A slim possibility

Santiago Calatrava's design alone is worth the fanfare...but will it be built?

Yes, it's reckless to appraise a building that hasn't been built, because you never know how it's really going to turn out. But it's hard to resist joining the chorus of voices praising Spanish-born, Zurich-based Santiago Calatrava's design for the Fordham Spire. The lakefront tower would not only be the tallest building in the western hemisphere, but a spectacular addition to Chicago's skyline and a splendid sculptural expression by one of the world's most exciting architects.

The July 28 press-conference unveiling of Calatrava's design felt a little like an event held during the commercial real-estate boom of the 1980s: a lot of the bravado—spinning a commercial venture into a grand civic gesture—but slightly less of the finesse, despite the many virtues of the design.

Because both local dailies and the New York Times had run front-page stories with pictures the day before, draping the building model (very slick—acrylic and lit from within) seemed a little patronizing. The puffery offered by developer Christopher Carley was singularly unilluminating, and having the enthusiastic Calatrava try to illustrate his design process by drawing on flip charts while addressing the crowd in heavily accented English probably wasn't the best idea.

The many economic and political roadblocks the project faces became the unacknowledged elephants in the parlor. While the pundits and follow-up analysis had been all over the security issue, it was lightly glossed over by architect and developer. Calatrava has said that its slender, undulating form makes the building an unlikely target. Fordham has pointed to its track record for marketing luxury apartments, but if you talk to anyone who's tried to sell a unit at the Hancock (still the tallest residential structure in America) since 2001, you'll understand why Trump's organization scaled down its riverfront tower by some 60 stories. (It hurts to agree with the Trumpster, but sometimes you've just got to.)

Responding to a question about the added expense of antiterrorism insurance, Carley expressed regret that we all had to live with certain inconveniences in a post–September 11 world and then—without apparent transition—said that we really should be focusing on the Fordham Company's commitment to affordable housing. Although the connection between the two remained completely unclear, it enabled him to offer an amusing aside about trying to make up for all the time he'd spent selling unaffordable housing. The crowd laughed, but you've got to wonder if his potential lenders will find such an answer similarly diverting.

So feel free to admire Calatrava's exquisite vision. The probability of this particular building ever being built on that particular site seems so slim, you're unlikely to feel remorseful later.—Philip Berger

For a look at Santiago Calatrava's projects, check out his website at www.calatrava.com.