Sears Willis Tower

sears-311-towers
The John Hancock Building, by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Fazlur Khan and Bruce Graham, is an architectural landmark. The Sears Tower, by the same team, is not. It is an engineering triumph. For 30 years it had the tallest occupied space and the tallest roof in the world and still does so in the Western Hemisphere. As an educator I can tell you that it is the BEST zoning diagram and illustration of FAR (floor area ratio) in the world. But aesthetically, it is challenged, a plunked metal cage. The four setback plazas which helped allow its great height are the most user-unfriendly in the city. Only the buoyant and garish mediocrity of neighboring 311 South Wacker – the ultimate 1980s “Big Hair” building – lends Sears the semblance of aesthetic balance.

All of which is prelude to the local media buzz about the renaming of the Sears Tower in Chicago. It will now be called Willis Tower after the owners, who will occupy 3% of the space in the building. Predictably, most people are upset by the change, but I think they could slightly modify their naming to recall Chicago history and call it the Willis Wagons Tower. For non-Chicagoans, Willis Wagons were the prefab mobile classrooms that filled the parking lots and athletic fields of Chicago public schools in the 1960s and 1970s, derisively named for Schools Superintendent Benjamin Willis, who plunked down the prefabs rather than bus black students to uncrowded white schools in the early 1960s. Many remained in place for decades. What better way to recall a key aspect of Chicago history than renaming our tallest building? It’s already halfway there!

MARCH 23 UPDATE:
There is a Friends of the Wesley Willis Tower group on Facebook. This is a great name – I remember Wesley Willis as a streetcorner artist who would sketch amazing graph-paper like building vistas with a collection of colored Flair pens. He was a big guy with some sort of mental disorder but eventually was recruited to lead a punk band called Wesley Willis Experience which was quite the thing in the early 90s. He died, sadly, but left this artistic legacy – including views of the then-Sears Tower – that make him the best name for the Willis Tower so far.

JULY 16 UPDATE
Well, the name change went into effect yesterday and the Tribune came up with the new local name – Big Willie. I think that says it all.

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