If the recession were to cancel all downtown construction tomorrow, we’d still be way ahead in terms of our skyline. Never mind the serious economic ramifications; a glorious Chicago skyscape glowing like white-hot shattered glass can make us all feel exalted, even if we are on the el and some character next to us is splashing puke on the floor. This is art.

Take for example the 225 W. Wacker Building. Designed by the New York firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox, this classically elegant 31-story structure graces the south bank of the Chicago River with a touch of Gotham City Gothic and what look like four gray hypodermic needles in the top corners. The large window on the building’s north side is cathedrallike, making the building ideal for Catholic Batman fans on heroin.

An interesting cluster of buildings huddles at the northwest corner of Grant Park: the bevel-topped Associates Center, at Randolph and Michigan; the Two Prudential Plaza Building, a new annex to the old insurance stalwart, at Lake and Beaubien; and the enduring Amoco Building, at 200 E. Randolph, still monumental despite its ongoing epidermal surgery. Two Prudential Plaza adds new weight to that patch of lakefill east of Michigan Avenue first tested by its precursor, the Prudential Building, now known as One Prudential Plaza. The new tower needles the sky, symbolizing the mighty, infinitely aspiring power of American business. Never mind that the Japanese put up half the cash. Or that six months after its grand opening (complete with a red-carpet entrance flanked by actors pretending to be dead celebrities), the building is so poorly lighted that it virtually disappears at night. The structure nonetheless holds great potential as a Chicago landmark. Its companion was the first post-World War II skyscraper, in fact the first built after the long construction halt following the stock market crash of ’29. Let’s hope they light this new puppy before Hussein is fed to the camels.

For a long time the Sears Tower, in its grouchy ponderousness, was a colossal bringdown for the South Loop. The building is as big, ugly, and boring as a Sears department store, only without the silver tinsel blowing from displayed air conditioners. (Although it is true that a couple years ago intense downtown winds blew out windows on the tower’s high floors, sending a flurry of silvery shards streetward and forcing one poor soul to cling for dear life to his office doorknob while his body flew outward, wet noodle legs flapping toward a large wind-sucking vacancy in the wall.)

But alleviation has arrived at last. Rising in relief on two sides of the Sears Tower are the AT&T and 311 S. Wacker buildings–welcome breaks from the cold, dead look of heavy power epitomized by the retailing monolith and other downtown examples of glass-and-steel modernism.

The sand-colored skin of the 60-story AT&T Building looks somewhat bland by day, but after dark the structure glows warmly, resembling a fireplace, with soft colors burning in various setbacks. The recent addition of four thin spires on the structure’s top–rather precarious, resembling pool sticks–is questionable from certain angles, particularly straight east or west, but from the north and south the spindly ornaments seem to couple into two thicker pairs, and the effect is pleasing.

To the south of the Sears Tower is another Kohn Pedersen Fox building, the 64-story, pink-granite-clad 311 S. Wacker Building, described by various insightful cabdrivers as “the white palace,” “the birthday cake,” and “the thing that looks like a water tank.” These delineations refer to the huge ornament on the building’s top–a round frosted-glass piece (looking in fact very much like a castle tower, or a birthday cake, or a water tower), ribbed around the top edge with white light segments resembling a bottom row of teeth. Ever since the ornament was finally illuminated last fall, one of those teeth, on the southeast side, has been dark, making the ornament look incomplete and making me wonder why they don’t just fix the darn thing. Surrounding the big, round white fixture are four smaller cylinders, one for each of the building’s east, west, north, and south sides.

Another significant addition to the Loop’s lineup of cloud punchers is the Paine Webber Tower, at Madison and Wells. At 50 stories it is smaller than some of the other downtown rookies, but this building is nonetheless one of the most beautiful in the city. Its tastefully cut exterior lines create tapered, symmetrical setbacks, imparting a sense of controlled, subtle elegance. The real victory for this building is its lighting. At night the top half–where the setbacks begin–glows an incandescent white, looking like crystal glass.

The elevated stretch of Roosevelt Road between Canal and Clark offers a dazzling panoramic view of this New Deal of buildings, as well as the continual fear that the road itself might collapse (they’re working to fix that problem).

When the subway emerges from its hole we’re reminded of where we are, and Chicago’s vast collection of weather-bearing art is more than just a little good with the bad.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.