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A spire has no function other than to touch the sky and, with it, the heart.

It is, in the simplest sense, a form of visual punctuation, making the end of a skyscraper’s climb as exultantly as an exclamation point ends a sentence. Poets of steel and stone call it an architectural transition from earth to heaven, from profane to sacred, from humdrum reality to glorious spirituality.

Done right, a spire makes its leap so deftly and so inevitably that a skyscraper would seem incomplete without it. Done wrong, it’s a clunky afterword, an unnecessary bit of embroidery, a vainglorious flagpole that’s simply trying to set a record.

Chicagoans will discover which of these possibilities they’re getting next weekend when a helicopter lifts a gray spire into place atop the sky-blue, 92-story Trump International Hotel & Tower.

And they’ll know whether Mayor Richard M. Daley was right in 2004 when he ordered developer Donald Trump—and, by implication, his architect, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—to adorn his previously flat-topped hotel and condominium tower with a decorative spire.

With this particular spire, all 227 feet and 8 inches of it, the Trump skyscraper will rise to a height of 1,361 feet, making it the second-tallest building in America after Sears Tower. But a yardstick isn’t the true measure of a spire. You measure it by heart-throbbing beauty.

Here are three of the world’s most-recognized spires—and the stories that go with them:

The Empire State Building

1931, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architect

Even if it lacked its top-drawer pop culture credentials, the Art Deco spire atop the Empire State Building would be an American icon. Clad in chrome-nickel steel, it rises to a cone-shaped top, buttressed by four diagonal wings made of cast aluminum. The skyscraper’s chiseled lower reaches are simply inconceivable without this flourish.

Originally, the spire was intended to be a mooring mast and depot for passenger-carrying dirigibles, but that idea was quickly shelved after some unsuccessful test runs. Instead, the spire entered the popular imagination with the 1933 “King Kong,” in which the title character climbs the skyscraper and battles attacking biplanes before falling to his death.

Today, the fact that the spire brought the Empire State’s height to 1,250 feet, making it the world’s tallest building for more than 40 years, seems immaterial. The Empire State remains an American icon, one that proves great design endures but records don’t.

The Chrysler Building

1930, William van Alen, architect

Everybody knows the Chrysler Building’s spectacular summit, a series of tapering sunbursts, covered in a combination of chrome and nickel steel, that evoke the flamboyance of the Roaring ’20s. But unless you’re a skyscraper aficionado, you’re probably unfamiliar with the covert construction maneuver that put the spire into place and enabled the Chrysler win to the race to become the world’s tallest building.

Knowing that a rival for the title, the Bank of Manhattan, would try to beat the Chrysler’s previously announced height of 925 feet, architect William van Alen had the spire secretly assembled where no one could see it—in the building’s fire shaft.

Once the Bank of Manhattan was finished, rising a scant two feet higher than the Chrysler was supposed to go, van Alen had the Chrysler’s spire hoisted into place. It stood 1,046 feet high, 60 feet higher than even the Eiffel Tower.

Petronas Towers

1998, Cesar Pelli, architect

These were the spires that broke Chicago’s heart, stripping Sears Tower of its world’s tallest building title—unfairly, many here claimed, because if you stood Sears and Petronas side by side, visitors to the Sears skydeck would have to look down some 150 feet on the highest occupied floors of Petronas.

But in 1996, with Petronas still under construction, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat upheld the standard that counts spires but not broadcast antennas in official height measurements. That allowed Petronas, with its 150-foot-tall steel spires, to beat Sears by 33 feet.

More than a decade later, with the Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates expected to reach more than 2,600 feet, the argument seems academic. The spires atop Petronas can be appreciated for what they are—poetic punctuation marks whose minaret-like tops reflect Malaysia’s dominant Islamic culture and put a new spin on the idea of a “cathedral of commerce.” Like all great spires, these lift us to aesthetic heights.

Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune

Daniel Burnham, giant of Chicago architecture

Two internationally renowned architects, including Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Zaha Hadid, will design temporary pavilions in Millennium Park to serve as focal points for next year’s regionwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan, the visionary document that changed the face of Chicago.

The Iraqi-born, London-based Hadid, who in 2004 became the first woman to win the Pritzker, is best known for fluid, dynamic forms that pack swirling energy, such as her new covered-bridge pavilion at an international exposition in the Spanish city of Zaragoza.

Ben van Berkel, who heads the Amsterdam-based firm called UNStudio, has turned heads with structures such as the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, a striking showroom for cars and trucks that consists of two spiral ramps in the form of a double-helix.

How these two paragons of the avant-garde will come to terms with the late Chicago architect and planner Daniel Burnham, a committed classicist who sought to transform rough-edged Chicago into a civilized Paris on the Prairie, is anybody’s guess…

Unveiled in 1909 and formally known as the Plan of Chicago, the Burnham Plan led to the creation of such local landmarks as Navy Pier, North Michigan Avenue, double-deck Wacker Drive and the city’s continuous chain of lakefront parks. Also cited as a key generating factor in the creation of the Cook County forest preserves, the Burnham Plan is widely credited with founding the field of modern city planning.

The pavilions, which will be the site of exhibits and events about the Burnham Plan and current visions for the region, are to be located on the south side of Millennium Park’s Chase Promenade, not far from the Crown Fountain and its raucous reflecting pool.

Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune

A Center on Education Policy survey released last year showed that more than 40 percent of the districts surveyed have cut time in elementary schools for non-tested subjects, including art and music.

Such moves have forced schools in cities such as Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Dallas to find creative ways to squeeze arts into the day, such as partnering with arts groups, non-profit organizations and universities to bring more cultural experiences to students.

“I think we’re seeing a resurgence of the arts,” said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. “There’s been a push back by parents and others who want to keep the arts in schools and want their children to have a well-rounded education.”

The National Association for Music Education says skills learned through the discipline of music transfer well into study, cognition and communication skills that are useful in other subjects.

Yet the No Child Left Behind education reform act, which requires schools to meet annual progress goals or face sanctions, including reorganization, has in many cases shifted the focus to test scores instead of musical scores.

The Center on Education Policy survey found that U.S. students have been spending more time on math and reading and less on other subjects since 2001. The 2007 report, which examined how No Child Left Behind had affected curriculum and instructional time, showed that 16 percent of districts surveyed had reduced class time for art and music.

“We’ve raised the stakes now for schools so high that the decisions are different,” said Julie Bell, education program director with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “That ultimate determination of whether your school’s going to succeed or not — that’s obviously what’s driving the budgets.”

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said schools don’t have to choose between reading and math and the arts.

“This notion that these things are mutually exclusive, I completely reject,” she said.

Mike Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education, agrees.

Outside groups and after-school programs can’t replace daily efforts by certified teachers, he contends.

“Music is a discipline like any other,” Blakeslee said. “It needs ongoing, planned, sequential delivery.”

In some districts, the solution is to partner with community groups to provide extra arts opportunities outside the school day, such as field trips to museums or performances at school assemblies, while hiring more teachers to provide daily instruction.

The Los Angeles Unified School District uses community arts groups to work with teachers on professional development. The district also is working to put at least four arts teachers — in dance, music, visual arts and theater — in every elementary school.

So far, 340 out of 500 schools have teachers in all those subjects, said Richard Burrows, director of arts education for the district.

The Dallas Independent School District, with help from community partners, is creating arts “hubs” in libraries and other community facilities. The district also plans to hire 140 new music and arts teachers over three years, with a goal of exposing elementary school students to 45 minutes of art and music in school each week. It will cost the district about $7 million out of its budget of more than $1 billion.

Deanna Martin
Chicago Tribune