The John Hancock Building Architect

by The Real Estate Buyers


Bruce Graham, the iconic architect of the Willis Tower, once the world’s tallest building, and the John Hancock Center, the X-braced giant that became a symbol of Chicago’s industrial might, passed on Saturday March 6, 2010 at his home about 100 miles north of Miami. In his later years he made his home  in a low-slung modern house, set on stilts, in the Florida town of Hobe Sound. Marshes, pines and palmettos made up his “front yard.” but his work forever shapes the skyline of the city of big shoulders and in many ways defines Chicago now and for generations to come.

Graham’s best designs lent a Chicago-style muscularity to the lean, crisp modernist look brought to perfection by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Sears Tower and the Hancock Center designed by Graham became pop icons, their dark, big-boned look featured on everything from postcards to television news sets. In one measure of its broad-based appeal, the Hancock was nicknamed “Big John,” after London’s “Big Ben.”

“To my mind, American architecture, born in the Middle West, is an architecture born of people who know how to make things,” Graham said in a 1992 video about Chicago’s skyscrapers.

But Graham’s greatest triumph came in the 1970 with the completion of the mixed-use Hancock Center, which housed stores, parking, offices, apartments (now condominiums), an observatory and a bar and restaurant under its 1,127-foot-tall roof.

Located at 875 N. Michigan, the Hancock was originally conceived as a separate office building and apartment building. Upon hearing that the office space would be hard to rent because the site was far from downtown’s train stations, the project’s original developer, Jerry Wolman of Philadelphia, reduced the size of the office building and opted to place apartments on top of it. Graham and Khan did the rest, combining blue-collar muscle and black-tie elegance in a giant truncated obelisk.

Unlike earlier skyscrapers, in which an internal cage of steel carried most of the building’s load, the Hancock’s exterior columns, beams and X-shaped braces formed a rigid tube that did most of the heavy lifting and braced the building against the wind. The arrangement allowed the Hancock to be erected for the same cost as a conventional 45-story office building. And the stacked X-braces offered an instantly recognizable skyline image, quickly silencing detractors who had likened the Hancock to an oil derrick.

So deeply did the building become ingrained in the Chicago psyche that, in 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley attacked the owner’s plan to fill in the tower’s sunken plaza and add a three-story retail atrium to its base. “Don’t put a skirt on Big John,” signs carried by protesters said.   The plan was replaced by a below ground elliptical plaza that allowed the tower’s monumental synthesis of architecture and engineering to remain undefiled.

Though the Hancock shattered the fragile scale of the old Michigan Avenue and its low-rise, Beaux-Arts buildings, it paved the way for other tall mixed-use buildings, creating a dense, but thriving, high-rise district. “It really is easy to shop from the Hancock building, you just go down the elevators and you’re in the shopping center,” Graham told Betty Blum, who interviewed him in 1997 for the Art Institute of Chicago’s architects oral history project.

In 1999, the Hancock won the American Institute of Architects’ prestigious 25-Year Award, which is annually conferred upon a design of enduring significance that is 25 to 35 years.