Living in New York, I assumed I had seen enough skyscrapers to last me a life time. I could not have been more wrong. A family trip for a college campus visit to Chicago opened my eyes to a whole new vista of modern buildings and in the process I learnt about the history of the architecture of towers and skyscrapers.
The invention of the skyscraper happened in Chicago in the mid-19th century when the first modern skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building was built in 1885, ushering in an entirely new style of construction. The tower stood tall at a height of 10 stories, a building of brick supported by a framework of steel.
Early Chicago Skyscrapers
The Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 but the building style and the use of steel as opposed to iron and masonry, brought forth a new movement in architecture called the Chicago School. Though that building is not there, Chicago still has many examples of what can be termed as early skyscrapers. For example, the Chicago Water Tower built in 1869, is an ornate limestone structure that looks very much like a Gothic Revival castle. It was also one of the only buildings to have survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Architecture Tour on the Chicago River
In order to fully experience the architecture of Chicago we decided to take the very popular boat tour on the Chicago River which gave me an immediate overview of the breadth and depth of this city’s building designs. The tour guide mentioned that this novel construction method owed its beginnings to the Great Chicago Fire when the mostly wooden structures in the city center burned quickly down to the ground. The boat went past the Reid, Murdoch Building, another example of an early Chicago skyscraper with its steel and concrete frame and I and the other tourists looked at this mammoth building with its three story high clock tower and its long and heavy seven story high brick façade. Although today it is dwarfed by glass and steel fronted modern towers, I could easily imagine it being an eye catching presence on the river shore in 1914.
One by one buildings of all shapes and sizes rolled by; the docent kept up the commentary on the notable buildings. There was the Merchandise Mart, the largest building in the world when it was built in 1930, an Art Deco styled gargantuan structure with an 18 story high main block and a 25 story central tower. The Navy Pier with its Ferris wheel was built in 1914, again the largest in the world, built by Charles Sumner Frost, as per the visionary architect Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago from 1909. Today it is a site for museums, theaters, gardens and other attractions.
The Tour Continues…
As the skyline glided by, the tour guide pointed out the prime attractions. I could see the golden top of the Carbon and Carbide building, a bit hidden among the much more modern skyscrapers, but a very striking presence from 1929, shaped to resemble a champagne bottle. The Aqua Tower from 2009, with its rippling, wavy balconies in glistening white, designed by Jeanne Gang and the curvy in black Lake Point Tower from 1968, designed by students of the iconic architect Mies van der Rohe were harmonious in modernity though separated by many decades.
Bertrand Goldberg’s River City, a megastructure in concrete caught my attention. This was an apartment complex, a “city within a city” utopian concept as envisioned by Goldberg, who had worked under Mies van der Rohe, during his architectural studies at the Bauhaus in Germany. He had planned for about 30,000 families to live in connected skyscrapers but was unable to win permission for the same. Instead a scaled down version, still eminently a behemoth, opened in 1986.
As the boat tour concluded, I realized that this was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There were so many more buildings to see and it would be truly impossible to cover them all in the time we had at our disposal. And so we decided to focus on a few the next day.
Gems of Chicago Architecture
Walking out of our hotel next morning, we started at the Du Sable Bridge on the Chicago River. There in front was the Tribune Tower built in 1925, with its extending ornate buttresses in an inspired take of the Rouen Cathedral of France. I was amazed to see pieces of historical rocks and fragments embedded on the low outer façade from places such as the Great Wall of China, Great Pyramid of Giza, the Parthenon, and the Berlin Wall among others.
Nearby the Wrigley Building built during 1921-1924, loomed large. With its two sparkling white terra cotta glazed towers, the south tower soaring high with a clock face, the building is a magnificent presence on Michigan Avenue. I discovered that the architects took inspiration from the Giralda tower of the Seville Cathedral in Spain.
A little further away, I caught sight of the Marina City, the precursor to River City, looking like two giant corn cobs shooting up into the sky. While to me it appeared like corn, the building’s architect Bertrand Goldberg, compared them to the “petals of a sunflower”. It is a concrete beauty in a modular, curved form.
Cheek by jowl with the Marina City is the IBM Building, now known as AMA Plaza with a luxury hotel now occupying few of its floors. It is a vision in black aluminum and tinted glass, completed in 1972, four years after the death of its famed architect, Mies van der Rohe.
Willis Tower and its Views
We then headed towards The Loop, considered to be the heart of Chicago. Our primary destination was of course the Willis Tower. After buying our tickets we headed to the 103rd floor Skydeck, to the very famous glass-floored ledges that extend out about four feet from the tower exterior. Once the tallest skyscraper in the world and known as the Sears Tower, the Willis Tower has 110 floors. The design of the tower was a seminal achievement for Fazlur Rahman Khan, a civil and structural engineer who invented a tubular system of perimeter walls for high rises which not only reduced costs but also opened up pathways to construct ever taller buildings while also keeping them safe from wind and earthquake loads. Before the Willis Tower, this method was applied by him to build the John Hancock Center, another tall structure that of course was highly visible from the ledge at Willis Tower.
Interestingly enough, Fazlur Khan grew up in British India in a village near Dhaka which is now the capital of Bangladesh. He worked at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the well-known Chicago architectural firm where he came up with the pioneering new tube design concept, according to the exhibition display on him that I stopped to look at while on our way up to the 103rd floor of Willis Tower.
The view of the Millennium Park was breathtaking from our position high up in the sky. Knowing we did not have time to visit, it was gratifying for me to get a glimpse of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an open air venue for free cultural performances. Designed by the star architect Frank Gehry, the arena is an astounding amalgamation of stainless steel panels framing the stage and connected to an open dome of stainless steel clad pipes in a trellis form. While I could see this centerpiece of Millennium Park, I was quite sad to not be able to view Cloud Gate, the elliptical outdoor sculpture of stainless steel by Anish Kapoor and his first outdoor work in the United States. But then again, I spied a shiny, curvilinear stainless steel glimpse of the BP Bridge, again by Frank Gehry. I looked to the right of me from that glass ledge and into Grant Park and the Buckingham Fountain. Even from this distance and height, the fountain looked enormous. It was installed in 1927 and is inspired from the fountain at Versailles and is one of the largest fountains in the world.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House
Completely aware that Chicago was where the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright spent the first twenty years of his illustrious career, it was imperative that we made time to visit at least one of his masterpieces. We went to Robie House located on the campus of the University of Chicago and considered to be the best example of Prairie style architecture. The house can be visited only through guided tours and we joined a large group for a 50-minute walk through the house.
Frederick C. Robie House was completed by Wright in 1910 and is a National Historic Landmark. Taking inspiration from the flat, prairie landscape of the American Midwest where he grew up, the house epitomizes a poetic balance between the interior design and the interior and the exterior structure. On the outside, the house is long and horizontal, a sleek presence that immediately broke away from the heavy Victorian and Gothic style mansions of that era.
I walked through the open plan house, through the breathtaking living space with its typical Wright style geometric leaded art glass doors and windows, past his linearly designed signature chairs and tables and admired the incredible equilibrium of the inner space and the outer world.
Seeing the built marvels of Chicago and the crowds that we were a part of made it clear to me that one need not have any affinity towards architecture or its history to enjoy the awe inspiring and iconic buildings this city has to offer.
Written by: Susmita Sengupta
Susmita is an architect by background, from New York City, and loves to travel with her family. Her articles have been published in Travel Thru History, Go Nomad, Go World Travel and Travel Signposts.