Changing Face of Chicago Architecture
Every time we return to Chicago we are amazed by the amount of new high-rise construction and the beauty of many of its buildings.
On one hand, this is not surprising. Chicago, after all, has been at the forefront of American architecture since 1884, when William Le Baron Jenney built the Home Insurance Building, recognized as the first “skyscraper”. The city went on to pioneer glass-curtain towers which moved the structure’s support to the center of the buildings. Chicago Architects also created the Prairie Style (Frank Lloyd Wright), the International Style (Mies van der Rohe), the Chicago Style (Louis Sullivan), led the Post-Modernism movement (Bertand Goldberg). Meanwhile, the Chicago-based Skidmore Owens and Merrill pioneered and continues to create many of the structural techniques that make 1,000- and 2,000-foot mega-skyscrapers both possible and feasible.
Chicago Architecture Center
To explore the continuing changing Chicago architecture scene, we rely on the Chicago Architectural Foundation (recently, renamed Chicago Architecture Center). From the time we lived in Chicago and throughout our return visits, we have taken dozens of their tours to help us understand Chicago’s innovative architecture.
On this trip, we started out touring the CAC’s new two-story exhibition center, which includes a:
- Brief movie on the history of Chicago and its architecture;
- Interactive exploration of the Center’s 3D-printed scale model of every one of the central city’s 4,200 building;
- Overview of the changing infrastructure, architecture and construction of Chicago buildings and neighborhoods and
- History of Chicago’s most influential architects.
The center also had a series of special exhibits that examined the:
- Future of Chicago and other metropolises as more and more people crowd into megacities. It suggests the challenges and opportunities this will create and the design principles (scalability, livability, sustainability, etc.) this will require;
- Changing nature of mega-skyscrapers with scale models and descriptions of many of the tallest and most innovative actual and proposed buildings from all corners of the world;
- Technical innovations that have been developed and evolved to enable the building of ever taller, stronger, more functional and more beautiful skyscrapers;
- Challenges and learnings from building Dubai’s 2,717-foot tall Burj Kalifa, which is the world’s tallest current building, and the proposal for Saudi Arabia’s proposed, 3,280-foot Jeddah Tower, which is planned for 2023.
Chicago By River
From here, we embarked on one of the Center’s ever-popular, premier tour—the Architecture Center’s River Cruise. While many other organizations now offer similar river tours, in our minds, this is the only one to take.
The cruise, begins (and returns) on the main branch of the Chicago River. It explores the recreation of late 19th and early 20th-century warehouses into modern residences along the North Branch, the contemporary South Loop Towers of the Southern Branch’s eastern side and the way architects have addressed the challenges of building over and around the tracks of the river’s western bank.
The Main Branch provides a superb overview of the city’s high-rise architectural heritage, from towers including, but certainly not limited to the historically-inspired Tribune Tower, European Renaissance and Neo-Classical Wrigley and Carbon and Carbide Buildings, the Deco-inspired Board of Trade and 333 North Michigan buildings, the striking, highly innovative, corncob-shaped Marina City city-within-a-city, the huge range of International-style towers (including the AMA and IBM buildings), the Modernist Lake Point and Trump Towers), the Post-Modernist Leo Burnett and the undulating, organic flows of the Studio Gang’s new Aqua Tower and huge, multi-use Vista Tower complex. Nor, amidst all these towers, can one miss the new, two-story, all glass Apple Store nor the massive (four million sq ft) Deco Merchandise Mart, which, by day, is diversifying from being a furniture showroom into a hub for tech startups and by night, a venue for massively-scaled public art (see below).
The North Branch was at the heart of the city’s successful plan to reverse the flow of the then, uber-polluted Chciago River’s water (industrial waste, untreated sewage, stockyard carcasses) way from Lake Michigan (which was and remains the city’s primary Water supply), into inland rivers. This stretch of the river was home to some of the downtown areas largest warehouses (including Montgomery Ward and Fulton cold storage facilities), both of which have been transformed into fashionable residential buildings and the still-operating Tribune (not to speak of Midwest New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other) printing presses. They are all now surrounded by all style of commercial and residential towers.
The eastern side of the South Branch is home to River City, Bertand Goldberg’s far-sighted solution to reincorporate housing into an area that had been blighted since the 1871 Chicago Fire—an area that has since expanded to include the now-fashionable Printer’s Row. Further to the north, a growing parade of towers that strive for recognition in the shadows of the height and innovative structural design of the Sears (now Willis) Tower, including the 311 S Wacker Building which catches the attention of people and birds alike with its huge, high-wattage florescent dome (which has to be subdued during bird migration seasons).
The Wolfe Pointe area, at the Western confluence of the River’s three branches, was and remains the center of the city’s train system. As the eastern bank became increasingly crowded and expensive, developers faced greater pressure to develop the western bank, especially the area between (and over) the bank and the tracks. This has prompted a number of innovative solutions, such as 150 N. Riverside (which supports a 45-story tower atop a tiny base that is squeezed between the two obstacles) and the Boeing Headquarters, which uses a set of roof-top trusses to suspend the weight of one-third of the building that is built over the tracks. These and other West Bank towers, including the curved-fronted 333 West Wacker and the arched cut-outs of River Pont (not to speak of the Main Branch’s Trump Tower) also exhibit the type of Contextualism to help them fit in with the buildings surroundings. The southern end of the West Bank meanwhile, is home to the massive, long-vacant Old Post Office Building, which is also now being converted into a multi-use complex that will have the world’s largest green roof.
We explore and attempt to understand cities and neighborhoods (and get exercise at the same time) by walking. This allows us to stop and ponder sites, explore interesting shops, peruse menus, stop for refreshers at interesting lounges and speak with residents. This trip’s walks took us from the Loop, South and West Loop neighborhoods, along the North shore, parks and neighborhood, and up Milwaukee Avenue though more distant hip neighborhoods including Bucktown, Wicker Park and Logan Square.
Among this trip’s many discoveries were:
- The impact that this year’s incredibly high Great Lakes water levels is having on Chicago’s spectacular “forever open and free” waterfront. Although Oak Street Beach still exists, the sand has been diminished and the concrete skirt that lines the upper part of the shore is largely flooded from even the smallest of Lake Michigan swells. North Avenue Beach has seen even greater diminution with beach less than half its normal width, its beach volleyball courts submerged, lake sand and gravel deposited onto the sidewalk and the piers intended to protect and expand the sand well under water. The state of the coast is even worse up by Fullerton Avenue, where the lakefront walk is largely sand-and gravel covered, continually washed by water and some parts actually closed.
- Ever more and more interesting (and in the case of Roister, wonderful) restaurants and hot nightspots along West Loop’s Randolph, Lake and Fulton Streets;
- Interesting shops, galleries, studios and restaurants in Bucktown, Logan Square and Wicker Park. Among our favorites were Logan Park’s Logan Arcade and Emporium bars/pinball and video game arcades, Wicker Park’s Flatiron Building artist studios (primarily for the art hung in hallways rather than the mostly closed studios themselves) and Bucktown’s parks and art installations.
- The 606, a 2.7 mile paved and landscaped walking and biking path (which stretches from the Bucktown and Wicker Park to Logan Square areas) that is Chicago’s answer to New York’s High Line. On the positive side, it is a wide, uncrowded and a nicely landscaped way of reaching these neighborhoods. Of its negatives, we were much less impressed by what is supposed to be a growing number of commissioned public art pieces (we found none in the 1.5 miles that we covered) and the generally uninteresting views of the residential sections of the neighborhoods though which we walked. Sorry, Chicago, but you will need more than this to even approach the vibrancy of the High Line.
- Public Art has long been a Chicago obsession. It is particularly known for its growing number of large-scale works, from Lincoln Park’s 1887 statue of Lincoln (Saint Gaudens), Grant Park’s Buckingham Fountain (built in 1927) to the Daley Building’s Picasso (1967), the Federal Buildings Calder (1974) and the Oldenburg’s Bat Column (1977) at the Social Security Building. Its public art profile took a huge leap in 2004, with the opening of the art extravaganza that is Millennium Park. It has not only the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion and Jaune Plensa’s fun, digital Crown Fountains, but also Anish Kapoor’s incredible Cloud Gate (aka, “The Bean), which is loved by natives and tourists alike (including us), and has rapidly emerged as already Chicago’s second most popular tour.
Now an even larger, more recent addition (at least on summer evenings, after 9:00)—Art on the Mart, an ever-changing series of digital art image and video projections that cover the face of the huge, 25-story building and is being billed as the largest digital art projection in the world.
And this does not even begin to consider the thousands of privately-financed public art that tops, sits in the lobbies of corporate buildings and that seem to be popping up all over the city.
Chicago, yes, it is a beautiful and changing city.