Solomon Cordwell Buenz’s ParkView Condominiums (at North McClurg Court and Illinois Street) trumpets innovation in its rich facade of tinted, reflective glass and anodized copper panels. And the optically shifting, sculptural form and sinuous delicacy of Studio Gang’s Aqua (225 North Columbus Drive) look to make it a certain crowd-pleaser.
What accounts for this? One developer, who requested anonymity, suggested the cutting-edge embrace illustrates current obsessions at City Hall: “You don’t get the Olympics with traditional,” he says.
Sam Assefa, deputy commissioner in the city’s Department of Planning and Development, disagrees, although he does acknowledge that the mayor’s Chicago Design Initiative, devised by DPD in 2000, has changed the field: It established a weekly, internal design review by a panel of prominent private-sector designers and planners who advise DPD on issues and projects up for consideration. OMPE, for example, went through dozens of iterations before the DPD approved the final design. But Assefa dismisses the idea of any official mandate, adding that the shift away from banal or fussy, and toward modernist, resulted from a combination of market forces, changing tastes and government intervention. “Contemporary design became the standard long before the city decided to entertain the idea of bidding for the 2016 Olympics,” Assefa says.
Whatever the motivation, it should leave us with an impressive architectural legacy—even if the Games are held in Rio.