15 Buildings That Embody Chicago’s Postmodern Moment

We revisit a forgotten chapter in the city’s rich architectural history and discover a surprisingly contextual, responsive, and intelligent movement.

Designed by the elder statesman of Chicago architecture Stanley Tigerman, the Self Park Garage on East Lake Street in the Loop is an icon of the Postmodernist period.

Photography by Jessica Pierotti

When it comes to great architecture, no other North American city can begin to rival Chicago. “Our real heritage,” says Stanley Tigerman, the elfish godfather of Chicago architecture, “is not so much its individual buildings, but in the way, after burning down, it was rebuilt all at once in a modern way.” That bracing modernity, he adds, “is the source of what passes for much of the city’s architecture today, yesterday, 30 years ago.” It’s a marvelously rich source material that is arguably less readily detectable in the city’s celebrated high-Modernist landmarks than in its neglected Postmodern buildings. The latter belong to a remarkable, if short-lived, period that is now nearly forgotten. On the eve of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the largest celebration of its kind to happen on this continent, it’s time to change that.

Our research into this forgotten chapter of Chicago’s architectural history points to a more refined, nuanced handling of Postmodern themes than was taken up elsewhere. The following architects and buildings toggle between several aesthetic sensibilities, but all in the belief that architecture can be many things—serious, humorous, and civic minded. —Samuel Medina

Stanley Tigerman 

Pensacola Place Apartments (1981)

On the subject of Postmodernism, the architectural movement that he helped define in his native city of Chicago, Stanley Tigerman hesitates, offering grumpy disclaimers rather than colorful anecdotes. “I’m uncertain about seeing Chicago through a Postmodernist lens,” the 84-year-old architect says. “There is not an awful lot of it, and I don’t think it had a huge impact.”

It’s a calculation, to be sure, and Tigerman qualifies his recalcitrance: “I tend not to be impressed by my old buildings, or look back at them with any regularity and definitely not for any role-model effect. My work has always been done in the sense of a tabula rasa, with each project beginning anew.” True, Tigerman’s career has seen all manner of fits, starts, and rebirths, as can be seen in its most productive period, the 15 years or so following the founding of the Chicago Seven. Never as dogmatically unified as its historical label suggests, that group of rabble-rousers (Tigerman, Larry Booth, Stuart Cohen, James Ingo Freed, Tom Beeby, James L. Nagle, and Ben Weese) didn’t trade in an interchangeable architectural vernacular, mostly preferring to work independently of one another. If anything, they shared, contradictorily, both a Postmodern ambivalence toward permanence and an ambition to build in the canonized mold that could lead to flimsy feats of one-upmanship.

As the group’s activities receded in the early 1980s, Tigerman seemed to have engaged in this game with himself alone: The Hot Dog House in Harvard, Illinois (1976), flaunted its penile-proportioned plan; the Pensacola Place Apartments (1981) introduced the joke of the cardboard-thin pediment to the Chicago scene; the Anti-Cruelty Society (1982) toyed with figural associations; and the Self Park Garage (1986) revived Robert Venturi’s notion of “duck” architecture and named itself king of the genre. By the time of the Chicago Bar Association, completed in 1990, Tigerman had gone off the deep end, veering into a kind of Gothic revivalism that so aspired to attain the gentlemanly repose that characterizes the city’s early skyscrapers.

On the face of it, it’s all incredibly fragmentary, to say the least. But what appears to be improvisatory or reaching is belied by a love for architecture and an unshakable belief in its ability to communicate with people. As Tigerman wrote at the end of the 1970s, “Architecture, at its richest, establishes connections with all of the epochs of man.” —Samuel Medina

Self Park Garage (1984)
60 East Lake Street

What the AT&T Building is to New York, Self Park is to Chicago. The downtown garage is as over-the-top as Chicago Postmodernism—typically marked by contextualism—gets. The building-cum-billboard is a vintage Rolls-Royce writ large, from the hood ornament crowning the roof down to the tire-tread awnings at street level (below).

Chicago Bar Association (1990)
321 South Plymouth Ct.

Stairs lead to the second-floor dining rooms.

At 16 stories, this is a relatively diminutive building just a few hundred feet from the Harold Washington Library Center, making for two distinctive flavors of local Postmodernism. The building’s tripartite composition, designed by Tigerman and his wife and collaborator, Margaret McCurry, sandwiches a quasi-Modernist office building between a rusticated granite base and a cartoonish cornice adorned with 16 aluminum pinnacles. Coming at the end of the Postmodern moment, the building encapsulates several of Tigerman’s architectural predilections—primarily, his giddy fusion of incompatible building styles and precedents. (Squint and you can see traces of Mies van der Rohe’s Promontory Apartments, Daniel Burnham’s Fisher Building, and the nearby Monadnock Building.) Inside, the lavish interiors make use of bloodred marble, dark wood, gold plate, stainless steel, and terrazzo.

The opulent marble surfaces are a marked contrast with Tigerman’s buildings from the previous decade, which often made use of cheap, everyday materials.

Pensacola Place Apartments (1981)
4334 North Hazel St.

Over the decades, Tigerman has often described his work with reference to “duality,” and the Pensacola Place Apartments charmingly, if somewhat shallowly, illustrate the concept. The west facade is a tidy Miesian grid, whose purity is undercut by a row of “town house” cutouts running along the building’s midriff. The opposite facade (shown here)—facing Mies’s grave in Graceland Cemetery—adds a hokey pediment, while the apartment balconies are arrayed in columns topped by Ionic “volutes.”

The Anti-Cruelty Society (1982)
157 West Grand Ave.

The facade of the building recalls the face of a dog, with the rounded nose just above the entrance.

Tigerman’s addition to the 1935 original is a perfect Pomo confection, its message—“adopt a pet, here”—easily digestible and comforting. The windows and other facade elements surrounding the main entrance form an abstracted face of a dog. Functional problems including sun overexposure and leaking that dated from the 1980s—and are attributable to the small construction budget—prompted its owners to renovate the building in 2011. Tigerman thumbed his nose at the design tweaks to the facade, which sanitized the project of its offbeat quality. “Stanley is not a frivolous person at all. He takes his ideas very seriously; even when they are jokes, he takes them seriously,” says architect Laurie Petersen. “In this case, he was really responding to a lot of unique programmatic and contextual elements. So the facade came off as a joke, but it’s a joke with a purpose.”

The windows of the facade were designed to invite passers by to peer through and see the puppies and kittens inside.

Weese Seegers Hickey Weese (now Weese Langley Weese)
LaSalle Towers Apartments (1981)
1211 North LaSalle St.

The architects felt the original property, which was to be reonvated, was “a perfect place to proselytize through art,” Ben Weese later remembered. Richard Haas, the artist and collaborator with Weese and his team, fashioned a mural on the building’s south facade— a “phantasmagoric elevation,” Weese said approvingly.

In 1981, the architect Ben Weese, principal of Weese Seegers Hickey Weese (now Weese Langley Weese) and brother of Harry, oversaw the conversion of a 1920s hotel into new residences. Aside from reworking the building’s interiors, the architects also had to engineer a solution to better market the property for potential tenants—a challenging task given that three of the crumbling facades were blank and covered with signs. The sole active facade looked out onto the west, the opposite direction from Lake Michigan and the well-to-do Gold Coast neighborhood, or “where the market was then,” says Cynthia Weese, Ben’s wife and partner of more than three decades. They had recently come across the photorealistic murals of artist Richard Haas, and they hired him to revitalize the tower’s exterior, Weese recalls. “He did several schemes, including a Miesian thing that had a black grid with glass and reflections.” An alternative, what became the Homage to the Chicago School, and which mixed elements lifted from Louis H. Sullivan’s canon, spoke more to the Weeses’ architectural training and pedigree. “We had come from Harry’s office, and he was definitely no Miesian, and so we all saw ourselves as building walls rather than curtain walls. We felt closer to Sullivan and Wright in that way.” —S.M.

The primary composition resembled a gigantic column, with the entrance portal of Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building (1893) cast in the role of the base and the ornamental cartouche or window from the Merchants’ National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa, also by Sullivan, as the capital. Haas covered the east facade with mock bay windows, whose trompe l’oeil effect, according to Weese, was too good to be true. “A woman who came to rent one day was totally fooled.”

Ross Barney + Jankowski
César Chávez Multicultural Academy (1989)
1211 North LaSalle St.

“The pyramid form came out of the idea of knowledge and the all-seeing eye,” the architect of the school, ​Carol Ross Barney, says. “The community were absolutely ecstatic because it recalled their heritage.”

Carol Ross Barney was not among the architects selected to redesign a series of buildings for Chicago Public Schools, but the young architect was aching to take on more public projects. Emboldened by the fact that a post office her firm had recently designed had won an AIA in 1989, she marched into the office of an administrator. “I told him he had to hire more women architects,” she recalls, laughing. “He was very amused by that, and I got the job.”

Stretching across part of a block in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, the school she designed—known then as the New Seward Elementary School and later rechristened as the César Chávez Multicultural Academy—earned Ross Barney + Jankowski its second AIA national honor award. “It has become a beacon of knowledge for its predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood,” the Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote, five months after the school opened in 1994. “It’s that rare thing: a work of architecture that inspires joy as well as respect.”

The school district had planned New Seward to take pressure off older schools in the neighborhood. However, officials were also concerned with security—the neighborhood was troubled by gang violence. “But there is also the flip side of security, which is making it inviting,” Barney says, noting the paradox in the school’s design. “We were trying to do something to get the kids excited.”

Early on in the design process Barney’s firm met with parents in the community, who had so far been excluded in the school district’s decision making. Out of this emerged the general form: a long low building with a single corridor inside, turning its back to a commercial block and presenting a verdant lawn to the residential block in front of it.

The interiors of the school anticipated changes in education and attitudes towards learning spaces. The large windows were operable so that students could control the ventilation in their spaces. “We had a big emphasis on daylighting, before sustainable building designs were widely discussed,” Barney says. “It was our idea of the type of environment that would be good for kids.” —Avinash Rajagopal

The bands of colorfully glazed brick on the walls of the César Chávez Multicultural Academy were a device that the architect Carol Ross Barney had successfully tried in a previous project, but she found that it also resonated here with the Mexican-American community.

Helmut Jahn
James R. Thompson Center (1985)
100 West Randolph St.

The James R. Thompson Center, designed by the German-born architect Helmut Jahn more than 30 years ago, is an interesting anomaly. Plagued by building-system malfunctions when it first opened its doors, the structure is now in dire need of repair, particularly to its exterior trimmings.

“A distinct odor of controversy,” wrote Stanley Tigerman in 1987, had come to permeate the James R. Thompson Center on West Randolph Street, then known as the State of Illinois Building, within just a couple years of its opening. Huge budget hikes had fueled bureaucratic skepticism and faulty air conditioning realized those suspicions, setting the public right off of Helmut Jahn’s glamorous vision of the future. The air conditioning, which wouldn’t be sorted out for half a year, “forced state workers to prop up umbrellas at their desks to keep the sun out,” remembers architect Laurie Petersen, who had moved to Chicago just as the building had opened. “It was on the news almost every night, it caused such a stir.”

The building’s profile has improved some over the years, though Jahn’s reputation in Chicago never quite recovered. It is a memorable quirk within the Loop’s gridiron, its comportment not ungainly so much as unconventional, though too often the former is substituted for the latter. An ovoidal footprint gives way to the building’s stunted rotund form that, in a monumental show of self effacement and urban good manners, pulls away from the street edge to create a generous public plaza.

“In creating that public space, it was also deferring to the two other civic buildings nearby, City Hall and the Civic Center, and it’s actually a very sophisticated urban move, more so than was realized at the time,” says Edward Keegan, noted scribe of Chicago’s building stock. Jahn lopped off the top for the building for good measure, an almost onanistic measure to prevent any chance of successors. “In a strange way, it’s representative of Chicago’s Postmodern buildings,” says Petersen, “in that it makes for a good neighbor, which you can’t say about most Modernist buildings.”

Inside, the high-tech gravitas of the building is partly undermined by the gauche, nearly unthinkable blue-and-salmon color scheme (“pom-pom cheerleader” Tigerman smarted, which Jahn himself later fessed up to feeling iffy about) that animates the gloriously top-lit atrium. It is a remarkable interior, incredibly replete with visual stimuli—cigarette-box-like elevators zipping up and down the building’s 17 floors, taut trusswork, reflective surfaces—all set within a still stunningly contemporary register. As Tigerman concluded, “There is hope for some kind of future after all.” —S.M.

Decked out in endearingly démodé colors, the central atrium reinterprets the state-government building in an idiosyncratic manner that melds High-Tech and Postmodernism.

The floor pattern recalls that of the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

Kohn Pedersen Fox
225 West Wacker Dr. (1989) & 333 West Wacker Dr. (1983)

Right: Architect William Pedersen preferred the term “contextualist” over “Postmodern,” yet this building is considered by many to be the city’s first Postmodern skyscraper. Left: The success of 333 West Wacker Drive established Kohn Pedersen Fox as award-winning skyscraper designers, leading to commissions such as 225 West Wacker Drive, which is undeniably Postmodern in its aesthetic.

Earlier this year, Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emmanuel was asked to name his favorite buildings, and Kohn Pedersen Fox’s (KPF) 333 West Wacker Drive topped his list. “It’s an incredible reflection of the city,” he told the Chicago Tribune. The building’s dramatic curved facade does indeed reflect a turn in the Chicago river, and at certain times of the day the color of the glass even matches the color of the water below, creating a restrained relationship between the structure and the city that has endeared it to many since its completion in 1983. The architects saved the Postmodern mannerisms that were just then coming into vogue for the base, an “X” of gray granite with bands of green marble bounded by a monumental pedestrian arcade.

In 1989, KPF gave this beloved building a neighbor, the more overtly historical 225 West Wacker Drive. It eschews the shimmering glass of the older building for a skin of Spanish gray and Impala black granite. At its top, four turrets are each topped by a simplified spire, echoing of the ones on the Merchandise Mart across the river. And the air handling ducts on the ground floor carry over the circles in the base of 333 Wacker next door.

In 2002, the firm added a third, Modernist building to the area at 191 North Wacker Drive. “This trio of buildings at the curve of Wacker Drive is a great triptych of evolving architectural styles,” says Laurie Petersen, the co-editor of the AIA Guide to Chicago. And they all the more remarkable for having been designed by one firm in the space of less than two decades. —A.R.

Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates 
Leo Burnett Building (1989)
35 West Wacker Dr.

Located just across the river from Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City complex, the Leo Burnett Building is almost grimacing in its demeanor. Indeed, “sedate, formal, and imposing headquarters” were the architects’ buzzwords when it opened, but the ceremonious ground-floor lobby, with its coffered mosaic ceiling, is none of these.

A “wasted opportunity” was the consensus among Chicago’s architectural community when Kevin Roche’s 50-story office building for the Leo Burnett advertising company opened in 1989. Blessed with an enviable plot along the Chicago River in the North Loop, Roche’s tower certainly doesn’t do much with its prime riparian perch. The building nervously juggles all the architect’s pet Postmodern themes—the tripartite organization, columnar form, and elephantine swagger that characterize all of Roche’s skyscraper projects from the period—and synthesizes them in an overbearingly sinister manner, as if mistaking Chicago for Gotham City. (Indeed, Tim Burton’s Batman was the blockbuster hit of 1989.) Stainless-steel mullions add a bit of tinsel to the brooding dark-green granite facade but do little to alleviate the gloom.

Yet, the building is nearly redeemed by the ground-level entrance lobby. With its sumptuous materials, flowing quality of space, and keen sense of scale, the lobby is the opposite of its saturnine shell. As such, wrote Paul Gapp, then architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, “must be counted as among the more opulent such spaces created in downtown Chicago at a time when architectural fashion has made it alright to be showy again. —S.M.

The lobby is fanciful, ritzy, even lighthearted, drawing on the best of the classic American metropolitan sheen of the 1930s. Even the elevators (above), topped with backlit stained glass, are hip to the message.

Kisho Kurokawa
Lakeshore Sport & Fitness (1990)
211 North Stetson Ave.

From the exteriors, the building’s most identifiable features are the four roof-top turrets that once supported mobiles by the sculptor Susumu Shingu, alluding to Chicago’s Windy City moniker. “It was a perfect idea,” Kurokawa lamented years after the sculptures were removed by the club’s subsequent manager.

If Japanese Metabolism was, indeed, the last future-oriented architectural movement, it makes sense that, upon the future’s failure to materialize, many of its members found amity with Postmodernism’s countervailing embrace of historicism. Unlike his former confreres, such as Arata Isozaki, the legitimately visionary Kisho Kurokawa tempered his enthusiasm for the new-old vernacular. Evidence of this approach is Kurokawa’s first and only building stateside, the Sporting Club at the Illinois Center (now Lakeshore Sport & Fitness), which is sober and lucid in its deployment of historical references. (Not to mention preciously small—even at 120,000 square feet—contra the megastructural propositions that leaked out of Kurokawa in the 1960s.) A white-painted steel frame, now rusted in spots, encases a glass box defined by a subtle tartan grid. The X brackets marking the corners are a counterpoint to this unrelenting alloy patchwork, while the pair of upturned portal arches that frame the asymmetrical entrance form a winking visual inversion. Crowning the cage are four towers in miniature that somewhat cryptically recall Louis H. Sullivan’s People’s Savings Bank. “Chicago is Sullivan and Mies. This is sort of an homage to them,” Kurokawa later said of the building’s unlikely synthesis. The overall composition reflects Kurokawa’s idiosyncratic interpretation of Postmodernist themes, which Charles Jencks, never one to let a budding aesthetic tendency escape his neologizing, distinguished by coining the term High-Tech Eclecticism. —S.M.

Hammond, Beeby & Babka
Harold Washington Library Center (1991)
400 South State St.

The most egregiously Postmodern details on the exterior of the Harold Washington Library Center weren’t, in fact, the work of the architects—the seven giant ornaments on the roof were added by artists Kent Bloomer and Raymond Kaskey.

Few buildings are as polarizing as the Harold Washington Library Center, the main branch of Chicago’s public library system. A national poll by the American Institute of Architects in 2007 put it on a list of “America’s Favorite Architecture,” while, two years later, Travel & Leisure magazine named it one of the 15 ugliest buildings in the world.

Opinion was equally divided when the 10-story, 750,000-square-foot neoclassical design by Thomas Beeby of the firm Hammond, Beeby and Babka (now known as HBRA Architects) opened to the public on October 7, 1991. From the ground up, one facade presented a rough stone plinth, followed by walls of red brick enlivened by classical ornament, then a pediment of glass, aluminum, and steel. And finally, a statue of an allegorical Windy City Man. Visitors who managed to make their peace with this curious mix turned the corner (and, it would seem, a century in architectural aesthetics) to encounter a sheer glass curtain on the western facade.

It was the largest public library in the world at the time, and love it or hate it, the building had presence: “This looks like a library,” eulogized Norman Ross, chairman of the jury that selected the design in a controversial competition process. “This is a building that you can trust.”

But are medallions of Roman goddesses necessary for urban gravitas? Six years earlier, the same architects had achieved a similar effect with fewer trappings at the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library, which serves the Ravenswood and Lakeview neighborhoods. Even though the German-neoclassicist design had some technical flaws (there was water leakage as late as 2001), the building proved extremely popular and grew to have the second-largest circulation in the library system, because it was rooted in its community. “We worked with local aldermen and community groups, and we learned to see it from a librarian’s point of view,” says Gary Ainge, a principal at HBRA Architects. The result was a bright and airy icon that was universally loved when it opened in September 1985: “I feel like a born-again librarian,” one employee told the Chicago Tribune at the opening.

Despite its much grander appearance—some would say befitting its grander role—the Harold Washington Library Center is equally innovative in its interiors. “It’s a very flexible building,” Ainge says. “The potential for adaptation was inherent in its planning approach.” The two libraries also share a keen sense of their civic duties. “At the macro level,” Ainge says, “they are both very responsible to their urban sites.” —A.R.

The grand interior is marked not only by sumptuous classicism but also by clear planning. “The public circulation has helped people understand the building better,” says architect Gary Ainge.

Nagle Hartray & Associates
Schiller St. Town Houses (1989)
141–149 West Schiller St.

The $650,000 town houses sold so quickly after they were built that the developers didn’t even have time to finish adding some details, like fences and gates, that the architects had specified.

A series of five town houses, with what the AIA Guide to Chicago calls “bulging exaggerated bays” that “grab for maximum northern light,” are the standout architecture on a block on Schiller Street, between the Old Town area and LaSalle Street. Designed by Nagle Hartray & Associates, and completed in 1988, the town houses have echoes of early Modernism, except for “an attention to small-scale detail that places the houses firmly in the 1980s,” as Lisa Goff noted in a 1989 article in Progressive Architecture. The client, Ronald Ysla, had seen the Hunziker House that the architects designed in Lincoln Park, and he wanted to translate that into town houses. “So we did that,” James Nagle said in a 1998 interview for the Art Institute of Chicago’s oral history project, “except we changed it. It’s made out of masonry and it is shaped to the views.” In the 1980s details—a rusticated base, soldier courses of bricks on the bays, and limestone copings and sills—historicism is greatly tempered. “What we do is take the same proportions and shapes,” Nagle said. “I just won’t do that historic stuff.” —A.R. 

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Neiman Marcus (1984)
737 North Michigan Ave.

The design of this building began in 1978 (even though it was completed in 1984), so it is one of the earliest instances of Postmodern ideas being adopted by Chicago’s architectural establishment.

A 63-story skyscraper housing luxury condominiums and office space forms the majority of the Olympia Center, a mixed-use development designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s (SOM) Chicago office and completed in 1984. But it is the smaller part of the building, the four-story Neiman Marcus store with its oversize entryway arch, that is the property’s distinctive street presence on North Michigan Avenue.

The two-story arch would have been anathema at SOM a few years earlier, but “architectural permissiveness of the 1980s changed that,” wrote Paul Gapp, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic. In fact, SOM’s Adrian Smith proposed a bigger arch, and he fought for the show windows that are inset into the facade with its three textures of pink granite, but the clients wanted neither. The contrast between the store and the skyscraper perfectly encapsulates a critical transitional moment at SOM in the 1980s—a growing acceptance of historical allusion and a playful attitude. —A.R.

U.S. Bank Building
190 South LaSalle St. (1987)

The building meets the street about as sensibly as possible for an object such as this, with oversize lanterns and bronzed entryways that don’t menace, but rather are inviting to passersby.

Hailed by critic Paul Goldberger as the capstone of Chicago’s Postmodernist moment when it was completed in 1987, the 42-story tower at 190 South LaSalle Street by Philip Johnson and John Burgee is the necessarily lesser sequel to the architects’ AT&T Tower in New York (now Sony Tower, 1984)—lesser, historically speaking. It actually improves on its predecessor (arguably not a difficult thing to do) by matching the latter’s greatest virtue—its excellent build quality—and slightly correcting the gargantuan scale of that tower’s lowermost register, one of AT&T’s many sins. The entrance lobby of 190 South LaSalle, now the U.S. Bank Building, illustrates both points nicely. Decked out in several kinds of marble and topped by gilded barrel vaults, the lobby is “very high eighties, very glam,” says Zurich Esposito, executive vice president at AIA Chicago. “It really represented the tail end of the era of luxury finishes. The amount of money people are willing to spend on the public spaces of a building isn’t what it used to be.”

The design, according to Burgee, sought to conjure a classical, stoic disposition of “calmness and solidity,” and the massive redwood granite base, with its looming blank portals, certainly gets the message across. Moving upwards, the shaft of the tower cops enthusiastically from the Rookery’s jaunty limestone-and-glass facade. John W. Root, the architect behind the Rookery and the long-demolished Masonic Temple, assists the architects from the grave in resolving the building’s composition: the Masonic Temple’s maniacal quadruple-gabled crown is massaged into 190 South LaSalle’s thrillingly nutty conclusion. “The amazing thing about this building,” Goldberger crescendoed, “is the extent to which it manages to be likable, even inviting, for all its grandiosity.” Indeed. —S.M.

The ground-level lobby is richly padded out in red and white marble. The level of material investment wasn’t completely characteristic of Postmodernism, but it certainly resonated with its pluralistic aesthetic code. “It’s a beautifully elegantly proportioned space; it knocks your socks off,” says architect Zurich Esposito. “They just don’t make them like that anymore.”

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