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Project Description

2005 RADA
Project Of The Year

Not since the glory days of Modernism have high design and high-rise housing often coexisted. Most residential skyscrapers experience so much value-engineering, even the best architects struggle to give them a bit of character. So residential architect's 2005 Project of the Year, a sculptural high-rise condominium building in Chicago, stirred excitement—and a little envy—among the judges. “This makes me jealous,” said one. “Look at high-rise buildings, the degree to which they've been economically systemized,” said another. “Then look at what these architects have sold to their client.”

To be fair, Ralph Johnson, FAIA, the project's design principal and the design director of Perkins+Will, had the progressive-minded developer Colin Kihnke on his side. “Colin is unique,” Johnson says. “He's interested in doing modern architecture and not compromising.” The firm took that dictate and ran with it, designing an 11-story condominium tower atop a four-story base of retail and parking. “It's an urban collage in terms of massing,” Johnson explains. “Its variety of uses and building types is a reflection of the neighborhood.” The combination of low and tall elements at Contemporaine, as the building is known, reminded one judge of Josep Lluís Sert's acclaimed Peabody Terrace (1964) at Harvard University.

The Swedish furniture store Svenska Möbler occupies the ground-floor retail storefront. The rest of the building's base is taken up by a parking garage—not a prime design feature in most projects. But a beloved local landmark, Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City complex (1964), celebrates the presence of parked cars rather than trying to hide them. Johnson wanted to take a similar approach at Contemporaine. He specified glazed walls for the garage's two street elevations, ensuring that cars parked inside are visible from the street. So is the inclined ramp along one side of the garage, placed there because the site wasn't wide enough for a conventional, centralized ramp. “From outside you can see the cars going up and down,” he says. “It's a constraint turned into a design feature.”

His determination not to fall into the bland high-rise trap comes across from top to bottom. A concrete roof canopy and a projecting penthouse unit imbue the nearly 164-foot-tall structure with the presence it needs to hold its own among the city's taller buildings. Cantilevered balconies add to the project's connection to the street. And by turning every other window frame upside down, Johnson created a subtle, Mondrianesque mullion pattern. Inside each unit, he left concrete ceilings and structural pillars exposed to contrast with glossy hardwood floors. “High-rises tend to be too formulaic,” he says. At Contemporaine, his efforts to avoid that fate succeed mightily. “This goes so far beyond what people normally do,” a judge said. “It's just amazing.”
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