The bids are in for the Nicollet Hotel site. Public reaction seems to be: That's nice; that's nice; that's — HOLY COW, EIGHTY STORIES?

Let's take a look at the four proposals we've seen.

1. Close but no cigar, even though it resembles one. From Doran Developers, a modest bid. The big 30-story cylinder looks like a hinge for Nicollet and Hennepin — a nice way to link the streets together again after so many decades. But there doesn't seem to be enough of it. The area isn't exactly dense — there's the Cancer Survivor Park across the Mall, the broad stream of Washington Avenue. Putting a modestly scaled curved building on a large site looks like a lipstick tube on a dinner plate.

It also looks residential. That's not bad, but with the exception of Downtown East, everything being built downtown looks like people go there to sleep. That gives a downtown a different character than a place full of structures where people in business attire are drawing up contracts and lawsuits.

By all means, though, build it elsewhere. The colors, the shape, the tailfin top — it has a certain tropical charm that would look lively next to a lake. Build it on one of the Isles! They're criminally underused and ripe for development. (Note: kidding.)

2. The Mortenson proposal is a 31-story tower. Residential. Obligatory hotel. It's not a box; the part of the tower that faces downtown curves around. Advantages: if you don't like one facade, you can walk around it and find another you might like more. It's the sort of building you would find in Chicago at twice the size. If it weren't the result of a solicitation for something iconic, it would be a welcome addition, but it's not a building that changes the way the skyline looks.

3. The United Properties proposal features one ordinary building that looks like two ordinary buildings glued together. If it were built anywhere else downtown we would be politely nodding and looking forward to the day when it opens, because there might be a Starbucks in the lobby. Or perhaps a Caribou.

But it is not iconic. No one ever goes to New York City, jumps in a cab, and barks "Take me to that beloved 36-story apartment building with the flat top, and step on it." You want to see the tallest and the most beautiful, the building that helps define the city. After all these years, NYC is still known by the Chrysler and Empire State, because they are classic American skyscrapers: They soar, they end in sharp points that could puncture a dirigible, they look hewn from stone, and they have windows the scale of human beings that let you gauge their immensity and imagine the vitality within.

Which brings us to the Duval.

4. At first glance you might think that's the box in which the actual skyscraper will arrive. Where's the dazzling spire, the tapering sides, the twisty flourishes that characterize skyscrapers in boom towns like Shanghai or Dubai? It's just glass. Straight up until it runs out of money. If you hate it, you think some architecture teacher held up a stopwatch, barked a command to design an 80-story structure in Minecraft, and shouted "Time!" after 15 seconds.

If you like it, you might be making defensive excuses. It's minimalist and will wear well. Those fancy towers in other cities look like a pastiche of flimsy postmodernism, or they have bizarre shapes that look dated as soon as something more "innovative" comes along. The Duval project, you might say, has a timeless elegance and a serene presence.

That sounds like a polite golf clap, but it's true. The most compelling attribute of the design is its height, 80 stories of pure rentable space. If it were placed next to the Wells Fargo Tower and IDS, it would be — literally — a huge disappointment, overshadowing their skillful massing. At the end of the Mall, however, standing among low-slung structures with more modest attributes, it's like the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

It's not a sheer tower. There's a cut a third of the way up, a trench that runs along the side, making the building look as if it's floating over a 20-plus story base. Detractors will say it's a gimmick to liven up a banal idea; supporters will say the cut gives the tower a sense of momentum, like a pole vaulter captured at the moment he lifts off the ground. Everyone might agree that the skin of the building should meet the street here and there, or the whole thing looks like it's being held up by the magic whims of the Engineering Fairies.

This is no small point. Imagine if the Empire State Building didn't have stone on the bottom two floors, just girders and glass. You'd realize that the stone walls aren't structural. They don't hold up the building. The reason we can build tall is because the walls don't bear the load, but we still read walls as a sign of strength and stability. Just because modern architecture can pull back the curtain wall doesn't mean it should.

Drawings of the lower floors suggest that the walls don't touch the ground at all, but screech to a stop a few floors from the ground, opening up to reveal broad bright lobbies. It's not bad. It could be a great public space. But it's an admission that the pretty glass skin is just a sheath, a costume. A shirt.

All skyscrapers wear shirts, though. What matters in the long run is the style. Much of what's built today will look like the wide pointy collars of the 1980s, with Edwardian ruffles. If the Duval doesn't look iconic, good: You can't make an icon. That's a judgment the citizens confer.

It looks as blue as the skies and the lakes, a hue that never loses its appeal. The long azure shaft, the frosty top — simple and pure. Whether you like that depends on which adage you prefer: Less is more, in Mies van der Rohe's words, or the old doctor's oath: First, do no harm.

Whether there are tenants enough or money to be found for an 80-story tower, or whether the project is scuttled by discovery of an ancient burial ground, or whether the economy craters before the first shovel digs down — we'll see.

It would be a pity if Minneapolis never got something taller than the IDS. It would also be disheartening if economic realties reduced 80 stories to 30. Build it tall. Or don't build it at all.

James Lileks • 612-673-7858