If you didn’t know what to look for, you might miss it completely. But from the air—or from Google Earth—it’s impossible to overlook: A gaping, 76-foot-deep hole that has sat abandoned since the 2008 financial crisis.
Lead image: Forgemind ArchiMedia/CC.
This was the spot where, as the real estate bubble peaked in 2007, a developer planned a 2,000 foot supertall skyscraper called the Spire. Envisioned as the tallest building in the US and the second tallest in the world, it would have cost at least $1 billion to build the twisting tower, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava of One World Trade Transit Hub fame . But the financial crisis that struck down so many other heady, mid-2000s towers came for the Spire, too.
And now that the financial chaos surrounding it has nearly been put to rest, a big question is confronting its owners: What should be done with it? While its future remains unclear, at least one local publication—Chicago Magazine—has already asked local architects for their ideas.
By 2008, the construction site—where the foundation had already be prepared—was silent and deserted.
And for the last seven years, the future of the project has been tied up in millions of dollars worth of legal proceedings. Last month, Chicago Business reported that while the bankruptcy case over who owns the site is done, “what happens to Chicago’s most famous hole in the ground won’t be decided anytime soon.”
Top: The foundation under construction in 2008. AP Photo/Shelbourne, Brian Kersey. Bottom: Marcin Wichary/CC
In the eight years since, the work site has sat relatively untouched. If you drove by it, you might mistake it for an empty lot with some fencing at its center, weeds and gravel scattered across the grey surface of the soil. It’s only from the air that you realize there’s a gaping hole at all—complete with steel reinforcements and a scaffolding left over that allows you climb down inside.
The foundation in 2010, from the ground and from Google Earth. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.
It’s an eyesore, to be sure, but it’s unclear what should be done with it. Should it simply be removed and paved over, as though it never happened? Should a building be build with the same footprint as the original Spire? Should the new owner try to resurrect the project?
Chicago Magazine’s Ian Spula, sensing an opportunity as the bankruptcy case drew to a close this spring, took the question to a handful of local architects—asking them to imagine what the hole could be used for, if not a gigantic skyscraper. The proposals, which you can see in full here, included installing a data center inside the hole to turning into an amphitheater.
Martin Felsen and Sarah Dunn, of UrbanLab, proposed turning the foundation into a “swimming hole” where Chicagoans could come during the summers to take a dip—and where water from Lake Michigan would be continuously filtered and cleaned. According to the designers and Spula, the edges of the site would be sand, turning into shallows as you got closer to the edge of the foundation and getting deeper towards the center.
Then there was an idea from an architect named Michael Day, of VOA, which proposed installing a hydroelectric power plant inside the hole. The idea would be to filter lake water, again, but also generate power.
The landscape architects Hoerr Schaudt’s Peter Schaudt, imagined creating a sanctuary for birds inside the space—using a latticework that extends above the hole and created an enclosed space for migrating and local bird populations.
Of course, Chicago Mag’s idea wasn’t to glean “realistic” proposals for the site—the idea seems to have been to spur discussion about the foundation than a reasonable plan to deal with it.
For now, the Spire’s going to remain an empty dot on the shore of Lake Michigan. Though at the very least, it’s serving one useful for purpose: A perfectly circular warning about the risks of over-optimistic development during boom times. Whether anyone will heed that warning? That remains unclear.
Check out Spula’s full story on Chicago Magazine here.