From Up On High: The supertall ambition of skyscraper savant Adrian Smith

“The sky’s the limit,” says Adrian Smith, with a well-earned air of authority.

World-renowned in part as a designer of “supertall” and “megatall” skyscrapers, the seventy-two-year-old Chicago-based architect is currently monitoring construction of the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, which when completed around 2020 will be the first to reach the one kilometer mark, approaching double the height of the Willis Tower. It will wrest the title of the world’s tallest building from Burj Khalifa in Dubai, completed in 2010 and also designed by Smith.

Another Smith design, the Wuhan Greenland Center, in Wuhan, China, is expected to be the fourth-tallest building in the world when completed this year. Also currently under construction is the Smith + Gill-designed Akhmat Tower in Chechnya, which will be the tallest building in Europe and the world’s tallest seismic special moment frame structure; and Central Park Tower, which will become the tallest residential building in New York City and second-tallest in the United States.

In other words, the man knows a bit about piercing the clouds.

Now that the one-kilometer barrier has been broken, the one-mile mark is a logical goal, says the Lake Forest resident, who recently sat with Chicagoly to talk about the design philosophy, science, and faith that inform his work and to take stock of the expansive professional footprint he has left across the world stage and Chicago’s architectural landscape.

But first, what about prospects for a mile-high skyscraper?

The approach to the challenge starts with a question, says Smith: “You have to ask the question, ‘Can you do this?’ I don’t believe there is ever a proper ‘no.’ It is not that ‘no, you can’t do it.’ You just have to figure out how to do it. And if you are asking the right questions, you can do that.”

As buildings get taller and taller, he says, each one demands a “re-imagination” of design and construction. Take addressing the wind, for example, which “always governs.” Chicagoans know that when the wind blows hard, the toilet water swishes on the top floors of the Hancock Tower, which in 1968 became the second-tallest building in the world. The understanding of wind forces has since advanced, and the science has evolved. For several decades now, Smith-designed skyscrapers have been uniquely designed and shaped in fashions that “confuse the wind” so that it “doesn’t have a chance to get organized” and build up a force that will accelerate the movement of the tower.

The science of megatall skyscrapers, defined as buildings rising more than two thousand feet, has evolved in many less obvious ways, as well. In the construction of Jeddah Tower, for example, the development of flatter, lighter-weight elevator coils allows elevators to rise higher.

When it comes to further pushing toward the mile-high mark, the bottom line is this, says Smith: “The science is there. We know it can be built.” In fact, Smith has already attempted to generate interest in a mile-high megatall in Chicago. The Mile High Prototype, a theoretical tower at Wolf Point, had no takers. “We lost a good opportunity to put something really special there. If you did a major building in the city of Chicago in the Loop area or near it, I think it would rejuvenate the city’s idea of itself,” Smith said.

Increased taxes, employment, and economic activity represent only a fraction of the benefits a megatall would bring to the city, he believes. “There is tremendous publicity for the city in doing a world’s tallest building again. We were known for that. We are not known for that now. The amount of publicity the city got for the Sears Tower over the years was incredible. There is a reason countries do these supertall buildings. They add a lot of value to the area in which they are built. The tall building has always had a key role in establishing a city’s identity. It can be a symbol of success and optimism for the future of any city.”

If Chicago wants to be special, Smith concludes, “we have to act on it.” A structure in the one kilometer range would cost “about two billion,” he estimates. “It sounds like a lot, but Millennium Park was four hundred million.” Such a project, he says, would require “a concerted effort on the part of the city to recognize that a venture like that can add a great deal of value to the city.”

Adrian Smith’s firm has designed the world’s tallest building and is designing the one that will surpass it. (Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

While a grand stroke of vertical boldness still rests only in Smith’s imaginings of Chicago’s future, much of his multifaceted, ever-evolving vision is concretely manifested in the city’s architectural present. It is a vision conceived in June 1966 when Smith drove into the city with fifty dollars in his pocket, stayed at the YMCA on Chicago Avenue for five dollars a night, and worked as a busboy in a diner in the evenings for food until his first paycheck came in from his daytime job as a student intern at Perkins and Will. “I remember going to the rooftop of the Y at dusk and marveling at the skyline with its glittering light.” He also recalls that change was afoot, including the brand new Chicago Civic Center, briefly the tallest building in Chicago. “How do you become a part of this process, of this change, part of the evolution of the city and its life,” he wondered.

A year later, he interrupted his studies at Texas A&M University to work at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and was soon assigned to the John Hancock Tower design team, working on details like the metal gratings near the lower level plaza ice skating rink. “While others were getting their master’s degrees from professors who taught how to design houses and community buildings in esteemed universities, I was learning how to design, detail, and document great towers of the twentieth century from some of the great architects of the day,” said Smith, who finished his education at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Architecture, Design and the Arts.

After a two-year stint in London, Smith returned in 1974 to the Chicago office of S.O.M., where he was promoted to the new role of studio head. His “first true introduction into the big leagues of development” was his first mixed-use tower, Olympia Center. In 1980, he was elected a design partner at S.O.M. and remained there until 2006, when he founded Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG). The firm, dedicated to the design of high-performance, energy-efficient, and sustainable architecture on an international scale, has seventy-five employees and is located on the twenty-third floor of 111 W. Monroe.

In the nineteen eighties, after renovating the Allerton Galleries, the Gonzalez Hall, and the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, Smith’s designs included the NBC Tower, Cityfront Center Plaza, Loop Transportation Center, AT&T Midwestern Headquarters Building, and US Gypsum Headquarters.

During this period in the eighties and nineties, while also working on projects around the globe, he developed his design philosophy of “contextualism.” “Contextual architecture confirms the continuity of the past and extends to the future, depending on the quality of design and understanding of context,” he explained. “My design philosophy is about identifying the nature and character of a place and the people that occupy that place. Ultimately, I design buildings and environments that attempt to strengthen character by adding context.”

“Architecture is about relationships,” he continued. “The relationship between old and new is important if we are to take our past seriously and if we covet the values of the context that informed the present. The new must make a connection with the old in ways that respect the essence of a place, a kind of ethos regeneration.”

Consequently, a number of his buildings in Chicago have taken their cues from the Art Deco style instrumental to the development of the Chicago skyscraper. “I felt that when I arrived back in the mid-sixties there was a cohesiveness about the city that was being lost with the proliferation of modern boxes of varying qualities, and I wanted to tip the scales back to my image of Chicago.” Hence, for example, the design of NBC Tower was meant to extend the character of the nineteen-twenties landmarks nearby. Likewise, the AT&T Building connected to Art Deco buildings in the Central Loop like the Chicago Board of Trade. “If there is a major change that I brought to Chicago it was probably reintroducing what I call ‘heritage’-style buildings to give a better balance between the old and the new,” Smiths aid. “Much of the work I have done has been contextual. It has tried to fit in, instead of stand out.”

In 1993, he began work on China’s tallest building, the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai. “This would catapult me into the arena of supertall-tower design,” he says. “It was Jin Mao that would set the standard for quality in architecture in China for years to come. It became an instant landmark known throughout China with images of itself on Chinese postage stamps and some currency. It literally ushered in the early days of new development for China (that) is still going on today.”

Several new supertall towers followed, including Trump Tower, developed by now-President Donald Trump. It started out to be a tower of two thousand feet in height but September 11th, 2001 changed all that. “A week later, Trump said, ‘Let’s reduce the height down to about one thousand feet. I don’t want to be a target,’” Smith said. When topped out in 2009, it became the fourth-tallest building in the country and surpassed the Hancock Tower as the building with the highest residence in the world until the completion of Burj Khalifa.

Smith’s contributions to Chicago have gone far beyond the construction of tall buildings. Most prominently, he led a team at S.O.M. to master plan what would later be named Millennium Park. He also introduced Frank Geary to the project. “Geary to his credit made Millennium Park what it is today, even though the planning was there,” Smith said. “Through his artistic eye and exuberant expression of architecture, he was able to bring the fantasy to that area that Chicago sorely needed.”

Working with Mayor Richard M. Daley’s team, he led the design effort to redo the State Street Mall between 1992 and 1995, making it more pedestrian-friendly and getting people up close to the retail shops. Working pro bono, he has been a member (and former president) of the Chicago Central Area Committee since the late eighties. As a member of the Board of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for the last seventeen years, he has developed successful expansion plans pro bono. The DeCarb Plan for the Chicago Central Area, funded by his firm, showed how the Central Area could achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Adrian Smith’s mark on Chicago is inescapable. (Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

Asked to assess his mark on Chicago, Smith offers a textured answer: “I would say that the most important would be to bring the name of Chicago to many other world centers through my work; secondly, extending the reputation of Chicago as a city of architecture by exporting the skills of the architectural community of Chicago abroad with the specialty of supertall-building design; and last, by a continuous practice of architecture in this city having contributed to its skyline with structures such as Trump Tower, AT&T, Olympia Center, and NBC Tower, to name the most dominant.”

Smith declines to identify a personal “favorite” project, but does readily single out the seventy-two-thousand-square-foot Willow Creek North Shore Evangelical church in Glenview, of which he is an unofficial member, as “something special.” “What was most important in the conceptual design of this building was to create a welcoming feeling and a diagram that was clear and understandable for both the first-time visitor as well as those who attend on a regular basis,” he said. “From the point of view of church planning, I think it is going to have an impact.”

Which leads to a final question, “Is there a measure of faith in your work?”

“God plays a role in what I do,” he said without hesitation. “Nancy (his wife of forty-eight years) and I have a ritual of saying our prayers. … I do ask Him for inspiration and I do ask Him for wisdom and I feel that when I do that I do get feedback. I do get ideas that I would probably not have had otherwise. That process is important to me.”

About the author

Alan P. Henry is a New York Times bestselling author, six-time national fiction contest prize winner, and thirty-five-year newspaper veteran with the Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and now, 22nd Century Media.

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