The man of steel

November 27, 2005

On opposite sides of the globe, and at the same time, two great towers are rising. One is Trump International Hotel & Tower, the most ballyhooed new skyscraper to be built in Chicago in decades. The other is Burj Dubai, which promises to be the jewel of the United Arab Emirates and, by the way, the tallest building in the world.

These far-flung projects, expected to be complete in 2008, have much in common. Both are luxury hotel/condo buildings designed to appeal to the rich. Both have flamboyant, high-rolling billionaire developers, Donald Trump and Mohamed Ali Alabbar.

But what Trump Tower and Burj Dubai mainly share is their principal architect: Adrian Smith of the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Adrian who? So you might ask about the designer of two of the most eagerly anticipated building projects in the world today. Compared to peers such as Rem Koolhaas or Santiago Calatrava, Smith is relatively anonymous -- partly because of his lack of a signature style, partly because his firm has always emphasized its corporate identity over that of its individual architects.

Who is Adrian Smith, and how did these two career-defining projects come to him at nearly the same moment?

'Stretching the vocabulary'

Born in Chicago -- his father was a national manager for Montgomery Ward & Co. -- Smith spent his formative years in San Clemente, Calif., before making his way back to the Windy City to study architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1967, while still in school, he started working at SOM, where for several years, he learned the secrets of skyscraper design directly from Bruce Graham, architect of the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center.

Over the years, Smith steadily climbed up the firm's ladder, becoming a partner in 1980. By that time, influenced by Mexican architect Luis Barragan, Smith had become a devotee of contextualism: the idea that new buildings ought to relate to the geography, the culture and especially the architecture immediately around them. This was a departure from the modernist ethic of legendary Chicago architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which had produced several generations of boxy steel-and-glass buildings in what became known, tellingly, as the International Style. As the name suggested, such buildings could exist, more or less interchangeably, almost everywhere.

Smith went in the opposite direction. "I wanted real buildings that felt very much a continuation of the fabric of the city they were in," he says. "When I designed a building, I wanted it to look as if it could only exist in this location -- it would be out of place anywhere else."

But the trap of contextualism is that an architect can pay so much attention to blending into his surroundings that he fails to develop a design vocabulary all his own. Avoiding the wild eclecticism associated with postmodernist structures by Michael Graves, Robert Venturi and others, Smith produced a series of buildings in the 1980s that worked hard -- at times too hard, as he later thought -- to fit in. Smith's project for Boston's Rowes Wharf (1982-1987) borrowed so much of the surrounding architecture's scale, historical detail (a neoclassical dome and rotunda) and materials (especially Boston's dominant red brick cladding) that it all but disappeared, absorbed into the cityscape as if in camouflage.

"Some of those buildings added depth and ornamental detail that had not been seen before, but they got uncomfortably close to replication instead of transformation," Smith admits. "I wasn't stretching the vocabulary."

The solution was not to jettison context altogether, but to apply it more loosely, putting it at the service of what began to emerge as a nascent personal aesthetic marked by increasing transparency and sleekness. Since the early '90s, Smith has produced a series of designs that maintain his commitment to context, but do so within a relatively consistent framework of silver-blue skins of stainless steel and glass, dominant vertical elements and elegant tapering effects.

The most striking of these projects to date is Jin Mao Tower (1992-1999) in Shanghai, China. This 1,380-foot structure, currently the fifth-tallest in the world, is a true Janus of a skyscraper. It looks back at Chinese architectural history -- abstractly evoking the traditional pagoda with an ascending series of flaring horizontal elements that ring the tower's cylinder like bracelets -- while aggressively conveying a sense of the technological present and future.

Which brings us to the Trump Tower and Burj Dubai -- and to the fact that, if not for certain tragic events in 2001, the two buildings might have been battling for the title of the world's tallest.

'Very international, very Chicago'

In 1999, Donald Trump, known for his opulent buildings in New York, Atlantic City and elsewhere, sent a team of representatives to inspect the Chicago Sun-Times building on North Wabash at the Chicago River as a possible site to build a new tower. His ear to the ground, Smith developed a few preliminary ideas for a building on the site. But nothing happened until the summer of 2001, when Trump announced a deal to go forward with a redevelopment plan.

What happened next was simple: Smith, who had never met Trump, picked up the phone and called the developer, inviting himself to New York to share his ideas. Smith went, Trump liked the ideas, and Smith was hired.

"He recognized that for a very tall tower, he needed a very experienced architect, and few people are," says Smith, 61. "It's a market niche I happen to occupy right now."

As Trump recalls the decision to bring Smith on board, it was both simpler and more complicated than a question of experience. "I loved his work," he says. "I thought it was both very international and very Chicago."

With Trump's blessing, Smith set to work on a design for a roughly 150-story building that would top out at 2,000 feet -- considerably higher than the world's current architectural peak, Taipei 101 in Taiwan.

It wasn't to be. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Smith was in an SOM conference room in Chicago, preparing to present his design to Trump's team. They were all sitting down to look at Smith's schemes, pinned on a wall, when they got word that an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. They went to a television and watched, aghast, as a second plane hit the other tower.

"Everybody was devastated," Smith recalls. "I remember one of Donald's people saying they'd looked at buying the World Trade Center, but had decided against it because it was a terrorist target."

The meeting broke up without considering Smith's design scheme, and the next day he received a call from Trump, who was adamant that the design had to be significantly downsized.

"I just didn't want to be in a position where I was building a building that was too tall in light of what happened on Sept 11," Trump says in an interview. "I realized that the great dream of the very tall building in this country should no longer be a dream."

With the new restrictions in mind, Smith's first design for Trump Tower was a stack of faceted parallelograms, which, when shown in a preliminary version, were not well-received. He then smoothed away the design's sharp corners, cutting off 60 feet of mostly unusable space on each side, creating elegant curves and dramatic setbacks that divide the building into distinct vertical masses.

It's in those stepping-up setbacks, keyed to the heights of neighboring buildings, that Smith's contextualism subtly expresses itself, although most observers will perceive it subliminally, if at all. The step that defines the top of the tower's base is related to the nearby Wrigley Building. Moving up the tower, the next step connects to buildings across the Chicago River. Finally, the top step relates to Mies' IBM Building.

Later, with the design process well under way, Trump had second thoughts. "I realized I could take the existing building, and with very little difficulty, elevate the height by about 10 stories, and it would be taller than the Sears Tower," he says. "By that time we had passed $300 million in [condo unit] sales, and I wrote the buyers a note that said, 'We are able to create a building that would be the tallest in the U.S. What do you think?' The answer was a resounding 'Please don't do it.' "

Still later, however, Trump toyed with the idea of further heightening the tower by adding an elongated spire that would make it the tallest building in the world. He approached Smith, who put a damper on the concept, in part because he was already working for another developer on the world's tallest building: the Burj Dubai.

"How tall is it?" Trump wanted to know.

"I can't tell you," Smith said. "It's a secret."

"Well, I'd like to get involved with that," an excited Trump said. "We could call it the Trump Burj Dubai and make a killing!"

Going 'as tall as I wanted'

The height of Burj Dubai (which translates to "Dubai Tower") was in fact a fiercely held trade secret. Alabbar, Smith says, saw the tallest-building title as one of his main selling points in his drive to make Dubai, capital of the United Arab Emirates, the most sparkling tourist destination in the Middle East.

The focus on height was such that at one point, Smith says, he and Robert Booth, executive director of Emaar, Alabbar's company, discussed the possibility of a hydraulically controlled spire that could be raised in case some other developer decided to, well, trump Alabbar with a taller building.

As has been often reported, Smith got the commission for Burj Dubai by winning a design competition held by Emaar. What isn't as widely known is that Smith himself set the guidelines for the competition. Indeed, Smith had something of an inside track from the beginning. The very day that Alabbar's team interviewed Smith in New York, it received an enthusiastic call from the developer, who had just visited Jin Mao in Shanghai; he also admired Smith's three-legged footprint for Tower Palace, a residential high-rise in Seoul, South Korea.

"We quite simply liked the design," Booth said. "It held the right proportions and was truly elegant and iconic, and would stand as a landmark for the city of Dubai."

But Emaar had also interviewed several other architects and was unsure how to proceed. The company asked for input from Smith, who was happy to provide it. He proposed a competition with a two-week deadline -- long enough for competing architects to come up with an idea, but not so long that they'd spend much money to develop it.

Smith's advantage was twofold: He knew roughly what Alabbar was looking for, and he also knew that as a large firm, SOM could work at warp speed. "We had the horsepower to produce a lot of work in two weeks -- probably faster than anyone else."

But the most important ace in Smith's hand was that he had clear vision of what his Burj Dubai would look like: a slender, tapering, dizzyingly tall building with a tripod-like footprint that Emaar would eventually compare to a Middle Eastern desert flower. Here, in fact, Smith's contextualism was an afterthought. Since there was almost no geographic or architectural context in the still-emerging city of Dubai, he'd actually been thinking of Chicago's tripedal Lake Point Tower.

He was also thinking, vaguely, of another metropolis: the forest of gleaming towers that is the Emerald City, as glimpsed by Dorothy and her friends from the poppy field in the film version of "The Wizard of Oz."

"That was in my mind as I was designing Burj Dubai, although in a subliminal way," Smith says. "I didn't research the way it looked -- I just remembered the glassy, crystalline structure coming up in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. The funny thing is, I didn't remember it being green."

After winning the competition, Smith set about developing the design and quickly ran into trouble in connection with its height. Emaar executives had wanted a building about 550 meters (1,804 feet), in part because they viewed anything above that height as of diminishing economic benefit. But the essence of Smith's design was tallness and slenderness; he presented it at around 700 meters (2,296 feet), but to Smith, even that felt too short.

"At the very top, it didn't feel like it was resolved properly," he says. "The top three or four layers felt like they were stuck on top rather than an extension of the vocabulary of the rest of the buildings. I kept adding height, and got to a point where it could be a more continuous extrusion of elements of the building below it, instead of feeling like a base and a top with no middle," he says. "Eventually, Mohamed allowed me to go as tall as I wanted."



One is a handsome but matter-of-fact and oh-so-muscular skyscraper for the City of Big Shoulders, its elegant sheen barely disguising its underlying assertion of power and practicality -- a brawny Teamster in an opera cape. The other is a desert dream, impossibly tall and slender, a dazzling mirage come to life as if from the pages of The Arabian Nights.

Chicago architect Adrian Smith's design for the Trump International Hotel & Tower fits perfectly into the ethos of a city that works hard and plays harder: excellent quality but not too fancy, like an expense-account beefsteak cooked just right. His design for Burj Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, looks like something Samuel Taylor Coleridge might have conjured up in an opium-induced fugue: mythic, ethereal, Romantic with a big R.

Trump Tower appears brazenly technological, its 60-foot setbacks creating an ascending series of stacked masses -- base, middle, top -- that may remind viewers of a sleek, stretched-up Cuisinart. Burj Dubai feels organic and pliable, like frosting extruded from a pastry bag.

Trump Tower is of the here-and-now. Burj Dubai (as befits a design rumored to have been the inspiration for certain buildings in George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith") is of some distant past or perhaps-never-to-be-arrived-at future.

Trump Tower will be welcomed into the Chicago skyline like an old friend. Burj Dubai looks like a building that ought not to exist.

How unexpected, then, that the two designs actually have so much in common. Their skins, for example: They share the same silver-blue curtain wall, the same stainless-steel spandrels and mullions, the same part-transparent, part-reflective glass (though the Dubai building will appear less transparent and more reflective during the day because of the brighter desert light). They're as much alike, in that sense, as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building and his twin apartment towers at 860-880 N. Lake Shore.

Trump and Dubai are also both structural engineering marvels: massive buildings that float above moist foundations with the help of caissons drilled between 40 and 110 feet into the solid earth, supporting reinforced concrete columns.

Both are complicated, although Burj Dubai is more so. Because of its extreme height, for example, it required a "sky lobby" system, similar to that of Chicago's John Hancock Center, in which residents will be required to transfer from one elevator to another, sometimes more than once, to reach their apartments. At the much shorter Trump Tower, residents will be able to zip from the ground floor straight to the penthouse, no pitstops necessary.

But the fundamental differences between the two buildings are related to history, vision, nerve and Smith's own evolving relationship with his contextualist ideals. He designed Trump Tower in the jittery aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, a period when American developers were understandably loath to reach too far into the sky. Mohamed Ali Alabbar, Smith's client for the Dubai project, apparently faced no such constraints, or at least saw his way clear to minimize them.

And where Trump is famous for his determination to stretch a dollar, Alabbar was willing to indulge Smith's desire for extra height for the sake of Burj Dubai's proportions, even though it wasn't strictly cost-effective.

Then there was Smith's philosophy of adapting to local contexts, which had the effect of guiding the Trump design toward assimilation and continuity with the mainstream of Chicago architecture. In Dubai, a city in which most commercial structures were built within the last decade, there was little context to adapt to; instead, Smith seems to have relied, perhaps more completely than in any previous project, on artistic instincts given free rein to experiment and dream.

The result is that Burj Dubai is by far the more fabulous (and fabulist) of the two buildings, an aesthetically magnificent if perhaps less than entirely practical masterpiece. That isn't to say that Smith's Trump Tower design doesn't have its own brand of genius. Necessity often mothers the best kind of architectural invention, and in this case, given the parameters he was handed, Smith has acquitted himself with considerable style, wit and panache.

He's done us proud


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