The List

(page 8 of 10)

SOFITEL CHICAGO WATER TOWER (2002)
Jean-Paul Viguier, architect
20 East Chestnut Street

“This building resembles myself more than [it resembles] Chicago,” says Jean-Paul Viguier, the Frenchman who designed the striking Sofitel hotel on Chestnut Street. An emphatic modernist whose sensibility appears in Coeur Défense and elsewhere in the financial district of Paris, he’s speaking by phone from the City of Light, describing how he is inspired by Chicago, and how he believes passionately that his hotel plays to our city’s strengths.

“I am working on a theme in my architecture,” says Viguier. “I call it ‘absence.’” In basic terms, he is describing the nature of open spaces in and around a building. It is what architects and their fans love about downtown Chicago (especially compared with New York). Open space enables freedom and provides a fuller view of buildings in a denser urban fabric.

Viguier competed for this commission—and won—with a dramatic slanted wall that he describes in esoteric terms: “It is a cone intersecting with a prism; then you take away the cone,” he says. The result: a concave entrance at the base of the slanting glass building—something akin to the geometric sophistication of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Viguier chuckles over this comparison.)

But to a Chicagoan, what makes this building such a pleasure is that it is functional as well as glitzy. “L’absence” helps give more space to the small park just outside the hotel, a nice touch for the neighborhood (not to mention a place to view his building). The design also provides additional floor space in upper stories without crowding the street.

It’s hardly a “Chicago” building. Critics use the word “élan” to suggest its Parisian glamour— as opposed to Chicago purity and/or grit. But there’s something reminiscent of both cities in this design. It’s the glassiness and openness inside and out. Its atrium, which harks back to the Chicago school, maximizes natural light. The hotel, in fact, is flooded with light—sunlight by day and the lights of its sizzling North Side neighborhood by night. That’s 21st century Chicago: grit to glamour in just 100 short years.