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January 10, 2009

Exploring Modernism: The Tribune Tower Contest

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It can be interesting to look at examples of technology or aesthetics during the early stages of change. Lots of ideas are explored. Alternative configurations are tried out. Eventually the most appropriate solutions appear, the result being minor variations around that ideal until a large shift (especially in technology) occurs. I discussed the evolution of airliner design in this context here.

In architecture, the emergence of Modernist design crossed paths with the American invention, the skyscraper. A fascinating example is the 1922 design competition for the Chicago Tribune (newspaper) tower. The Wikipedia entry for the building is here and a book about the competition (which I have not examined) is here.

Many entries were simply odd, including one having the building shaped like a statue of an Indian (sorry, I can't locate a photo, though surely a copy is on the Web somewhere). Others were attempts to apply historical architectural styles to the structure. A few instances made use of Modernist concepts such as emphasis on structure and elimination of ornament.

Below are some of the entries.


Jens Fredrick Larson
Here the architect grafts a design from a non-so-tall historical structural style onto a skyscraper format. The sensible base-column-capital formula is used, but I don't think it works here.

Adolf Loos
Modernist Loos submitted a literal takeoff on the columnar form. Given the amount of effort submission designs required for this competition, I have to assume that he was serious -- though the result certainly makes one wonder.

Bernard Bijvoet and Johannes Duiker
This is one of the few purely Modernist entries. The drawing shows an interesting juxtaposition of the vertical (the solid corner elements) and the more typical (of the time) Modernist horizontal motif emphasizing floors. The intended structure might be reinforced concrete. If so, the resulting building probably would not have aged gracefully had it been built.

Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer
Gropius was head of the famed Bauhaus School at the time of the competition, so it is little wonder that his version also is Modernist. The vertical-horizontal business is less contrasted than in the Bijvoet-Duiker design. The dominant pattern is individual office windows; a few horizontal extrusions are added apparently to provide some visual interest. It strikes me a a loft building writ large.

Eliel Saarinen
Saarinen (the Finnish architect and father of the better-known Eero Saarinen) submitted a design that many observers at the time believed should have been the winner; pictures of renderings of this unbuilt structure can be found in many books about the history of architecture. Gothic motifs were used to produce a handsome design that served as inspiration for a number of 1920s skyscrapers that were actually built. For that reason, it seems a bit bland or ordinary in retrospect. I do like it, as I do most other designs by Saarinen (Eliel) who I consider a better designer than Saarinen (Eero).

John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood
This was the winning design. It's fussier than Saarinen's effort, but I think it deserved to win nevertheless. Perhaps this is because Hood happens to be one of my favorite architects. But my main justification is retrospective: Had Hood submitted something like the Saarinen design, the Tribune Tower would have been (by the early 1930s) just one of a crowd of somewhat similar designs. Instead, the Tribune Tower is a nice design that has remained distinctive because other architects (including Hood himself) tended to follow Saarinen's path.



posted by Donald at January 10, 2009


I learned my architectural aesthetics from Howard Roark, so the winning design has always been one of my least favorite buildings. The designs by Larson and Loos, though, are a good deal worse.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on January 11, 2009 12:41 AM

Oh, I forgot to say thanks for the fascinating post. I had never seen any of these, except of course for the winner, which as a midwesterner I have to look at a lot. When I go in to Chicago to see Tristan und Isolde at the end of the month I will no doubt see it again.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on January 11, 2009 12:44 AM

The Trib tower occupies a very unique position along Michigan Avenue, at the point where the Chicago River bisects the Loop.

I've always thought that the tower is an exceptionally attractive building, with a sort of cathedral tone to its architecture.

And because it is sited close to the river, it really stands free from other buildings.

For the past 20 years or so, the Tribune has owned the Cubs. And, so, the building has a special significance to Cub fans.

I hadn't realized that there was a design competition. Why?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on January 11, 2009 8:23 AM

Thanks for the post!

Despite all the praise he's received, it still seems to me that Raymond Hood is greatly underappreciated (most especially by, and perhaps because of, the orthodox modernists). In my book, he's something like the Babe Ruth of 20th Century architects (in terms of delightfully beautiful buildings that WORK!):

*Chicago Tribune Building -- home run
*American Radiator Building -- home run
*Daily News Building -- home run
*McGraw-Hill Building -- home run
*Rockefeller Center (main architect, really) -- 7th game of the World Series, walk-off grand-slam
et al. (e.g., Beaux-Arts Apartment House)

- - - - - -

Comment / question:

If I remember correctly from some material that a Chicago born-and-bred friend of mine sent to me, here are two interesting (to me) overlooked "facts" (?) about the Chicago Tribune Tower (and its "program"):

a) Has its main entrance on an elevated "fake" street (which is "really" the approach road of the bridge that takes the street across the adjacent river).

b) Aside from printing plants, etc., the building includes an small, nicely designed radio theater / studio.

However, I may be wrong about both of these "facts." (Perhaps I'm confusing the building with another building?) That's the "question."

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 11, 2009 12:58 PM

Michigan Avenue in front of the Tower is a bi-level street. The Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River is also bi-level. On the south side, Michigan continues bi-level for two blocks, and Wacker Drive along the south bank is bi-level all the way around the north and west sides of the Loop.

Most of the downtown streets rise as they approach the river to accomodate the bi-level sections.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on January 12, 2009 3:24 AM

A fascinating design competition — are other entries recorded as well? — because it came at seemingly the exact moment when traditionalism and modernism were about level on the seesaw. A respectable architect could submit, for the HQ of the "World's Greatest Newspaper," a building from the cover of Astounding Science Fiction or a Gothic high-rise.

Some thoughts on the designs pictured:

Jens Fredrick Larsen: Although not an eyesore, this example of Christopher Wren on steroids seems poorly integrated — your standard early 20th century block of bricks with a Georgian top.

Adolf Loos: A looser, I mean, loser. Like one of those smart-ass, wink-wink, "postmodern" jokes of the 1980s.

Bijvoet and Duiker: How daring it would have looked at the time, how dull now. From avant-garde to cliché in 88 years … actually, it would have been a cliché 40 years after it had been built.

Gropius and Myer: Bauhaus of pain. Architecture for architects who regret the necessity of people messing up their concept by using it.

Saarinen: A reasonable synthesis of the modern with an un-self-conscious, un-patronizing bow to tradition.

Howells and Hood: The same idea, but with a little more flair. I can't defend intellectually the "flying buttresses" on a skyscraper, but what's wrong with a little fantasy? Some controlled, tasteful frivolity in the center of a commercial city is a reminder that there's more to life than getting and spending. Come to think of it, I guess I just did defend it intellectually.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 12, 2009 3:38 PM

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