Tower twirls and debate starts to swirl
By Blair Kamin
Tribune architecture critic
Published May 6, 2007
It sounds, at first blush, like an oversize architectural joke -- a skyscraper where each floor would revolve independently around a central core, not only making a 360-degree rotation but also creating a constantly shifting profile.
The spinning skyscraper!
The great merry-go-round in the sky!
The anti-No Spin Zone!
But don't laugh.
The little-known Italian-Israeli architect and developer who recently announced plans to build such a skyscraper in the desert playland of Dubai was making the rounds in Chicago last week and has designs on adding another rotating tower, housing condos, offices and a hotel, to Chicago's vaunted skyline.
His name is David Fisher and his most notable invention to date is the "Smart Bathroom by Leonardo da Vinci" system, a prefab bathroom used in high-end hotels and homes. He is 58 years old and has never built a skyscraper. And that makes him, he insists, the perfect guy to rethink the tall building because he is unencumbered by conventional thinking.
"This is the future," he said in an interview. "One building -- endless shapes."
Or, perhaps, endless visual chaos.
In Dubai, where Fisher has designed a 68-story hotel, apartment and office tower that he predicts will start construction in six months, such an outlandish proposal promises to fit right in. The desert emirate already is home to some of the most oddball architecture in the world, including an underwater luxury hotel and a man-made chain of islands in the form of a palm frond.
Chicago isn't Dubai
Chicago is different, a tough-guy town where the stark rectangles of the street grid extend upward to the skyline and such boxy behemoths as Sears Tower. For years, its leading architectural light was the stern modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who once said that architecture "is not a playground for children, young or old."
On the other hand, the straight-laced city shows signs of loosening up. The City Council on Wednesday is expected to grant final political approval to architect Santiago Calatrava's plan for a 2,000-foot-tall lakefront tower that would twist into the sky like an oversize drill bit.
Not surprisingly, then, the prospect that one of Fisher's spinning towers could be twirling on the Chicago skyline is generating passionate debate.
"He's nuts," said Chicago architect George Schipporeit, co-designer of the undulating Lake Point Tower and a faculty member at the Illinois Institute of Technology's architecture school. "There are little jerky things that detract from the continuous development of the city."
Yet Anthony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the Chicago-based organization that monitors skyscrapers worldwide, said: "The ability of this tall building to morph, depending on the time of day or the time of year, I think, is an incredible idea. But of course, you then get into the whole dimension of whether it's plausible."
Fisher, who insists his concept is doable, spoke Tuesday at the Global Real Estate Summit, a real estate conference at the Four Seasons Hotel hosted by the law firm DLA Piper, which has a large office in Chicago. He met Wednesday with officials of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.
The reaction? Guarded.
Planning department spokeswoman Constance Buscemi labeled the meeting with city officials purely introductory.
Jay Epstien, chair of DLA Piper's U.S. real estate practice and co-chair of the conference, said "the buzz was some people said to me there was a 'wow' factor after seeing his video presentation of the building. That came from a pretty sophisticated group of people. Other people scratched their heads about the technical side of how it would all work."
At least two developers in Chicago are interested in his concept, Fisher said, though he declined to identify them. Among the sites he's eyeing is a parking lot near the NBC Tower and the University of Chicago's Gleacher Center. He envisions a tower 60 to 90 stories tall.
His idea works like this: Build a cylindrical concrete core that looks something like a missile silo. Construct apartments, offices or hotel units off-site. Adapt ship-lifting technology to hoist the apartments into place and -- voila! -- you have rotating pies in the sky.
In the Dubai tower, residents of full-floor penthouses on the tower's five highest floors would use voice-activated systems to make their floor turn left or right, fast or slow, Fisher said.
Fast, he explained, would be one turn per hour. Slow would be one turn per three hours. The building's managers would determine the rotation of lower floors with more than one apartment.
Motion sickness and vibrations won't be a problem, he said.
In keeping with the current wave of enthusiasm for environmentally sensitive green architecture, wind turbines would be located between each floor. As a result, Fisher predicted, the Dubai building would generate enough electricity for itself and five equivalent structures.
The savings realized by prefabricating the units would offset more expensive features, such as having the building rotate, he said. While the overall cost of such a tower would be 5 percent more expensive than a typical high-rise, Fisher predicted, the units would sell at a premium, ensuring a profit.
"These are going to be iconic buildings," he said.
A bit rusty
A native of Tel Aviv who moved to Florence, Italy, to study architecture in graduate school, Fisher said he has not practiced architecture since 1985, making his living instead in development and construction management.
He got the idea for a rotating tower several years ago during a tour of a condominium high-rise near Miami where ocean-facing units were selling for far more than those with inland views. Ten days later, he recalled, he was in New York City visiting a friend whose high-rise dwelling had views of both the East River and the Hudson River. But it was the only unit on the floor with such views. "This is where it clicked," he said.
In the United States, he said, he is pushing the rotating tower concept in New York City and Miami as well as Chicago. In each city, he said, he would likely join forces with local developers.
What is conceptually provocative about Fisher's plan is its departure from conventional high-rise construction.
Typically, in order to simplify construction and save money, a high-rise's services and utilities -- elevators, supply conduits for water, gas and electricity -- go straight up while the conduits for water and waste go straight down.
Pressed on how the plumbing stack would work in the rotating tower, Fisher said that moving pipes would follow the units as they rotated and would be joined through a "smart connection" to rigid pipes in the building's core.
Schipporeit, for one, is unpersuaded. He call the plumbing idea "the ultimate O-ring gasket, out of NASA," referring to a key rocket booster part implicated in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Whatever the outcome, there should be no dispute on the right music to play in the tower's elevators: the Byrds' 1960s recording "Turn, Turn, Turn."
Fisher's concept can be seen at his Web site, http://www.dynamicarchitecture.net/.