Rehabbed Marriott is Miles and Miles from Magnificent

Blair Kamin
Tribune Architecture Critic
December 29, 1998

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It's too bad that our urban eyesores can't be exchanged as easily as unwanted Christmas gifts. They seem to stick around forever, like that holiday guest you can't wait to usher out the door. In the process, they give new and distressing meaning to the notion that architecture is the inescapable art.

For 20 years, no building more painfully exemplified this idea than the Chicago Marriott Hotel at 540 N. Michigan Ave., a concrete-clad monstrosity that blighted the Magnificent Mile. Even its designers, the otherwise talented firm of Harry Weese & Associates, deigned not to put a picture of this faceless clunker on their office walls lest the building scare off potential clients.

Yet now that the base of the Marriott has been given a long-awaited, $20 million makeover, it seems fair to ask whether there's a curse -- a design curse -- on this block, like the hex the owner of the Billy Goat tavern once put on the Cubs. For in its own, flashy way, the new Marriott is nearly as bad as its brutishly stolid predecessor -- the most garish, ill-composed addition to North Michigan Avenue in years.

At least the old Marriott was quietly ugly.

Its top didn't poke at you with shiny blades that resemble Cadillac tail fins. Its walls weren't covered with shiny green glass that creates distorted reflections of the buildings around it. It didn't have scores of silly-looking steel buttons protruding from its facade. It didn't look like it belonged in a Dallas shopping mall.

And that is the real trouble with this building -- that it could be anywhere, not just Dallas but Denver, or Seattle, or Boston.

We live in an age of interchangeable architecture that is eroding the regional differences that once lent a distinctive flavor to American cities. Lots of things account for this blurring of public places -- computers, jet travel, architects copying their peers. But the profusion of megastores, those temples to consumption that depend upon cast-in-chromium images to move merchandise, is the latest engine driving this trend. And the new Marriott, which has been reshaped to make room for a Virgin megastore that fairly bursts with Sun Belt glitz, is no exception.

Nothing could be more different from the unpretentious Art Deco building that graced the site before the old Marriott muscled in in 1978. Its jewel was a semicircular interior courtyard surrounded by shops on two levels. Diana Court, it was called, for its fountain of Diana, the goddess of hunting, by the sculptor Carl Milles.

Old timers still rue its loss, and for good reason: This was the kind of architecture that let you know that you were on North Michigan Avenue, and nowhere else.

High expectations

When the Marriott renovation was announced last year as part of John Buck's $500 million North Bridge development, which will include Chicago's first Nordstrom store, a Walt Disney Co. virtual-reality theme park and three hotels, the conventional wisdom was that putting a new face on the building would be a plus.

The architects, Chicago's DeStefano and Partners, planned to cover most of the nearly windowless, concrete base of the Marriott with different shades of a green granite that was supposed to harmonize with North Michigan's few remaining prewar limestone buildings. It sounded promising, even if the Marriott's 46-story hotel tower would go largely untouched.

But a change in materials alone does not a handsome building make, just as a single ingredient doesn't guarantee a perfect meal.

The recipe for delectable design nearly always calls for good proportions, pleasing rhythms, finely honed details and a creative intelligence skilled at fusing the disparate parts of a building into a satisfying whole. The latter quality, in particular, is absent here.

The Marriott used to have too little richness of detail. Now it has far too much, like a starving man who gorges at a smorgasbord.

To call this overdesigned mess "an improvement," as some charitable sidewalk critics are doing, is to acknowledge just how far expectations have fallen for a street that once was the most handsome boulevard this side of the Champs-Elysees. It's like saying that the Chicago City Council is having a pretty good year because you can count the number of aldermen sent to prison on a single hand.

To be fair, DeStefano and Partners were up against severe constraints.

First, it could only paper over the exterior of the building rather than fundamentally alter it. So while the new, dark-green granite base of the Marriott is reasonably dignified, the main entrance to the hotel and its arched hallway remain pitifully small.

Indeed, with Virgin's stainless steel signs dominating the facade, it's hard to tell there's a hotel here at all.

In addition, the architects could not punch real windows into the Marriott's concrete facade because the ballrooms and conference rooms behind it are supposed to be illuminated only by artificial light. So they had to trick up fake windows to lighten the Marriott's blocky mass.

The architects say Buck also declined their request to clad the entire bottom of the hotel in granite instead of refacing only the Michigan Avenue facade, the Rush Street entrance and parts of the Ohio Street and Grand Avenue facades (the last still unfinished). As a result, the granite, which is supposed to create the illusion of being several feet thick, is revealed for what it is -- a roughly inch-thick veneer. Along Ohio, where the new stone butts awkwardly against the old concrete, it looks like someone ran out of wallpaper.

Despite these obstacles, the architects still might have performed better. Certainly their basic idea -- splitting the Marriott's banal mass into three horizontal layers comparable to the base, shaft and capital of a classical column -- was sound. It's the way they handled it that grates.

Take the square, light-green granite panels affixed to the upper facade with shiny steel buttons. Not only is this one of the biggest design cliches of the 1990s, present also on the Museum of Contemporary Art, but it is totally mishandled here. The vast, unbroken expanses of stone at the Michigan-Ohio corner make the building practically indistinguishable from a mausoleum.

Or take those big projecting "windows" the architects have attached to the facade -- four along Michigan, two on Ohio. True, they endow the facade with some much-needed rhythm while the white ceramic stripes baked on their surface give a pleasing sense of texture.

But when the windows are lit from behind at night, they become more like signs whose real purpose is to draw attention -- and shoppers -- to the Marriott. It's a bigger version of a similar device at Buck's adjacent 600 North Michigan building, where four light fixtures are attached to the facade and hideous red neon glows from within a cinema lobby.

This show-off architecture reaches its nadir in the choice of materials for the top of the renovated base -- light-green reflective glass and a shiny aluminum tube punctuated by those tail-fin blades. These futuristic details, which already look dated, are at war with the traditional treatment of the bottom of the hotel, making the overall effect a bizarre mix of postmodern classicism and George Jetson modernism.

Rush Street entrance

A rare bright spot on the new exterior is the reconfigured Rush Street entrance, which has a handsome glass canopy. But coming at the base of the old Marriott's 46-story wall of concrete, its impact is negligible.

Inside, things are better, though not markedly.

The architects have skillfully transformed the lobby by removing escalators and lowering the ceiling about 20 feet. Not only did this change carve out room for the second floor of the two-level Virgin store, but it also made the lobby less of a dizzying atrium and more of a comfortable, roomlike space.

Unfortunately, the lobby was then turned over to decorators who gave it utterly banal furnishings, like chandeliers that seem right out of King Arthur's court and a laminated glass ceiling that is somebody's idea of faux alabaster. This has absolutely nothing to do with the hotel's new exterior.

Virgin, too, has its trademark look, a flashy, loftlike interior whose vast spaces are meant to symbolize an enormous selection of music titles. The idea, as the store's manager says, is that "you walk in and go, 'Wow! This place is huge.'"

It's a long way from the extraordinary elegance of Diana Court to a megastore whose prime selling point is the "wow" effect.

Yet that is what has become of the once-Magnificent Mile -- consumerist heaven, design nether world. The new Marriott sums it up: look-at-me architecture, glitz rather than good taste and the extinction of the regional differences that gave American cities their special sense of place. Won't somebody move this building to Dallas?

Criticism 1999