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Mural helps put riverfront high-rise on the map

Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin says mural helps put riverfront high-rise on the map

How do you put your building on the map? You put a map on the building, of course. A really big map.

That's what you see at the once-forgettable 300 S. Wacker Drive office building, where a mega-mural map covers a formerly blank concrete wall along the Chicago River.

The mural map, a vertical sliver more than 400 feet tall, portrays the bending river, the crisscrossing street grid and (naturally) 300 S. Wacker. It's the star of the map, represented by bright red rectangle that looks like a flat-roofed version of a Monopoly hotel. At night, the rectangle is lit from within by LED lights.

You wouldn't use this map for directions. But it communicates a clear message, and it does so without descending into garish, self-aggrandizing display, like a certain enormous sign (first letter "T," last letter "P") that blights the riverfront near the Wrigley Building.

The idea was to "highlight the building's connectivity to the city and the river, and to elevate its presence, literally and figuratively putting it on the map," said Maria Rizzolo, the lead designer on the project for New York-based ESI Design.

Shaped by Chicago's A. Epstein & Sons (now known as Epstein) and located kitty-corner from Willis Tower, 300 S. Wacker was a typical product of the early 1970s. The generic steel-and-glass high-rise turned its back on the river, ignoring the forward-thinking precedent of Marina City, which visually addressed the river with its corncob-shaped high-rises and further engaged it with docks beneath the towers.

At the center of 300 S. Wacker's riverfront wall was a tall shaft of concrete that enclosed the building's elevators. If the idea was structural drama — steel-and-glass wings hanging from the concrete core — it fell flat.

"That building was pretty nondescript," said Constance Rajala, assistant director of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's river cruise tour. "I don't think most of the docents covered it."

Indeed, the high-rise was so banal that there is no place for it in the 550 pages of the American Institute of Architects' "Guide to Chicago." 300 S. Wacker was literally not on the map, at least the architecture map.

But things changed after Beacon Capital Partners, a Boston-based real estate investment firm, bought the building for $112.5 million in 2013, then bought into ESI's map idea, which called for painting the blank wall with a mix of colors — a brownish-gray matching the original concrete and dark and light grays for the river and city streets.

"I can tell you they were nervous about it. It was a big surface. There was some risk to doing this," Rizzolo said.

That risk, it should be noted, was not unprecedented.

In the early 1980s, for example, artist Richard Haas turned the walls of an old apartment hotel at 1211 N. LaSalle Blvd. into an homage to such legendary Chicago architects as Louis Sullivan. On the building's south wall, Haas painted Sullivan's arched "Golden Door" from the Transportation Building at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, plus the round, richly ornamented window from Sullivan's famous bank in Grinnell, Iowa. In between, on painted windows, Haas added a "reflection" of the Chicago Board of Trade skyscraper, 2 miles to the south.

While the 300 S. Wacker mural map doesn't rise to Haas' level of artistry, it is still a positive addition to the cityscape.

That's because the map gives 300 S. Wacker a face, rather than a back, along the river. And while that face is playful — it isn't every day that you see a map superimposed on an office building with 35 floors — the design, by virtue of its palette and proportions, is respectful of the building's sober modernist language.

With the exception of the red rectangle, there are no shrieking colors. The river is gray, not blue, and there is no name or building address present. The map is at once noticeable and understated, which is not an easy balance to bring off.

True, there are weaknesses. At night, despite the LED lighting, the map fades into the inky black sky. The designers also took artistic liberties by erasing certain features, like the railroad yards that flank Roosevelt Road, to eliminate visual clutter.

And you have to wonder if the paint will hold up for more than 10 years, as the designers predict.

Nevertheless, the map can be pronounced a success, and its presence is nicely echoed in the building's lobby. There, another ESI-designed map, this one fabricated with water jet-cut steel, portrays a view looking west from the building to the horizon line. Adding visual interest, the streets are labeled, the river is colored blue and backdrop lighting changes over the course of the day.

Although it's a tad cluttered, the lobby map, like the one on the river-facing wall, shows how bold graphic design can help freshen a tired modernist building. Tenants have responded favorably to the changes, which were part of a $13.87 million capital improvement plan.

The building is now 86 percent leased, up from 80 percent when Beacon bought it, according to a spokeswoman for the firm.

Even if Chicago Architecture Foundation docents don't mention the big mural map on the river cruise, they are now expected to know about it. "I guarantee you," said Rajala, the assistant river cruise director, "that someone will ask you about it when the boat docks."

bkamin@tribpub.com

Twitter @BlairKamin

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