In a Los Angeles Times article last December, “The future is in the past: Architecture trends in 2014,” acting critic Christopher Hawthorne sought to make sense of a year that included Koolhaas’s Venice Biennale, Smiljan Radic’s Serpentine Pavilion, and periodicals like Log 31: New Ancients and San Rocco 8: What’s Wrong with the Primitive Hut? Through these examples and others, Hawthorne concluded that it was a year of overdue self-reflection, where in order to determine architecture’s future it was necessary to mine the past.
Building on these precedents, Hawthorne predicted that after years of baroque parametricism, in 2015 architects would use last year’s meditations on history as a practical foundation for new projects and proposals. An example of this can be found in the work of Michael Ryan Charters and Ranjit John Korah, a duo who recently shared the top-five prize for the CAF led ChiDesign Competition (part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial) for their project Unveiled. In a brief that called for “a new center for architecture, design and education,” and with lauded jurors including Stanley Tigerman, David Adjaye, Ned Cramer, Monica Ponce de Leon, and Billie Tsien, Charters and Korah proposed what could casually be summarized as a terracotta framework over a multi-story crystalline form of wooden vaults, but is actually something much more complex.
Spanning the history of twentieth century skyscrapers (those of Chicago in particular), Charters and Korah linked the formalism of mid century modern towers with the delicate materiality of the terracotta that clads the city’s earliest tall buildings. However, merging dichotomous conventions quickly leads to subversion. What emerges is a skyscraper-sized version of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s “veil and vault” concept, utilized at the Broad Museum, except here we have a terracotta and modern shell that conceals an “aggregate” of honey-colored wooden vaults.
During the day the building blends into its storied surroundings in the Chicago Loop, but lit up at night the exterior melts away and we are left with only the pierced geometry of the vaults. While the geode-like wooden form has unprecedented beauty, the contrast which makes sense for DS+R in Los Angeles seems less convincing for Charters and Korah in Chicago. The Broad’s “veil” was a necessity disguised in complexity, in order for the galleries to receive natural light, but none falls directly on the artworks. Material choices here do not have the same urgency. Charters and Korah summarized their decisions in the following way:
Unveiled proposes a new type of building for Chicago’s storied skyline; it celebrates novel building technologies that allow for inventive architectural opportunities, defining a place that serves not only the designers and students who use it each day, but the public as well by opening up generously to the city.
Some of the aforementioned novelties include maglev-propelled ropeless elevators, a new technology announced last year by elevator authority ThyssenKrupp. In these shafts, multiple cabs work simultaneously in an infinite loop of up and down trips, dramatically reducing the amount of space needed for elevator cores. Timber, an old material resurgent in contemporary practice, is unprecedented at this scale, but what is truly remarkable is how systems have been integrated into the structural components of the vaults. The floors conceal radiant heating elements and the vaults hide cooling components; lighting is also integrated. As outlined in the following quote from the press release, the project grounds a fantastic form in programmatic logic:
...The building is organized to encourage a gradient of interaction, clustering the larger, shared elements like theaters, workshops, and event spaces at the heart of the project. The tower tapers up and down from the central hub to more intimate and discrete program spaces. The building is capped above and below with prominent public spaces including retail, an auditorium, cafés, and galleries, affording the best views and experiences to all who encounter the building.
While it’s easy enough to accept this organization in a brief description, the project’s circulation is much more difficult to comprehend. Scrutinizing the program diagrams and interior renderings, the repetitiousness of the vaulting seems confusing, obscuring a clarity of movement that is necessary in a public space such as this. Also at this moment, the tallest contemporary wooden structure is the 96-foot Wood Innovation and Design Centre in British Columbia, designed by Michael Green Architecture - warranting the question, is a wood form of such complexity feasible today, and what structural components might be necessary to support such a building?
Additionally, while fine-craft materials are currently resurgent in luxury contexts like SHoP’s skyscraper at 111 W 57th Street, or small details like those realized by Caruso St John in their Newport Street Gallery, it remains to be seen if lavish materials such as terracotta can flourish in contexts that are more civic and pragmatically minded.
Nonetheless, Michael Ryan Charters and Ranjit John Korah’s proposal has given currency to Christopher Hawthorne’s prescience, as 2015 has been a year of architectural newness that owes tribute to concepts entrenched in the past. As architects double-back on a computer-aided exuberance that has clouded the field for the last two decades, Charters and Korah’s proposal is evidence of a new era defined by a rejuvenated realm of architecture, one that has found its footing after years of parametric upheaval.
LocationChicago Loop, Chicago, IL, USA
Design TeamRanjit John Korah
PhotographsCourtesy of Michael Ryan Charters and Ranjit John Korah