333 W. Wacker
333 W. Wacker Drive
Located at the junction of the Chicago River’s three branches, 333 W. Wacker is much more than just another skyscraper dotting Chicago’s skyline. It’s a tribute to the river below, sky above and buildings all around.
Sheathed in blue-green glass stretched taught across its curved façade, it appears to be an extension of the glistening green river below. It’s almost as if the river has risen into a wall over the city — like a frozen tsunami. Whereas the river stretches out wide, open and curved, the loop is quartered off and angular – the same is true of 333 W. Wacker. While the side of the building facing the river references the river in curve and color, the sides facing the city reference the city. 333 W. Wacker is shaped like a truncated triangle (or better yet, a piece of pie with a bite taken out of it). The loop facing sides of the building follow the hard lines of the surrounding structures and elevated tracks. 333 W. Wacker is textbook contextual architecture.
Contextualism is a key principle of postmodern architecture – a label that easily fits 333 W. Wacker. Completed in 1983, it was designed at the height of the postmodern period. Postmodernism was a reaction to the minimalism and severity of modernism. Suddenly architects were keenly aware of the relationships between their buildings and surrounding environments. 333 W. Wacker is the greatest example of this philosophy in Chicago. Notice how it even converses with the Merchandise Mart across the river. While the Mart is rectilinear, opaque and emphasizes its verticality, 333 W. Wacker is curvilinear, reflective and emphasizes its horizontality.
333 W. Wacker was designed by the New York based firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox. When built, it was rare to invite an outside architecture firm to design in Chicago – especially for such a prime location. They were also a small lesser-known firm, without a national reputation. However, the success of 333 W. Wacker put Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) on the map as reputable architects in Chicago and beyond. Today the firm is considered to be one of the greatest architecture teams for large-scale international building projects in the world.
KPF gained a reputation for smart design through 333 W. Wacker for more reasons than its aesthetic sensibilities. They were one of the first firms interested in sustainable building practices, seen foremost in their choice of glass cladding. KPF chose to use 6 acres (or 275,000ft) of Ford Motor Company’s special reflective architectural glass (at a cost of $1.2million). The glass had an inside coating of reflective metallic oxide film which blocks up to 65% of the sun. This allowed for cooling costs to be kept at a minimum during Chicago’s hot summer months. Another smart and not so obvious choice the architects made was to raise all of the offices above the elevated tracks that cut behind the building. Instead of putting offices on level with the roaring trains, large circular air intake and exhaust fans create unlikely decorations seen by curious train passengers.
However few buildings go without any criticisms – and for 333 W. Wacker, the building’s river-facing base is a subject of controversy. Clad in lines of alternating heavy grey granite and green marble – the base seems disconnected from the crystalline façade above it. When architecture critic Paul Goldberger made a similar criticism, William Pedersen (chief architect on the project) rebutted by saying, “if the base matched the shaft, it wouldn’t be a base, would it?”
Whether or not it’s perfect, 333 W. Wacker has made it into Chicago’s architecture hall of fame. A timeless classic it will continue to be a favorite of many for years to come.
How can we be so sure it’s deserving of such praise? Kohn Pedersen and Fox were since asked to design the two buildings on either side of 333 W. Wacker (225 W. Wacker and 191 N. Wacker), not to mention countless more around the world. It was awarded the AIA National Honor Award in 1984. Check out KPF’s website here and their thoughts on 333 W. Wacker here. And Perkins + Will were the associate architects of the building. Here’s their website.