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Building a Tall Building -- Not a Target

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Joining us now is Blair Kamin, the architecture critic for one of the Windy City's hometown papers, the Chicago Tribune.

Blair, thanks for being with us.

Mr. BLAIR KAMIN (Architecture Critic, Chicago Tribune): Michele, it's great to be here.

NORRIS: Now I take from your article in today's Tribune, under the headline Save The Gushing; It's Time To Fill In The Blanks On The Lakefront Spire, that you were a bit underwhelmed by the Spire.

Mr. KAMIN: Well, not so much underwhelmed, but, rather, I think that this is a time when we really need to be asking hard questions about it. It's actually a very dazzling design. I mean, this tower ascends, as it goes up into the sky, turning, turning. It would actually seem to have an implied motion, as if it were twisting, almost like a bird spiraling up into the air. But it's only a concept, and we really have to ask hard questions about it. We just can't be blown away by all the dazzle.

NORRIS: Well, I guess one of the hard questions would concern security. It's actually surprising that after 9/11 there's still this race to build the tallest skyscraper in the nation.

Mr. KAMIN: There is this race to build the tallest skyscraper in the nation, and it really shows how skyscrapers have changed. Initially skyscrapers were built as office buildings. Now, though, we are seeing a resurgence of living in downtowns, like New York and Chicago. And skyscrapers are being built not so much as office buildings but, rather, as residential towers. And part of the idea is to reach up into the sky, to give people views, to have relatively narrow floor plans, so, you know, people can get close to the views 'cause that's what sells the units.

NORRIS: You'd mentioned that this is a largely residential building. The architect and the developer both say that they didn't think that it would necessarily be a target for terrorists because of that, because it was residential and not commercial. I take you don't buy that.

Mr. KAMIN: No, not necessarily. Tall buildings inevitably become symbols. It's almost impossible to think of them not being a symbol. And, in part, the economics drives that because in order to sell those units, the building needs to be a symbol. It needs to say, `This is the ultimate.'

NORRIS: Blair, as an architecture critic, I hope you can clear one thing up for us. How do you determine what skyscraper should earn the honor as the nation or even the world's tallest building? Should the antenna or some type of spire atop the building actually count when making that measurement, or do you just look at the structure itself?

Mr. KAMIN: Yeah, we're talking about what I call the height of hairsplitting. There's a governing council called the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat that makes rules on this. They count spires as part of a building's height because--think of the Chrysler Building. I mean, without its spire, it's unimaginable. In other words, the spire is an integral part of the building's architecture. But they do not count broadcast antennas as part of the building's architecture. They consider those an add-on feature.

NORRIS: And in this case there's actually a very tall spire atop this building. Is there some debate about this?

Mr. KAMIN: The roof of this building, coincidentally, is 1,458 feet, which happens to be 8 feet taller than Sears. So, like, there's no question that it's taller. And then the spire could go up another 500 feet. There's not going to be much question here, this building will be taller than Sears. And if the spire counts--and I think it will--it also will be taller than the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower in New York City. But it won't be the world's tallest building. That is expected to go to a project called the Burj Dubai, which is behemoth of a skyscraper in the United Arab Emirates, now under construction, which is expected to go to around 2,300 feet.

NORRIS: Your paper today ran an editorial that asked a question, `In today's times, how tall is too tall?'

Mr. KAMIN: Right.

NORRIS: Where do you come down on that question?

Mr. KAMIN: Ah, boy. That's a tough one. I think we'd be cheating ourselves if we decided not to build tall buildings anymore. People have--for centuries people have wanted to build tall buildings, to reach up to the heavens. I think that if we let terrorists persuade us that we should cower in fear and no longer build tall buildings, we'd really be cheating ourselves of something that's quintessentially American. The skyscraper was invented here. It reflects American optimism, capitalism, corporate identity, the drive to make distinctive presences along a city's skyline. And to lose that would be a great loss.

NORRIS: Blair Kamin, thanks for talking to us.

Mr. KAMIN: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Blair Kamin is the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): And you can check out an artist's rendering of the Fordham Spire at npr.org.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.