Santiago Calatrava’s latest version of the corkscrew tower he proposes to build on Chicago’s lakefront has dismayed local critics. The Spanish architect’s new design rises 2,000 feet, barely tapers at all, ends in a dull, flat roof, and crams about 1,300 condos into a side street in Streeterville. The Sun-Times‘s Kevin Nance judged it a “bastardized disappointment” compared to Calatrava’s original proposal, which he hailed as an “unutterably lovely work of art.” “A sky-high letdown,” wrote the Tribune‘s Pulitzer-winning Blair Kamin, who also said that instead of a “pinnacle brilliantly culminating its upward drive,” the building now ends in a “buzz cut.”

There’s always been something a little hypothetical about this project, which was announced in July 2005 and which a lot of local developers doubt will ever come off.  A new developer, Garrett Kelleher of Dublin, asked Calatrava for a redo that dropped the broadcast antenna, dropped the hotel component, and nearly tripled the number of condos. Kamin thinks Calatrava, “a superb architect by nearly everybody’s measure,” can come up with something better and will — if Kelleher and the city push him.  

By nearly everybody’s measure? Not exactly. The project banks on the Calatrava brand to sustain it, and that brand has begun to take a beating. In October Slate‘s Witold Rybczynski visited the tower that presages the Chicago spire, Calatrava’s Turning Torso in Malmo, Sweden, and wrote, “It’s as if, having made his big architectural move — the twist — Calatrava wasn’t sure what to do. . . . The steel and glass curtain walls are banal. . . . An interminable line of circular windows — portholes? — looks like a fugitive from an art deco night club.” A few weeks later Edwin Heathcote wrote in the Financial Times of London that Calatrava’s work had begun to slide — he was winning huge commissions that “became expressions of ego rather than structure.” Sarah Williams Goldhagen of the Harvard School of Design wrote in the New Republic that Calatrava was turning out kitsch.

And Martin Filler wrote a long, careful essay on Calatrava in the New York Review of Books, where he remarked on Calatrava’s “preference for bravura effect at the expense of function,” his “shallow symbolism” and “underlying sentimentality.” Filler quoted a Buffalo tourism official on his city’s architectural attractions: “You need awesome, you really do, because these other cities are doing awesome.”

Chicago does awesome, but it has other standards. The John Hancock was awesome in its day and still is, yet the Calatrava, as Kamin points out, would be almost twice as high. It would be more than three times the height of  Lake Point Tower (jpg), which is the most elegant residential tower in the world and probably will continue to be no matter how Calatrava’s spire turns out. All the spire is so far is a design. It’s easy to make a design look good, and Calatrava fancies himself as much a sculptor as an architect.

You know what they say about the eye of the beholder. Kamin and Nance both write admiringly of another twisting tower, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Infinity Tower (jpg) now going up in Dubai. (So does the Reader’s Lynn Becker in our December 15 issue.)  In his review of the Art Institute’s “Young Chicago” exhibit, Nance called the Dubai tower “a building whose image deserves to be in a museum.” I’d call it an image I have seen occasionally in a museum, though much more often in the lines outside the women’s johns at Wrigley Field.