The Real Deal Chicago

Chicago is a Mies van der Rohe town. Robert A.M. Stern wants to mess with that equation

Unlike modernist towers in Chicago, architect wants One Bennett Park supertall to be ornamental
By Joe Ward | November 09, 2018 09:00AM

One Bennett Park and Robert A.M. Stern (Credit: Getty Images)

When it opens next year, One Bennett Park will be the tallest all-residential building in the city. It will also stand out against the modernist, glass-sheathed towers that have shaped Downtown— or at least that’s what architect Robert A.M. Stern is hoping for.

Stern wants the supertall luxury condo and rental tower he’s designing for Related Midwest to pop out amidst the steel-and-glass heavy skyscrapers in Chicago, and perhaps restore a little balance to a town where Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s influence is omnipresent, he said at an event at the Chicago Architecture Center Wednesday.

“Mies had a heavy hand in this city,” Stern said.

Stern laid out his philosophy on building design, which often differs from the school popularized by Mies van der Rohe and Skidmore Owings & Merrill.

One Bennett Park is characterized by its art deco exterior, with a staggered, offset roof and windows of varying size. Compared to the modernist buildings like the Federal Building, the Daley Center and the Illinois Center, One Bennett Park is ornamental — and that’s by design, Stern said.

“That was one of the problems of Miesian architecture, that you can take it in in a minute,” he said. “If there are details your attention is engaged for a longer time.

Historically, Chicago’s skyscrapers were built for office use, where the functional nature of steel-and-glass modernism works best, Stern said. He did not want that for One Bennett Park, which has a masonry exterior.

“I think glass-sheathed buildings in my mind and the minds of a great many people is associated with the world of work,” he said. “I think all of these reflective glass buildings, one reflecting the other, creates a kind of fun house architecture.”

This is the first skyscraper project in Chicago for Stern’s firm, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, best known in New York for projects such as 220 Central Park South and 15 Central Park West, nicknamed the “Limestone Jesus.”

Stern cited the Mies van der Rohe-designed 860 North Lake Shore Drive as an example of a modernist residential tower that doesn’t work.

The wide windows allow for homemaking that can detract from a building’s exterior, and open interiors don’t work for its inhabitants, he said.

“You have an all-glass building, if Mrs. Jones hangs red curtains and Mrs. Schwartz puts up yellow curtains, it turns into a clown” situation, Stern said. “We don’t have that, because we’re not living in a glass bowl. This has not been a problem for me, I’m happy to say.”