media preview day, May 7, 2014, Chicago Tribune
reporter Steve Johnson, left, and Marketing manager
Leslie Cooke (center) and Laura Collins, right, of
Isabelli Media Relations at the John Hancock
Observatory's new attraction called "Tilt"
which has viewers stand against one of eight glass
panels that tilt out and down on an angle from
— Step into the new Tilt! attraction on the 94th floor
of the John Hancock Center and at first nothing happens.
are holding big metal bars. You are peering through a
full-length window. But you know what is about to occur,
and your insides, you are not ashamed to say, are like a
crowded butterfly garden.
then there’s a sound — think noisy dentist’s office,
or airplane engine at the gate — and the eight-window
chunk of wall you are clinging to begins to quit its
right-angle orientation to the massive skyscraper around
and the wall and the other fools at the other windows are
pitched slowly forward, and you begin to think about your
mortality and America’s long legacy of engineering
successes. You think about the city elevator inspectors
who evaluated this thing, and you wish that one of them
were here alongside you, his presence the most reassuring
safety certificate of all. You think, for some reason,
about your sofa back home, comfy, welcoming, earthbound.
upon a time in tourism, a commanding view from way on high
was attraction enough. But recent years have seen an
escalation in the race to induce vertigo. Operators at the
Grand Canyon and the Willis Tower have installed glass
overhangs so that visitors can step out past precipices.
And now there is Tilt!, officially open to the public
Saturday and billed as unique in the world. You, really,
are in no position to argue.
20 degrees from vertical, your body tells you it should be
falling. Looking down, you see your presumptive target:
Chestnut Street, or, with the right wind and a bit of a
leap and a soar, the top of the Water Tower Place building
across the street. Welcome, shoppers. Your knuckles match
the white in the nearby clouds.
feeling, you imagine, is why it is better to watch the
rooftop chase scenes at the beginning of James Bond movies
than to participate in them.
30 degrees, the full extension of Tilt!, you could let go
and become a giant bug on a giant windshield, except that,
unlike such bugs, you would remain sensate. Also, you are
on the inside. As the mechanism pauses to let you take it
all in, you are slowly acclimating to this challenge to
once you thought "yikes" or "zounds"
— or whatever combination of "holy" and
"(bad word)" you use to express wide-eyed
amazement tinged with fear — now you are beginning to
take in the city that spreads beneath you: the actual
Water Tower that survived the Great Chicago Fire, Michigan
Avenue, the park behind the Museum of Contemporary Art.
view, as you are pitched forward like the figurehead on
the prow of a ship, extended out over 1,000 vertical feet
of air, is breathtaking. It could be the fresh perspective
on familiar places stealing your wind, but it is more
likely the result of your lizard brain telling you your
body, right now, is supposed to be plunging into those
your human brain is winning the argument. This is safe.
This is well-thought-out, by people who know how wind,
metal, glass and hydraulics behave. This is, really, very
Tilt!, 360 Chicago, the new name for the old John Hancock
Observatory, makes a bold move toward being better at
putting metaphorical lumps in tourists’ throats than any
other place in town. (Pizzeria Uno holds the title for
physical lump placement.)
the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, combining vintage charm
with modern height. There’s the Ledge, the single name
for the four glass boxes that jut four feet out from the
western wall of Skydeck at the Willis Tower, still a
potent threshold to cross, almost five years after it
Tilt! does something new, something I found entirely
enchanting. It moves you. It nudges you forward, then
pauses, then tilts you forward some more. It puts your
life in the hands of a machine, and it makes a substantial
thing — the majestic, cross-braced Hancock tower —
if a window wall rotating outward is playful, there is
nothing light about the way it is built. It is a box of
steel, 31,000 pounds of it, powered by a hydraulic motor
and three big pistons known as hydraulic actuators. Just
as the Hancock wears its support pieces like a bandit’s
guns, on the outside, visitors to Tilt! can see the giant
nuts and bolts and the heavy beams doing the work of
keeping them safe; they can touch a glass panel that shows
what the three-layer, tempered, laminated structural glass
used in the windows is like.
at Willis’ Skydeck Ledge seemed to want to invite people
to walk out into the air. Although the Willis structures,
too, are movable boxes anchored within the boundary of the
building, the part that juts out, that you walk out onto,
seems to challenge you to find the support pieces. In
these terrariums for the trusting, there’s an illusion
on the other hand, wears its engineering on its sleeve,
coming across as a more mechanized thing, as, dare we say
it, a slow-motion thrill ride.
we do not dare. "We tend not to use the ‘R’ word.
We call it an ‘experience,’" said Jennifer Hesser,
360 Chicago’s director of operations and one of the
people who guided the Tribune and NBC’s "Today
Show" through the first media experiences, Wednesday
was a ribbon-cutting Thursday morning, after which, word
has it, members of the public would be able to start
tilting even in advance of the official opening Saturday.
The experience lasts maybe 5 minutes in the Tilt! area
along the observatory’s south wall, and 75 or so seconds
in the mechanism itself. The charge is $5 extra atop
standard 360 entrance fees of $18 for adults, $12 for
children 3-11. (The $5 is an introductory rate; to be
determined are how long it will last and what the normal
charge will be.)
at 360 Chicago, purchased by the French attraction
operator Montparnasse 56 in 2012, said Tilt! is not a
direct response to Willis introducing the Ledge. But, come
on. Planning began "a few" years ago, with work
"in earnest" starting about 18 months ago, said
Nichole Williamson, 360 Chicago’s general manager.
was a desire to try to create an interactive way to
experience the views," said Williamson. "Our
position is that having two observation decks in two
iconic buildings with two different experiences speaks to
the city’s character of innovation."
having Tilt! in 360 Chicago means tourists are more likely
to visit there, rather than go to the Signature Lounge one
floor above and look at the views from that establishment
for the price of a cocktail.
before lunchtime Wednesday, representatives from the
Chicago office of the big engineering company Thornton
Tomasetti also came by for an advance look at Tilt! —
fitting because their firm had designed it.
is it a little better than the mock-up?" asked John
Peronto, one of the structural engineers who worked
closely on the project, as a group of his colleagues tried
out Tilt!, some facing forward and streetward, some
leaning back against the glass to look up at the top of
almost like we were designing a piece of construction
equipment that we were putting into place," said
Christian DeFazio, another of the Thornton Tomasetti
engineers on the project. "It was not a textbook
scenario, by any means. When you are literally putting
people outside the building, there’s an extra fear
factor in your design."
DeFazio should know because, well, "I’m terrified
of heights," he said.
when he first tried Tilt! — built at TrussWorks
International in Anaheim, Calif. — "I felt
confident getting into it," said DeFazio. "I
knew I was in good hands."
took me a little longer. At first, everything seemed wrong
and dangerous, and my moves were tentative, ginger, even
though I knew, intellectually, that nothing I could do
would make one whit of difference.
the end of an hour of seeing it in operation, I was
jumping in and out of the bays. Still, I was grateful that
they hadn’t decided to call this non-ride, say,
Tilt-a-Whirl! Just plain tilting was plenty.