Sky Scrapers

A ll over the world, masses of stone, steel and glass thrust hundreds of feet into the atmosphere. 

Skyscrapers: monuments of, and to, industrial technology and design. While small-city New Haven has few, maybe none—the minimum height to qualify as a “skyscraper” isn’t well-defined, and our tallest buildings are at the lower end of the range—a number of these heavens-touching behemoths have been conceived right here in the Elm City.

A number of those were devised by local architectural firm Pickard Chilton, which routinely designs buildings with 50-plus stories and a million-plus square feet. Even when its projects aren’t barreling high into the air, the firm still thinks big. The energy-efficient campus it designed for ExxonMobil, finished in 2015, occupies a whopping 385 acres.

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Lewiston at Long Wharf Theatre

The firm has designed buildings not just throughout the US but in places as far-flung as Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. For every new proposal, I’m told the firm carefully researches local culture, climate and aesthetic, taking seriously the responsibilities that come with helping define a city’s skyline.

While most of Pickard Chilton’s designs are hard to ignore, its own building is easy to miss. The firm is located on the second and third floors of a three-story building on Chapel Street, in the shadow of the Taft Apartments. The first-floor entryway, a narrow hallway through an outer glass door, is edged by a blue wall where the company’s name floats in chrome letters.

Taking the elevator to the third floor brings you into a waiting room decorated with toy-sized models of the company’s towers. Visible in photos as well, the firm’s projects are often sleek and their windows expansive, to allow natural light to penetrate nearly all the way through. Sustainability is high on the agenda and, to date, Pickard Chilton has produced more than 42 million LEED Gold-certified square feet.

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Beckerman Jewish Film Series at the Greater New Haven Jewish Community Center

While most of Pickard Chilton’s designs are distinctly modern and progressive, few seem overtly avant-garde. An exception is a series of renderings iterated for a secretive project, for which the firm conceived variations on a spire of glass and steel—the sort you might see on the cover of a science fiction novel. One resembles a calla lily. Another looks like three long missiles with a Saturn ring at the top. A third is like a Swiss army knife with two tools extended at different angles.

There were others, but I wasn’t allowed to photograph any of them. As I found out from Jon Pickard, one of the firm’s three principals, the designs were part of a proposal for a “highly confidential project”—a structure intended to be the “Eiffel Tower” of a country he couldn’t disclose.

Although this level of secrecy isn’t the norm for the firm, high-profile projects certainly are. In the corner of a conference room stands a 6-foot study commissioned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal to be the next tallest building in the world. Pickard Chilton’s design wasn’t chosen, but if it had been, the model would have been scaled up over 500 times and stood 1km in height over Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Pickard says the firm prefers to work on projects of this magnitude. “I don’t mean to denigrate anyone who does kitchens, but we don’t do kitchens,” he says. “Unless you want a really nice kitchen.”

Pickard Chilton was founded by Pickard and William Chilton in 1997, whose acquaintanceship goes back to the college days they shared at Iowa State. The third principal, Anthony Markese, received his Master of Architecture degree alongside Pickard from “the community college up the street” (i.e., Yale). After graduating, both Pickard and Markese worked for Cesar Pelli of Pelli Clarke Pelli, another New Haven architectural giant known for designing some of the world’s tallest buildings. That includes Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, for which Pickard was on the design team.

Today, Pickard Chilton sits almost exactly one block down Chapel Street from Pelli, and the two firms often compete for the same projects. “Sometimes he wins, sometimes we win, but it all works out,” Pickard says. “The relationship couldn’t be better.”

While Pickard Chilton has yet to design anything in New Haven, the firm’s eager to contribute to the city’s urban landscape. Given the high-profile work the company usually does, whatever building they might eventually design would likely be at the behest of the city’s largest institutions: government or Yale. If it were a project for the university, Pickard says he’d like it to engage the wider New Haven community in some way.

According to Pickard’s calculations, he and his partners have plenty of time left to make a mark on the city’s skyline. Despite their silver and/or bare heads, Pickard says he, Chilton and Markese are still relatively young for the big-time architecture game. “We will probably practice until our younger colleagues tell us to get out of the way.”

Pickard Chilton
980 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 8:30am-5:30pm – visits by appointment
(203) 786-8600
www.pickardchilton.com

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 2, 5 and 7 by Daniel Shkolnik. Remainder provided courtesy of Pickard Chilton.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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