Conceived a decade ago in the same fit of exuberance that produced Aqua, Trump Tower, and other skyscrapers along the Chicago River, the Chicago Spire was to be the grandest of them all, a 2,000-foot-tall corkscrew designed by Santiago Calatrava that would boast 1,200 condos. It would have been the second-tallest building in the world, behind the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. But as Chicagoans know all too well, the Spire never materialized beyond a circular foundation sunk 76 feet into the no man’s land between Lake Shore Drive, North Water Street, and the south bank of the Chicago River.

The Chicago Spire
Current status Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

Burdened with more than $100 million in debt, Irish developer Garrett Kelleher finally ceded control of the property in November to local developer Related Midwest. The firm hasn’t released plans for the site, beyond saying it intends to build an “architecturally significant and thoughtful development,” according to someone familiar with the project.

What better time, then, to churn the minds of top talent? Chicago challenged five local architecture firms (SPACE Architects + Planners, VOA, Solomon Cordwell Buenz, UrbanLab, and CLUAA) and one landscape architecture firm (Hoerr Schaudt): What would you build on the Spire site?

While their visions vary, a few themes pop up, such as building down, not up, and making creative use of water. One example: an underground data storage facility that powers—no joke—a mammoth municipal hot tub.


Underground Amphitheater

Lead Designers
Jean Dufresne, Jay Keller, Ron Dean, Roy Donoso, Arash Irani, and Mark Pearson

SPACE Architects + Planners

Known For
Half Acre Brewery; Flaco’s Tacos

How do you stage open-air concerts in the heart of music-loving Chicago without disturbing the peace for nearby residents? Create a seven-level subterranean amphitheater. “By building the venue into the foundation hole, you’re emphasizing a phone-in-the-ground effect of having to put your ear up to it to get the full sound,” Dufresne explains.




Birds in Horto

Peter Schaudt

Hoerr Schaudt

Known For
Landscape at Trump Tower; North Burnham Park at Soldier Field

Chicago’s position on a key flight path for some five million migratory birds inspired this concept. (The Birds in Horto name is a play on Chicago’s motto, Urbs in horto, or “City in a garden.”) A 10-story spiraling trellis of steel and wood serves as armature for nesting and perching, while a surrounding thicket of native plants, such as crabapple and plum trees, offers sustenance. An elevated walkway lets you observe the warblers, cardinals, and sparrows without disturbing them. “It’s an oasis in the middle of the city,” says Schaudt, “not only for people but for birds.”




Urban Island

Lead Designer
Michael Day


Known For
Navy Pier; Prentice Women’s Hospital

“Rather than build another skyscraper, we’ve chosen to celebrate the vacuum,” Roberts says. He would embed in the existing foundation a ­water filtration system and hydroelectric turbines, supplying green energy to the city’s power grid and reclaiming nature—literally—amid Streeterville’s lofty glass palaces. An abstract, undulating metal-and-plastic cylinder houses the sustainable energy systems and an arts showcase.


Tucked beneath adjacent Lake Shore Drive, an underground food and crafts market gives Chicago its own version of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal.
Rebel Roberts Spire Bridge
A bridge for pedestrians and bikers snakes from the site to existing paths.

Chicago Beacon

Devon Patterson

Solomon Cordwell Buenz

Known For
Loews Chicago Hotel; 340 on the Park

Farm meets fancy in this glass-walled lighthouse-slash-condo building. By peeling away the façade from the lower levels of the 1,280-foot high-rise, Patterson exposes elevated gardens where residents can grow fruits and leafy greens. The tower’s rooftop beam guides not boats but bikes to the lush parkland. “The Beacon would serve as a cycling transit hub—both a starting point for Streeterville commuters and a destination for tourists visiting Navy Pier,” Patterson says.


The glass façade opens in a spiral around the tower to reveal balconies, and residents would enjoy gardens at the building’s base.



Swimming Hole

Martin Felsen and Sarah Dunn


Known For
Morgan Street Live + Work; Hannah’s Bretzel

Just as watering holes attract wildlife on the prairie, this two-acre swimming pool would draw the masses—a water park minus the corn dogs and disposable souvenirs. The square pool starts shallow, then reaches waist depth inside the circle before dropping off into a 76-foot-deep pit in the very center. Visitors can reach the site via a ramp that extends from under Lake Shore Drive; boaters can steer up to the edge from the Chicago River. The hole continuously siphons water from the lake and cycles it back to the river—echoing a water conservation system Felsen and Dunn proposed during the original Spire design process. “Our pitch didn’t go far with the developer,” Felsen admits.


The circular part of the pool is twice the size of the original hole.



High-Tech Hot Tub

Clare Lyster and Alejandro Saavedra


Known For
Lyster is the author of Learning from Logistics: How Networks Inform Cities.

As information proliferates, so does the need for data storage centers. “They want to be centrally placed but hidden from view,” Lyster says. Her proposal: Sink a data center into the existing foundation hole, with high-speed fiber-optic cables fanning out underground to link major cities along the Great Lakes. A constant flow of cold water from Lake Michigan helps keep the servers from overheating. Most ingenious of all: Once the servers warm the water, it’s recycled into a public hot tub that sits atop the whole shebang. An alfresco hot tub on a frigid February day? Yes, please.


A berm surrounding the 110-foot-wide hot tub conceals underground changing rooms for swimmers. Meanwhile, hidden beneath the water is a six-level subterranean data center.