From cell phones to space ships, Richard Branson’s Virgin industrial empire has never been shy about standing out in a crowded marketplace. And even before the world’s first Virgin Hotel opens in Chicago, the building is already shouting, “Hey! Look at me!”
As construction crews are turning the dowdy old Dearborn Bank Building (203 North Wabash Avenue) into a voluptuous, chic, trendy hotel they’ve wrapped the top of the building in bright screaming red construction netting. Normally, construction netting is dual-purpose: To keep people from falling off the outside of the building, and to keep things falling off the building from landing in the street. In this case there is a third purpose — to draw attention. And it’s working.
Previously, the Dearborn Bank Building was anonymous in the city’s skyline. In a decade of living and working in a dozen Chicago skyscrapers, I never noticed the building, except when walking past. But with its new cherry red halter top, it’s popping up all over the place. You can see it clearly from the Loop Elevated stations. It stands out from the Chicago River. The best view is from Trump’s tower.
And it’s even visible from deep in the sunken garden that is Lakeshore East Park.
The red theme continues all the way down the building, where the windows have been gridded with red tape, and the street level barricades are also Virgin red.
An educated guess is that Virgin would have liked to have its logo on the netting, but the city wouldn’t go for it.
Promotional construction wraps aren’t unusual in other countries. Shooting photos for our sister site, Towrs, in Vienna we saw one building being renovated that was wrapped in a giant BMW ad. In Prague, the message was less commercial. The wrap was less commercial, simply stating “Prague is beautiful.” In London we’ve seen both extremes — a giant ad for General Electric, and a net that was decorated with a drawing of what the building underneath will look like when it’s done.
Will the Virgin Hotel’s subtle promotion make City Hall change its mind about Chicago’s traditionally very conservative views about skyscraper signage? Probably not. But we have seen an increasing number of approvals over the last few years. And city wide, enforcement of oversize sign regulations ranges from lax to nonexistent, even downtown.
So congratulations to Virgin for doing what the city says shouldn’t be done, without technically running afoul of any city rules. Creative thinking is so rarely rewarded these days.