Sears Tower
233 S. Wacker Dr.

Sears Tower


2001 NB 


The day lasts three minutes longer at the top of the Sears Tower, which is the first place to see the sun rise over the city and the last to see it set. The Sears soars a quarter mile into the air (or five football fields, to use the conventional base unit of gigantic measurement), sleek and stylish as a black leather jacket, topped with ivory tusks that punch the clouds. The building is actually a bundle of nine tubes with staggered roofs; the tallest two rise 110 stories. Its foundation and floor have enough cubic feet of concrete to build an eight-lane highway five miles long; the building weighs more than a quarter of a million tons and is blanketed by more than 16,000 windows. Its population of workers is equivalent to Illinois' 30th largest town.

Much to Chicagoans' chagrin, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia snatched the title of world's tallest building back in 1996 after Sears' 22-year reign. But that was only after the Petronas twins thrust their spires 30 feet beyond the Sears' roof. Sears' owners were so stung that they appealed to something called the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat at Lehigh University. In 1997, the Council issued a decree that tall buildings would henceforth be measured in four ways: tallest top, highest floor, tallest roof, and tallest antenna. The Petronas Towers and their spires claimed the title in the first category, Sears had the next two and then gobbled up the fourth when it extended one of its attennas one foot higher than the attenna on the north tower of New York City's World Trade Center. (Toronto's CN Tower is taller than all of the above, but is considered a freestanding structure, not a building [see this]. And did you know that while these skyscrapers are the pride of their mega-metropolises, a 2000-foot television tower in the middle of North Dakota has them all beat?) In short, the Sears is the highest place in the world you can stand, and what more could you ask for in a skyscraper? (See a good breakdown of the race to be tallest from the Chicago Reader.)

Sears was spawned in an era of clunky gigantism--a phase America was going through in the early 1970's--and has maintained an aloofness ever since, as Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin points out (see below). Big-boned and impersonal, it is admired but not loved by Chicagoans and tourists. Sears is like the overachieving oldest child parents boast of at parties but silently wish they were closer to; the Hancock Tower is slightly less audacious and more embraceable. Kamin writes that Sears executives blame the building--with its seemingly interminable expanses of offices and separate elevator systems--for creating a stagnant corporate culture that contributed to Sears' surrender to Wal-Mart as the country's leading retailer. Sears has since moved out of its namesake tower and fled for the suburbs.

I retain a greater fondness for the Sears Tower's architecture than does Kamin, whom I greatly respect as a writer and a person. As Kamin concedes, "From certain vantage points, the tower posesses a stepped-back silhouette that dominates the skyline rather than simply marking it like an overgrown tombstone." The Sears Tower does indeed command the cityscape and grabs glances from all angles; its arresting architecture ably climaxes a complex skyline. I visited New York City for the first time in the summer of 2001, and the World Trade Center just didn't seize the eyes and imagination; the Empire State Building kept yanking you back. Sears may not embrace its own street corner or embody the city's personality the way the Hancock Tower does, as Kamin writes, but I like its various "big shoulders" and its stark, unembellished profile in a city known for both its stocky build and Midwestern understatement. The Sears is not just an imposing presence, but a defining icon. -NB

Blair Kamin:
Since its completion in 1974, Sears has failed to capture the popular imagination the same way as the 102-story Empire State, whose robust setbacks and powerfully sculpted mooring mast were made to order for the celluloid climbing exploits of King Kong. Nor has Sears become a beloved urban icon in the manner of the 100-story John Hancock Center, whose bold X-braces and tapering profile lend it a skyline swagger that perfectly captures Chicago's broad-shouldered image of itself. Sears, in short, is more a triumph of engineering than of architecture, a building that is admired more for achieving great heights than for its ability to translate its structural bravura into sky-high drama.
-from Why Architecture Matters: Lessons From Chicago

From SearsTower.com, the building's official site:
Sears Tower is a triumph of ingenuity and innovation reflecting Chicago's and America's strength, vision, and tradition of architectural excellence. 
-More from the official site, including one of my favorite pictures of the building.

Sears Tower architect Bruce Graham, quoted at About.com
The stepback geometry of the 110-story tower was developed in response to the interior space requirements of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The configuration incorporates the unusually large office floors necessary to Sears' operation along with a variety of smaller floors. The building plan consists of nine 75 x 75 foot column-free squares at the base. Floor sizes are then reduced by eliminating 75 x 75 foot increments at varying levels as the tower rises. A system of double-deck express elevators provides effective vertical transportation, carrying passengers to either of two skylobbies where transfer to single local elevators serving individual floors occurs. 

Further Reading:
-Sears Tower at Skyscrapers.com
-Sears Tower at Skyscraper.org
-Sears Tower facts from About.com
-About the world's tallest buildings from HowStuffWorks.com
See also: Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago by Carol Willis.


© Copyright 2001-2003
Nathan L.K. Bierma