The List

(page 4 of 10)

Perkins + Will Chicago; Ralph Johnson, design principal
516 North Wells Street

When you pass the Contemporaine condominiums, do you notice that the building looks somehow unfinished? Look again. Only then do you realize that it’s been complete for more than a year, and that the architect, Ralph Johnson, has created a masterpiece of rational design.

When Johnson talks about architecture, it’s evident that he has been fighting the good fight for modernism a long time, even when, as he says, “everyone wanted postmodernism.” His Contemporaine’s unadorned concrete—the material otherwise responsible for many hasty disasters—was carefully poured and modeled as if for a work of sculpture. The apartments it houses, which are enclosed in glass, fit together, as Johnson describes it, “as a Rubik’s cube.”

Not unexpectedly, the design came out of a difficult assignment. “It was a tight site,” Johnson says. There were height restrictions, setback restrictions, budgets. “And the client wanted four penthouses, not one. So we took all these constraints and made them positives.”

Most emphatic among its eccentricities is a parking ramp, a feature normally hidden in the middle of a building. Here, the footprint was too narrow, so Johnson “expressed” the ramp as a diagonal streak of concrete and glass running up the side of the structure—a strange and functional complement to a strange and agreeable building.