If one day you found nothing but vast weed-strewn lots in their place, which of Chicago’s skyscrapers would you miss most? The Sears Tower? The Wrigley Building? The Rookery? The Hancock? How many tall buildings, if they disappeared, would you call a major loss to the city? A dozen? Several dozen? Close to a hundred?

Now think of the buildings you’ve seen go up over the past ten years, or that you see going up now. How many of these, if they disappeared, would you miss? Would you be able to name even one?

After September 11, there were those quick to proclaim the era of tall buildings over. Looking around at the Chicago skyline, punctuated as it is by a profusion of construction cranes, it’s hard to see that. But the towers now rising are the residue of the late 90s, planned years ago and only now topping out. A search on Skyscrapers.com, an extensive global database of tall buildings, brought up 42 entries new to downtown Chicago in the past three years and another 28 due to be completed this year. But there are only half that number slated for 2004, and even fewer for 2005. Which means that Chicago–a city at the center of world architecture for over a century–could be closing out a building boom that won’t produce a single structure of international significance.

That many buildings are bad is no surprise–bad buildings, even in Chicago, are always the norm. But never before has mediocrity been embraced with such ardor. Chicago’s collapse is not part of a universal trend. In other major cities architecture that matters is still being created. In Manhattan there’s Renzo Piano’s new headquarters for the New York Times, Donald Trump’s surprisingly elegant new residential tower, and Raimund Abraham’s narrow, razor-sharp Austrian Cultural Forum, to name just a few. In Los Angeles you’ll find Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Even Fort Worth has Tadao Ando’s dazzling new Modern Art Museum. All of these projects have commanded attention and acclaim that have eluded any recent Chicago building.

In Chicago, architecture of consequence–Rem Koolhaas’s student center and Helmut Jahn’s massive dorm complex at the Illinois Institute of Technology, or Rafael Vinoly’s Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago–has been relegated to the cloisters of academia, and the city center has become a tepid pot where all the ingredients appear to come from the generics aisle. The most prominent exception is the forthcoming Gehry band shell in Millennium Park, but its genesis points to a key problem. It was brought here not by a committee of bureaucrats or accountants but by the persistent work of one individual, enduring civic booster Cindy Pritzker. It’s a reminder of the fundamental truth of architecture, recently expressed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, whose new Milwaukee Art Museum has won international praise: “There is not a good project without a good client.”

No less now than in the time of the Medici, great art requires great patrons. Chicago’s signature buildings arose from the egos of the men running the city’s great corporations: Montgomery Ward’s original Michigan Avenue tower, with its gilded, electrically lit nude of a weather vane; First National Bank Plaza (now Bank One Plaza), which bank chairman Gaylord Freeman rushed into construction before all the building permits could be secured; the Civic Opera Building, nicknamed “Insull’s Throne” for Sam Insull, the utility tycoon who spent $24,000,000–in 1920s dollars–to erect it.

But more and more of the great Chicago corporations are dead or dying, and the survivors are run by executives who come in and out as through a revolving door. Ward’s, Amoco, First National Bank, Continental Bank, Morton Salt, and Field Enterprises have all been vanquished or assimilated by multinationals, and for the Chicago operations of these conglomerates distinguished architecture is neither required nor desired. Why make a long-term commitment when you can lease and, if things don’t go as planned, just pack up and steal away?

In this climate, Chicago has suffered a dramatic downsizing in corporate support for great architecture–Los Angeles gets a major concert hall from Frank Gehry, but Chicago settles for a footbridge and a canopy. We’re in danger of falling to the status of a provincial city, where the approach to culture is to collect samples of the reigning brands: a Gehry here, a Koolhaas there, perhaps even a Piano in the parlor. It’s the name, not the work, that’s essential–an etching, a scribble, a band shell or a garden shed, any bit of bone will do.

Lucien Lagrange is arguably the reigning monarch of Chicago architecture, and his success is far from undeserved. A product of McGill University and an alumnus of the pioneering postwar firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, he’s charming, modest, and gracious. His portfolio includes such important rescues and renovations as Union Station and the old Insurance Exchange Building (175 W. Jackson). He’s behind a number of recent large-scale luxury high-rises, and is currently transforming the Carbon & Carbide Building into a Hard Rock hotel.

But although the splendid steel-and-glass Erie on the Park (500 W. Erie) suggests that his firm may not be entirely frozen in the past, Lagrange’s specialty is a Disney-like denial that the 20th century ever took place: comforting classicist facades with surreal touches to accommodate the reality of commerce, like the 20-foot teddy-bear window in the faux-second-empire FAO Schwarz on Michigan Avenue or the huge bucktoothed grin of a picture window on the giant popsicle stick that is the Park Hyatt.

He can be depended on not to challenge or offend: to have his name on a luxury high-rise is an insurance policy that nothing will be seen that hasn’t been seen a thousand times before. He’s a declared anti-Miesian, pronouncing his contempt for those pompous glass boxes that turn their backs to the street and offer nothing but empty lobbies and windswept plazas where restaurants and shops should be. His points about the life of the street are well-taken, and his responses are often imaginative and vital–at 175 W. Jackson, for example, he balances a sensitive restoration of the ravaged terra-cotta of the exterior with a wildly exuberant retooling of the two internal light courts. We should be glad to have him–but for his work to represent the best of the new is to certify the city’s decline.

You won’t find the stamp of the Chicago architects the rest of the world recognizes on any of the recent wave of downtown projects. If you want to see the best of Helmut Jahn, go to the Sony Center in Berlin. For Adrian Smith at his most ambitious, see the Jin Mao tower in Shanghai. There is no lack of talent here, only of will. An old architects’ joke is that for a developer the three most important things are “cheap, cheaper, and cheapest.” But from the look of Chicago’s tall buildings today, that’s no longer a punch line–it’s a mantra.

While the blame can be laid on a number of doorsteps, one firm can claim a disproportionate share: Magellan Development Group, usually in concert with architect James Loewenberg. The good news is that their projects have gone a ways toward restoring the rental market seriously depleted by the condo conversion boom of the last few decades. The bad news is that they’ve done it by populating the city’s skyline with a succession of tan boxes of increasing scale whose chief inspiration appears to be Cabrini-Green’s exposed-concrete towers.

Magellan started the current assault small, with projects such as the Park Newberry (55 W. Delaware), a 12-story brick-faced condo complex transported from a 1950s suburban subdivision, and 21 W. Chestnut, a four-plus-one stretched to 17 graceless floors, thankfully banished to midblock on a side street. But what was merely unfortunate in these smaller buildings has swollen to the catastrophic in One Superior Place, completed in 1999. Its 52 floors of unrelieved block-wide slab, stretching up without setback like a mesa gone mad, suck up skyline with an obliterating zeal. Tiers of balconies that look like fire escapes alternate with stumpy columns of windows, creating a facade lacking proportion and coherence. A mechanical-services plant on the flat roof gives it all the grace of a Self-Stor warehouse.

Early last year Magellan gave us the even taller Park Millennium, 57 floors of massing so unattractive that the rental building’s otherwise exhaustive Web site contains not a single picture of its full profile. Thankfully, from most perspectives the neighboring Hyatt Regency and Fairmont hotels and the towers of Illinois Center obscure much of its form, but the concrete-bunker crown still pokes into the skyline like a giant sore thumb.

Now Magellan is outdoing itself with Grand Plaza, which occupies the full city block bordered by State, Dearborn, Grand, and Ohio–a “luxury” development with the demeanor of a barracks. There are two towers, the taller looming over the nearby AMA Building by a couple hundred feet. The pedestal takes up every square inch of the site, rising five floors straight up like a sheer cliff. The tower facades carry on the Magellan tradition of shallow tiers of balcony between graceless piers dotted with tiny punch-card windows. The piers at the southwest and northeast corners are set on a diagonal in a futile attempt to cut the oppressive blockiness. Louis Sullivan, Chicago’s first truly great architect, saw the essential character of a tall building as “proud and soaring…rising in sheer exultation,” but these towers carry their bulk like Willy Loman carried his sample cases–with an exhausted slouch. Compare them with Bertrand Goldberg’s landmark Marina City corncobs, just a few blocks south, and you want to weep.

Big and bad, Grand Plaza is the most ambitious incarnation yet of the decline of Chicago architecture. But there seems to be no end to the insipid boxes: Magellan’s 630 N. State Parkway and Admiral’s Pointe and Farallon and Caravel, of course, but also the John Buck Company’s Hilton Garden Inn and Nordstrom’s building, to name just a few. Even the high-end Fordham, from the developer of the same name, is pretty much the same box wearing a pretty, pointed hat.

In almost all these new projects, the steel-frame construction for which Chicago skyscrapers were once famous has been replaced by poured-in-place reinforced concrete, which is substantially cheaper. The material in itself does not condemn a building to vacuous design–look at Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye or Goldberg’s River City. Concrete is an intrinsically plastic medium, yet what all these new buildings have in common is a complete denial of concrete’s unique properties. They’re more relentlessly linear than the most reviled glass box.

What is the place of a residential tower within an increasingly congested city center? What is the relation of the tower to the city around it, and to the life of the street? What is the proper expression of concrete in a tall building? How does an apartment see? How is it seen? How does the design feed our hopes? What is its contribution to the fabric of the city?

From the look of the new buildings, their architects don’t even know these questions exist. But what made Chicago architecture great was how its practitioners met these issues head-on. Over the century-plus when metal-frame construction was the primary method for erecting tall buildings, the form continuously evolved, from the simple brick and terra-cotta of the first Chicago School in the late 1800s to the more pretentious stone of the beaux arts revival that followed to the simplified art deco granite of the 1920s and the eventual triumph of the glass curtain wall in the ’60s. You may love or hate one movement or the other, but you can’t deny that each generation rethought materials, structure, and design for its time.

The beginning was like the reinvention of the world. After the great fire of 1871, Chicago boomed, and since the center city was tightly confined by lake and river, ground space was limited. The demand for offices was not. The only place to go was up. What followed was an unbroken string of innovations that, one by one, removed the obstacles to constructing tall buildings.

Did iron melt, buckle, and collapse in the heat of fire? Peter B. Wight would patent a method of wrapping it in fireproof terra-cotta tiles. Did tall buildings require foundations so bulky that they ate up huge chunks of rentable space? John Wellborn Root would lay long strips of rail, crisscrossed like pickup sticks and encased in concrete to prevent rust, to develop the inexpensive slab foundation. Were brick and stone too heavy for tall buildings? William Le Baron Jenney would transfer the weight to a light skeleton of bolted cast iron and steel to create what many consider the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building.

In the Auditorium Building (now home to Roosevelt University) Adler & Sullivan built one of the first mixed-use projects, combining an opera house, hotel, and offices all in one structure. The Masonic Temple, from Burnham & Root in 1892, was not only the world’s tallest building at the time but anticipated Water Tower Place with its central light court and nine floors of retail that were not numbered but named like streets, to make it easier for shoppers to remember store locations. (It was demolished in 1939.) Holabird & Roche’s Tacoma Building, torn down in 1929 to make way for One North LaSalle, had so much exterior glass that it could be considered the first use of a curtain wall.

Then came the fair. The World Columbian Exposition of 1893 would kill off the first Chicago School and, as predicted by Sullivan, put Chicago architecture on ice for nearly half a century. Root was to be the fair’s chief designer, and his initial drawings envisioned an architectural showcase of color and variety. But he died suddenly in 1891, and his partner, Daniel Burnham, fell under the sway of powerful eastern architects such as Richard Morris Hunt and McKim Mead & White. Where Chicagoans had created buildings that frankly expressed their revolutionary iron and steel structure, the easterners preferred to conceal that structure behind elaborate classical facades.

As built, the 1893 fair became a stage set for America’s imperial ambitions, a “white city” of exhibition halls masquerading as Roman temples and palaces, arrayed around a great lagoon traversed by romantic gondolas. At night, the faux marble glittered under floodlights. It was successful and influential beyond anyone’s dreams. More than 20 million enchanted visitors spread the word throughout America and across the globe.

Only the young Frank Lloyd Wright resisted Burnham’s siren song, and he paid for it with decades of exile. The moment he turned down Burnham’s offer of six years of all-expenses-paid classical training in Paris and Rome, Wright recounts in his autobiography, he saw his commitment to an organic American architecture grow clear, even as he assumed–not altogether uncomfortably–the mantle of the outsider.

As conditions allowed, Wright continued his quest, building great homes in Oak Park, Robie House and Midway Gardens in Chicago, and the Imperial Hotel in Japan–so technologically advanced that it survived the great earthquake of 1922. The publication of Wright’s work in Berlin in 1910 made him, for the moment, more widely known in Europe than in the States. Dutch architect H.P. Berlage wrote that the two most impressive things he saw on his American tour were Niagara Falls and Wright’s Larkin Building in Buffalo. Architects such as J.J.P. Oud were deeply influenced by Wright’s search for purity and simplicity, and while Wright soon found their buildings straying from his own idea of the organic, more and more Europeans strove for the honest expression of function and structure.

But only when the rise of the Third Reich chased the great architects of Europe from their own countries did modern architecture make its way back to the shores of Lake Michigan–in the person of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

In Germany Mies’s most ambitious projects had seldom got beyond drawings on paper, but Chicago provided him with the great patrons he needed. The Armour Institute–which would become IIT–brought him over to head its architecture school and to redesign its campus. Developer Herbert Greenwald, a former rabbinical scholar, commissioned the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartments, Chicago’s first skyscrapers since the onset of the Great Depression and the leading examples of a new way of building: the steel structure expressed directly in the facade, with exterior walls composed entirely of windows.

Mies was the anti-Burnham. Burnham’s mode was accretive–Roman columns, classical pediments–and Mies’s was reductive. At the beginning, he would tell his students, eliminate nothing, consider every possibility. Then reduce and simplify, relentlessly, until only the one, essential, irrefutable solution remains.

Mies knew his Sullivan–he knew what a tall building was all about. There’s poetry in how a Mies classic like the IBM Building (330 N. Wabash) floats above its recessed lobby, emphasizing the cleavage between the structural columns and the nonstructural curtain wall; in the way the applied I-beam mullions reflect the structural elements; in how the plaza provides the building a pedestal, giving it room to breathe and be seen. This is how Mies found a solution to the problem of the tall building, just as Sullivan and Root had done before.

Chicago’s Jacques Brownson took it a step further. At his Chicago Civic Center (now the Daley Center, at Clark and Randolph) he did away with the curtain wall, composing the facade of the actual beams and columns, finished in self-oxidizing Cor-Ten steel. The structural spans have been described as more like those of a bridge than a building, able to leap a city block in just three 87-foot-wide bays.

Taking an innovative idea to a breathtaking extreme–to quote Sean Connery, “that’s the Chicago way.”

Can the faceless new high-rises really be the buildings that are bringing people back to Chicago’s downtown? Would anybody be moving back to the city if the only view out their window were of buildings like their own?

No–people come back to be able to look out their window and see that defining skyline: the sleek romance of the Hancock, the four squat lanterns of 900 N. Michigan, the cubist slices of One Magnificent Mile, IBM’s black citadel, the AMA’s sky-pierced feng shui notch, the bleached Spanish tower of the Wrigley, the flying buttresses of Tribune Tower, the cool aluminum grid of the Equitable, the gold-tipped Carbon & Carbide, the glowing dome and cupolas of 35 E. Wacker, the upward swoop of Bank One, the bison-flanked glowing blue beehive of the Straus Building, the sweeping emerald curve of 333 W. Wacker, Boeing’s sleek clock tower, 311 S. Wacker’s loopy beacon crown, the stacked superlative of Sears Tower. Great buildings, good buildings, silly buildings–but all integral parts of the visual mosaic that is what people mean when they say Chicago.

How, with such a rich legacy to draw on, has Chicago architecture lost its character? It’s not just a matter of cost. In 1906, Wright persuaded Unitarian church trustees in Oak Park that bare concrete was not just the best solution for their project but the only one that fit their bare-bones budget. Yet he didn’t simply copy in concrete the ubiquitous gothic rockpile of his day. He rethought form and function and created one of architecture’s universally acknowledged masterpieces, the Unity Temple.

Yet the graceless concrete towers rising today all fall into the category of commodity buildings, architectural fill. This is what most buildings are, and always have been–structures of little distinction that serve their limited purpose. In the past the trophy buildings of the day, the buildings with personality and consequence, always overshadowed the fill. But now new trophy buildings are rare. The dot-com collapse and corporate consolidation have left a dearth of big-name corporations in need of an architectural calling card. And when the need does exist, corporations don’t build–they swap. Amoco is dead, so Aon takes over the space and the building’s name. Boeing moves its headquarters to Chicago and slaps its logo on the futuristic clock tower Ralph Johnson designed for Morton International. Even Cook County consolidated its office space by buying the former headquarters of the Brunswick Corporation.

New commercial space is mostly stuffed into anonymous towers west of the river. Of the three office skyscrapers that have been added to the Loop, one, Ricardo Bofill’s Dearborn Center (131 S. Dearborn), is a disaster–a Botero-esque bloat of steel and darkened glass sucking up light and life from the streets around it. Gerald D. Hines’s 191 N. Wacker, designed by Kohn Pederson Fox, is an inoffensively anonymous glass tower falling far below the standards of the folks who gave us 333 W. Wacker. Only James Goettsch’s elegant UBS Tower (1 N. Wacker), with its cable-and-glass lobby wall and block-long row of Seussian planters, deserves a place in the city’s permanent portfolio.

Are we dead yet? No, but the damage done is now a part of us, suppressing our sense of what is good and what is important. A transfusion of new blood is the only antidote. Three current projects–two recently completed, one proposed–point toward a possible recovery.

The new 37-story RiverBend, the first major building for 34-year-old architect Robert Bistry, adds a visual anchor to the Chicago River where it splits north and south, just west of Wolf Point. Because the site is extremely shallow, Bistry abolishes the standard central hallway; all units face east, overlooking the river. Corridors run the length of the western wall, and above them windows let additional natural light into the apartments. The eastern facade is light and elegant, pulled forward from the building’s bulk. Sets of windows alternate with recessed balconies–as in Magellan’s One Superior Place and Grand Plaza–but here the proportions are well considered, with the extended floor slabs creating ornamental notches up the building’s sides.

The second notable recent addition to the skyline is Jean-Paul Viguier’s new Hotel Sofitel, at 20 E. Chestnut. It’s like the love child of Le Corbusier and Miami Beach’s Morris Lapidus, 30 stories of shiny mannerist geometry tapering to a knife edge on the southern end. The main facade, facing Connors Park, is a massive plane in which windows of irregular widths are assembled like a mosaic. By day they look like blue gray tiles against the opaque white glass facing; by night they’re lit and unlit pixels on a dark trapezoidal screen.

Seeing it at a distance, from any perspective, your first reaction is “Wow–what’s that?” It’s the party guest who stands an inch from your face, gleefully contradicting everything you have to say, and most of what the Chicago School had to say, about how to build a tall building. It’s more than a little cocky, a little too in love with itself and its ideas–but behind the bravado is a seriousness of purpose that’s in short supply most everywhere else.

The third and last project has yet to break ground, and it comes from an unexpected source: Donald Trump.

Trump has a rep for gilded vulgarity: more is more and excess is best. But when he decided to come to Chicago, he engaged the city’s architectural legacy with a seriousness that has eluded just about every local developer, hiring Adrian Smith of Skidmore Owings & Merrill to tap directly into Chicago’s architectural pedigree.

The sleek, 1,125-foot stainless-steel-and-glass tower Smith has designed would be the fourth-tallest building in Chicago. Planned for the current site of the Sun-Times’s headquarters, it would be set back sufficiently to keep from crowding its beloved neighbor to the east, the Wrigley Building. To the south, the current narrow river walk would be expanded into a grand arcade linking Wabash to Michigan Avenue. To the west, a great curtain wall would rise along the diagonal of the site in several steps, each with a rounded corner, like a telescoping Flatiron Building thrusting up into open sky. Trump Tower Chicago clearly rejects the current ethos of “good enough.”

Donald Trump, it’s worth noting, is an outsider. So’s Smith, who’s British. As Chicago architect-provocateur Stanley Tigerman has pointed out, Sullivan, Wright, and Mies “were all displaced persons… conditioned by a state of uneasiness with the present.” Outsiders see the things locals pass blindly by; they can provide new perspectives, confront and challenge the insider’s comfortable, deadening routine. Outsiders have historically cast the lightning bolts that have kept architecture in Chicago charged decade after decade. To get back on track, we need another strike of lightning; we need a whole series of strikes. We need to stand out in the middle of an open field on a stormy night with a kite and a key.

Of course if you ask Tigerman why Chicago architecture is on the wane, he’ll impatiently tell you it isn’t, that he can name at least 20 great architects currently working in Chicago. He blames hand-wringing about our current state on the myopia of critics, whom he claims are more intent on selling papers and building their own careers than in doing the necessary legwork to uncover and encourage emerging talent.

He says that while Lagrange’s Erie on the Park, Viguier’s Sofitel, and Ralph Johnson’s Skybridge (at Halsted and Madison) are “as good as anything ever built in Chicago,” the emphasis on tall buildings is misguided. The last Chicago School ended with Mies and his followers. “The king is dead,” he says. “You gotta get over it. No one is looking at the younger architects.”

Tigerman cites, among many others, David Woodhouse, who designed the witty new beach house at Rainbow Park; 3D Design Group’s Darryl Geoffrey Crosby, who won a citywide competition this fall with his plan for disabled-friendly affordable housing; and Koolhaas/OMA alum Jeanne Gang, whose Chinese American Service Center, featured in December’s Architectural Record, will be faced with multicolored diamond-shaped titanium panels that suggest the skin of a dragon. He argues that icons like Mies and Le Corbusier made their bones not with megaprojects but with houses, pavilions, and other small-scale commissions, and that if Chicago’s younger architects are given the patronage and support they deserve, great things both small and large will result.

Tigerman’s rebuke deserves its own article, but this is decidedly not it. The focus on tall buildings may be lazy–but in a city known throughout the world for its skyscrapers, it’s far from irrelevant. A wide-eyed response of “What elephant?” to a 60-story architectural disaster is an invitation to be trampled into dust.

Which brings us to Lakeshore East.

Lakeshore East, the massive 26-acre site east of Columbus between Wacker and Randolph, is being developed by none other than Magellan, in partnership with James Loewenberg’s real estate company, Near North Properties. The $2.5 billion project, which could include as many as 17 new mid-rise and high-rise buildings as well as a park, town homes, and an elementary school, will be one of the largest ever to be managed by a single company in Chicago’s history.

In Lakeshore East, Magellan is creating a new neighborhood from scratch. They could give us another sterile set of boxes like Illinois Center, which would be disappointing. They could give us an entire district of the types of towers they’ve been building, which would be tragic. Or they could stop phoning it in and step up to their responsibility as caretakers of Chicago’s architectural heritage.

It’s in Magellan’s interest–and Chicago’s–not to blow it. The condo boom of the last few years, with building after building selling out before a shovel of earth had been turned, is history. As early as July of last year, reports showed at least 5,000 unsold condo units in the city center, and there’s nothing to indicate things will get better anytime soon. What’s it going to take, then, to move the 5,000-some units Magellan envisions for Lakeshore East?

Now is the time for a first-principles rethinking of what a mixed-use development of this order should be. The initial signs are encouraging. Magellan brought in Skidmore Owings & Merrill to revamp the overall site plan, which wound up winning an award from the American Institute of Architects. Now they’ve released a rendering of the site’s first building, the Lancaster, whose design could presage a break from the developer’s usual bargain-bin approach. There’s a generous use of glass and a more varied facade, and a steel trellis caps the roof. It’s definitely not an embarrassment–but why not aim higher? Why not, within a set of design guidelines for the site as a whole, go after the city’s best talent for future buildings–Tigerman or Jahn, Lagrange or Johnson, Bistry or Woodhouse? How about Carol Ross Barney–and not just for the school, where the city of Chicago will make the call? How about tapping a great architect who’s never built in Chicago? Or holding an international competition for a key building? If it’s handled right, the project could become the charge that restarts Chicago’s architectural heartbeat.

But when we aren’t the ones approving the zoning, or providing the financing, or snapping up ugly condominiums as if they were gold coins lying in the street–how can we do anything about it?

When Montgomery Ward spent his social standing dry to save the lakefront for public use, he held no elected office. When Herbert Greenwald hired Mies to design 860-800 Lake Shore Drive, it wasn’t on a mandate from a public commission. When Cindy Pritzker brought Frank Gehry to Millennium Park, it wasn’t because she was getting a tax break. The only requirement is to care. Act as befits your position; speak out as befits your ability.

This past summer the New York Times and its architectural critic, Herbert Muschamp, unveiled a set of dazzling proposals for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site and its environs. The cream of New York architects–Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and others–came together to counter the business-as-usual approach of the government agency charged with rebuilding Ground Zero, expanding their group to include the likes of Koolhaas and Vinoly and Vietnam Memorial architect Maya Lin. The results of their collective labor can be found on the Web at www.nytimes.com/2002/09/08/magazine/08REBUILD.html. The drawings and models represent a mind-boggling convergence of the best of current architectural thought. You may respond strongly, and not always approvingly, but you will be engaged.

No city department, no developer, asked these architects for their input. In New York, as in Chicago, the standard MO for new buildings is to proffer mediocrity and control the opposition. For the moment, however, September 11 seems to have awakened New Yorkers’ deepest feelings about their city in a way that has made this approach unacceptable.

Within a month the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation had dumped its original uninspired proposals and designated seven design teams, including many of the same architects who had worked on the New York Times project, to come up with seven new real plans. The possibilities, presented in December, are now up at www.renewnyc. org/plan_des_dev/wtc_site/new_design_plans.

Great buildings are monuments–repositories of memory–to the era in which they rise. Our skyline is a library of the stories we tell about ourselves–what we believe, what we would like others to believe about us, what we aspire to, and ultimately, despite our best efforts to evade and conceal, what we are. The story of far too many of Chicago’s new buildings is one of exhaustion, of routine without spirit. We have to live with it, but to accept its influence over future building is to concede the death of Chicago architecture. New Yorkers chose to fight the slow smothering of their city’s soul. If we love Chicago, can we do any less?

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