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Twin Towers

USA | Saturday, 27 June 2009 | Views [1217]

Chicago has two tall buildings. Actually it has many, for its downtown rivals only Manhattan for density, but two stand above the rest in their efforts to thrust up into the sky.

One, the Sears Tower, was for many years the tallest in the world. Now ousted by buildings in Kuala Lumpa, Taipei, Shanghai, and Dubai it still claims title as the tallest in the western hemisphere. Or if this is too vague a concept, the tallest in North America.

The other, the John Hancock Centre, tops out at 100 floors. Rumour has it that at design stage the director of this venerable insurance company resisted suggestions to build the tallest building in the world. "We must be able to say that we built the most efficient and economical building possible" he declared, "not merely the tallest".

So a moment of [ir]resolution becomes fact. At the time it must have seemed a worthy motive, and one easily explained to boardrooms and shareholders. Now it is less so, and what was once sensible is perhaps churlish. In part this is because super tall buildings are so vain, so impractical except as grand gestures of engineering prowess that to quibble over a handful of floors, hundreds of metres above the ground, seems absurd. Given the hubris of going up you might as well go all the way.

The Emiratis for one have no such doubts. The Burj al Dubai, once complete, will stand 800 metres above the rolling desert plain that stretches from the Persian Gulf to Red Sea.

You might have noticed that none of this discussion concerns the appearance of these two towers. Certainly neither is impressive at street level. The Sears is hidden behind a blank granite podium, and Hancock is accessed only through a sunken central courtyard and atrium. In fact, apart from the often obscured and definitely proletarian views afforded on the shores of Lake Michigan, looking back, the best place to observe either of these giants is from the observation deck of its rival.

So there you have it. The buildings exist mainly to observe each other, to stand at the northern and southern ends of the downtown, looking first down and then out. Over the lake for Hancock, rail yards and dormitory suburbs for Sears.

In recognition of this true function both have observation decks, fast elevators to the top, coin operated binoculars, and gift shops selling t-shirts and Lego models of the towers.

Hancock, being the shorter of the two, sells also coffee and sandwiches. I sit during a break from drawing the city below and enjoy iced tea in a frosted glass. Here, in the USA, even the smallest beverages are described as tall.

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