Blair Kamin's design appraisal: Details are key when buying art as living space
With high-end real estate markets reeling, the developer of the Chicago Spire on Wednesday did what any crafty developer would do to instill confidence in his $1.5 billion project: He had his star architect show off fresh plans for apartments, including one with a circular sleeping zone framed by sliding glass doors.

That fictional spy, Austin Powers, surely would go for such groovy digs and maybe install a little "shag-adelic" carpet, baby. How real-life buyers will react is anybody's guess but these details clearly reflect the vision of architect Santiago Calatrava. His artistic hand is literally all over the building, in door handles modeled on clay he gripped that bear his imprint.

With that, some say, developer Garrett Kelleher may have found a way to brand the skyscraper and justify prices that seem as stratospheric as the 2,000-foot tower itself -- anywhere from $750,000 to $40 million for units ranging from a 534-square-foot studio to a 10,293-square-foot duplex penthouse.

That's an average of well over $1,000 a square foot, with the project's backers hoping that Calatrava's cachet will help drive prices as high as $4,000 a square foot for that penthouse.

"How else could you live in a Calatrava-designed space?" said Pauline Saliga, executive director of the Chicago-based Society of Architectural Historians. "It's not like he does individual houses. He does bridges. He does office buildings. It's a rare opportunity to live in a space with built-ins and design features the architect has developed."

That assumes Kelleher will be able to finish construction on the superslender, supertall condo tower, whose caissons are now being drilled on a 2.2-acre site north of the Chicago River and west of Lake Shore Drive. He has yet to sell a single unit. And the opening of his sales center in the NBC Tower has been put off until Jan. 14 because of the complexity of documents that must be filed with federal regulators.

"We haven't gone looking for financing yet," Kelleher said in a recent interview. "Once I get the prerequisite sales, I'll go talk to the bank."

Dressed in an elegant blue suit, Zurich-based Calatrava was the star Wednesday, just as New York City real estate developer Donald Trump is invariably the focus of attention whenever he comes to Chicago to promote his 1,362-foot hotel and condominium tower, which is about halfway built on its riverfront site at Wabash Avenue and due to be finished in 2009. The Spire's completion date is now pegged at 2011.

The two projects are jockeying for media attention and buyers. But in Trump International Hotel & Tower, Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill are following standard operating procedure and leaving interiors to others.

Calatrava, on the other, is part of a mini-trend, especially evident in New York City, in which star architects go beyond a residential tower's outer shell and lend their distinctive touch to key parts of its interior.

In lower Manhattan, for example, the interior of architect Richard Meier's 16-story, 31-unit 165 Charles Street high-rise was completely designed by Meier and his team, right down to white kitchens that echo his signature white-on-white buildings, such as the High Museum in Atlanta.

"Branding is incredibly important in the marketing of high-end buildings," said Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York City.

In the Spire sales center, which covers the NBC Tower's entire 18th floor, the branding begins with architectural models of Calatrava's signature projects, from the Athens Olympic sports complex to the Milwaukee Art Museum addition. All feature his lithe combination of structure and sculpture. The implication is clear: You are not just buying real estate. You are buying a work of art.

The selling floor displays two full-scale mock-ups -- one of a four-bedroom unit that simulates life on the 90th floor, the other of a lower-floor, one-bedroom "Gallery" unit, which comes with that circular sleeping area as well as Calatrava-designed nooks for a variety of activities.

"You work there, you sleep there, you eat there, you can even have your piano in the corner," the architect said.

The tower will have 1,193 units, each with a slightly different shape because of the tower's tapering, twisting design. Each floor of the seven-sided, 150-story tower will rotate 2.44 degrees above the one below it, making it seem as if the skyscraper is twisting into the sky like an oversized drill bit.

To allay concerns about how the geometry will affect living spaces, each mock-up has a parallelogram-shaped window that would be formed by the tower's twisting exterior members. In the mock-ups, ceiling heights are 9 feet 6 inches -- 6 inches less than the planned ceiling heights of 10 feet. Meier's building has 11-foot ceilings.

Resident-only amenities such as a ring-shaped swimming pool, game areas for children and teens and a private movie screening area will provide condo dwellers with extra space outside their apartments, Calatrava said.

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bkamin@tribune.com Tribune reporter Susan Diesenhouse contributed to this story