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AJ Writing Prize Shortlist: Meet me at the Wit, by John S Clark

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Sitting at the rooftop bar, perched 27 levels above the rattle of the Chicago Loop, the evening light fades over the hazy horizon of decaying west-side rooftops as the office fluorescent lights of the towers slowly assert their prominence. We watch the milling denizens of the 9-5 crowd
happily swilling their cosmos, whiskey sours, and Heinekens after a long day inside one of the neighboring high-rise cubicle farms

The DJ, wearing a fine 3-piece suit, spins a confusing mix of sentimental 90s rock and bluntly tame hip-hop-pop. By the smoking open fire pit table a woman shifts her weight from side to side as she casually tosses smiles around the patio to the clean-cut men that saunter by.

As she shifts her weight back and forth to catch the gaze of her next target, the back of her embroidered jeans creases in time like the pleated folds of an accordion. Perfect denim ridges like a piece of half unfolded origami extending just above the crook of the knee to just below. They are too clean and pressed to have been folded just so after months or years of use.

Those pants came off the shelf in a modish prefabricated perma-press with a little stone-wash fade thrown in for authenticity’s sake. Indicative of a certain contemporary stylized action and use, they express that the wearer must elegantly sit in such a way that these pleats fall perfectly into line as her knee bends. Though such an inclination of the fold is purely stylish, when glanced at is noted to be merely frivolous. Indicative of no outside forces, such a design doesn’t relate to the actual use of the pants, characteristic of a fashion trope that will soon to be as unnecessary and outdated as were bellbottoms and leather fringe or will be skinny jeans.

The Wit Hotel, (Koo and Associates, 2010), itself is an echo of this type of prefabricated generic wrinkle. The one architectural element that the building seems to exude so proudly and with such mute flourish is the lightening bolt that zigzags up the State Street side of the building. Touted as a daring and utterly contemporary addition to the revamped culture of the Chicago Loop, the project has much more attention and capital invested in the heavily super-graphiced interior decoration than in any actual architectural innovation.

Perhaps there is an obvious irony in the adoration of decoration rather than a physical architecture in a city that prides itself in a deep architectural history. Sullivan’s arabesque lessons diluted to broad-stroke appliqué. A distended granddaughter Mies with a cheap seamstress. An acknowledgement of the shortened attention span of the civilized Chicagoans who should be the civic guardians of their cultural heritage and now are simply satisfied by fire pit smoke, mirrored bar tops, and rococo elevators.

Most of the press photos of the project focus on this awkward yellow glass bolt, and the total image and potency of the effect on the building can only be seen in wide-angle shots taken from across the street. Architecture designed for brochures and websites. From an actual eye level
perspective, whether from beneath on the street or from within the building itself, the effect is just puzzling. Not abstract, the effect is too literal and not enough removed from the standard format of the boardroom and the office tower.

The zig-zag, hopelessly relegated to only one flat façade, is not enough to propel the user into a conception whole different programmatic world, which is what should be needed from a luxury building. While the 5 bars inside may do that trick, the work should be done by the architecture. A cliché representation of dynamism, speed, and energy that in reality is just a cheap feat of curtain wall gymnastics and filtered glazing.

Without the bolt there is nothing remarkable about the design at all. By all intents and purposes this building does nothing to add to the traditional typology of a Midwest corporate glass skyscraper. It might as well be any other heavily value engineered high-rise replete with the expected core and outrigger structure, spandrelled curtain wall, and awkward engagement with the street. It lacks the taut elegance of Helmut Jahn’s new condo building at 600 N. Fairbanks, the formally loose sumptuousness of Studio Gang’s Aqua, or the geometric abandonment of
Krueuk and Sexton’s Spertus Museum. Albeit on a smaller scale, the Spertus museum fully focuses its energy in at least one aspect of its architecture. By investing all the architectural capital into the façade, the building actively engages the Michigan Avenue wall through its
subtle crinkling. The building announces its importance and formal nuance through an acknowledgement, conversation, and humorous engagement with its context.

Through its subtle curtsies it softens the effects of the starched limestone sentinels surrounding Grant Park and beckons for future potential formal whimsies to dance among the broad steel shoulders of this city.

The Wit is a depressing answer to that invitation. Too timid to engage it’s towering neighbors in a discussion as to the attributes of futuristic style, the building seems only to serve to entertain the hipsters who crowd the elevator to the rooftop bar. A young population that is working for the weekend, focused on making the dollars to be able to buy the rounds at the bar. The question becomes whether a building such as the Wit is a platform to affirm the nine to five, Monday through Friday, culture that is so entrenched in Chicago? Or does such a society built on
convention crowd catering create disappointing buildings like this? The Wit seems to merely reinforce the culture of the loop inhabitants who have reached the apogee of their civic life in a forest of banal office towers.

If we take the rooftop bar as the crown jewel of the building featured in reviews and advertisements of the hotel, even it should have more panache. Perhaps these cutting-edge bar dwellers should demand more for their 15 dollar drinks. Already, so early in the short history of the hotel, the management is deciding change the image of the bar. Forgoing the image of the rooftop bar as a classy spot catering to the fly-in business clientele staying in the suites below, they are trading in the glass tumblers and flutes for plasticware and cheap djs to create a hot singles bar pickup spot. Encouraging indulgent overdrinking at the risk of spilt glasses and stained sofas.

Perhaps this is an acknowledgment that the building will look cooler if they keep the bars full into the wee hours. Most intriguing is the thought one gets while sitting on the white sofas under a steady stream of gas heat as to what it would be like if there were a bar on the roof of every building in the loop. Perhaps City Hall should focus on providing incentives to swath downtown rooftops with themed bars rather than green roofs. Then the Wit could be seen as building that pushed the typology established by the Tip-Top-Tap and Wrigley Field neighbors into a 21st century in which our dense downtown could be the epitome of lush Loop living. Now that would be a real draw for those convention contracts.

As it is now though, it remains a stylish dive bar on a pedestal for weekday workers to slowly slip into the lush inequities of the weekend. Sliding from suit-and-tie weekday sober to sweatpant and jersey weekend drunk. But, the building definitely does look better as the night goes on. If one can afford to imbibe enough at the Roof and come staggering down past the guitar player in the hanging mezzanine of the first floor lobby bar, through the phalanx of cheerily smiling front desk clerks with their warm cookies, to tumble out onto State Street past the panhandlers, and drunkenly point back up to the rooftop bar the neon zigzag almost makes perfect sense.

A lustrous glowing folly that, like the motion lines sketched in behind a cartoon character in mid stride, beckons us to participate in the techno-animated joys of 21st century urban life.

A clumsy graphic project that seems to satisfy the simple dream to be cutting edge, though lacking the sharpness to really cut anything.

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