Chicago Neverbuilt — Episode 7: SOM’s LSE

Plan for Lakeshore East.  Courtesy of SOM.

Plan for Lakeshore East. Courtesy of SOM.

Our Chicago Neverbuilt series continues to celebrate the work of great architects that, for one reason or another, failed to make the transition from imagination to reality.

We do a lot of reporting about Lakeshore East on this blog. We were there when the first dirt was turned in 2003. We were there for the groundbreaking of The Tides, The Regatta, The Chandler, the townhouses and shops, and the singular Aqua tower. Heck, at one time this blog was run from the 20-somethingth floor of the still-unfinished Shoreham building.

Illinois Central Railroad's 1969 plan for Lakeshore East

Illinois Central Railroad’s 1969 plan for Lakeshore East

But this history goes back far past 2003. The original plans for Lakeshore East were put together back in the late 1960s and revised over and over again until it became the multi-tower mega-project you see today. And while the skyscrapers of Lakeshore East are the brushstrokes of such familiar names as Gang, DeStefano, and Lowenberg, somewhere along the line three even more familiar names became involved with the project: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

At what point SOM became involved with Lakeshore East, we can’t say for sure. But this drawing from the SOM library shows that it was, indeed, involved at an early point in the project. Based on the surrounding buildings, it looks like this may have been created just before the turn of the century. By the year 2000, the project was being laid out by Fujikawa Johnson and Associates.

If you know Lakeshore East, you’ll immediately see some familiar forms, like SCB’s 340 On the Park. But everything else, while familiar, is simply wrong.

SOM’s plan for Lakeshore East breaks down into a series of very grand, and very formal, experiences. Instead of Aqua and Building O, SOM envisioned a pair of stately Rockefeller Center-esque towers with a grand entrance linking the Lakeshore East park to the Illinois Center.

North Field Boulevard continues the line from Cancer Survivor’s Plaza, past 400 East Randolph to a series of three round features running through the park and between another monumental pair of skyscrapers. These are topped with postmodern pyramids, again suggesting a late-1990s origin. Field Boulevard then continues through a grand arch to the riverfront where it joins the ceremonial river-spanning MWRD fountain.

The Lakeshore East Park, currently laid out like some 1980s Miami Vice graphic frozen in horticulture, is instead a formal garden in SOM’s vision, much like the park that until recently existed on the other side of Randolph Street. And Wacker Drive becomes a wall of shoulder-to-shoulder skyscrapers, obliterating the precious river views that so many Aqua, Tides, and Shoreham residents pay extra for today.

And what to do about the hard bits? Apparently the answer is corner buildings. There are three locations in SOM’s LSE where buildings take a right-angle turn. Twice they pivot on a central barrel-shaped feature.

The GEMS school? Townhouses. The shops and restaurants? Townhouses. The townhouses? Yes, more townhouses.

The SOM plan is certainly a different vision of the future than what the future actually delivered. But is it merely different or is it Minnesota that’s different?

Again, the SOM plan is far more formal than reality. But reality is much more real. It reflects the actual development of the rest of downtown Chicago, where different styles, different ideas, and different materials mix together in a harmonious cacophony like a 90s Seattle garage band where everyone is on lead guitar. It’s disorderly. It’s contradictory. But it’s also delicious architectural gumbo. And for that reason, while SOM’s LSE is pretty, it’s Abu Dhabi. It isn’t Chicago.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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