The very first skyscraper went up in 1885 in Chicago. It’s only natural that such a brazenly ambitious form of building would spring forth (or rather, up) from not just the United States of America, but from that most aesthetically American of all metropolises. And though nearly every world city now has high-rises on its skyline (some of them only grudgingly tolerated) the art of the skyscraper has continued to advance in the capital of the Midwest. Take 150 North Riverside, featured in the video above from Chicago-based architecture Youtuber Stewart Hicks. Since its completion in 2017, that 54-story tower has not just received critical acclaim, but also the awe of onlookers to whom it seems like it shouldn’t be able to stand at all.
“At its base, it’s almost like the tower’s been eaten away, leaving its core behind,” Hicks says of its unusual shape. “You might think that this would make the entire building structurally unstable — and you’d be right, if this feature wasn’t compensated for in the design and construction process.” The engineering involves making the arms of the Y‑shaped lower levels “entirely out of steel. These elements precariously spring out of the concrete core and transfer all of the loads of the outside floors above. The forces are so great, these steel members are the largest I‑beams ever made,” specially designed and manufactured for this project.
On the other end sits a “tuned mass damper, which, fundamentally, is just a giant concrete water tank at the top of the building.” When wind blows against the tower, causing it to bend slightly, the water sloshes around in response. “But the water moves slower than the building does, so its weight is back over the original center of gravity,” which keeps the structure from bending too far. Though I’ve never visited 150 North Riverside, I’ve seen a similar mechanism at work at the top of Taipei 101, the Taiwanese capital’s star skyscraper, whose own tuned mass damper — enormous, spherical, and pendulum-like — has become a favorite photo spot among tourists.
Hicks’ video also brought back an even earlier memory: that of Rainier Tower, a nineteen-seventies office building in Seattle whose tapering base impressed me in childhood. Architect Minoru Yamasaki (designer, earlier that decade, of the World Trade Center) used it in order “to maintain as much free space at the base as possible,” though it does tend to channel winds with a Chicago-like intensity. As for 150 North Riverside, its perilously tiny-looking footprint resulted from its lot, which offered a mere 35-foot-wide buildable space hemmed in by train tracks on one side and the Chicago River on the other. 150 North Riverside stands, desirably, at the confluence of the river’s north and south branches — but also at the confluence of architectural ingenuity and the Chicagoan moneymaking spirit.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.