I realize this may come across as an excuse for not coming up with a good intro, but I am genuinely finding it very difficult to describe Chicago in any manner that does it justice.
I had the pleasure of visiting the country’s third largest city last week for a studio field trip, and it is truly larger than life. It feels endless. You feel small. It’s busy, loud, dirty, and chaotic. There are people everywhere – cars, trains, planes, boats, and buses whiz past you in every direction. Sirens and car horns echo through canyons of stone, steel, and glass. The city stretches to the horizon, except to the east, where Lake Michigan’s exceptional blue-green color meets the skyscrapers that line it’s shore.
The stories it tells through it’s people, and through it’s architecture, are unparalleled. The first thing you learn when you come to Chicago is that this is a tough, battle tested city. It is a city that burnt down and rebuilt itself out of its’ own ashes. It is a city still marred by racial tensions, and was at the heart of the civil rights movement. Prohibition resulted in the rise of mobsters like Al Capone, and created powerful gangs like the Mafia. More recently, outsourcing has virtually killed Chicago industry, forcing people to move to more promising regions further south, the same processes that killed Detroit. It’s problems with gang violence and crime are well documented and frequently make national prime time news. Yet, the city grinds through it all. Chicagoans are a tough, diverse people. They are probably a little bit crazy too. How else would you reasonably describe those who are so committed to their city that they willingly brave dark, subzero winters and viscous blizzards year in and year out? These people are furiously loyal to their city. For example, five million people showed up in downtown Chicago to celebrate the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Championship, the seventh largest gathering in human history. Five million. Let that number sink in. I think I’ll leave it at that.
Anyways, in the end, architecture is what we were there for. Chicago is arguably the most architecturally influential and significant city in the world. It is the home of the first skyscraper and the place where the steel frame was developed and perfected. It is where Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe rose to fame. It was in Chicago that Wright developed the Prairie Style, the first authentic American architectural style. The Robie House near the University of Chicago is widely considered to be the most important residential building in American history. SOM designed and built the Sears Tower in 1970 and was the tallest building in the world upon completion. Hancock Tower and it’s iconic expressed X bracing was built shortly before that and is one of the most famous expressionist buildings ever built. Today, four of America’s ten tallest buildings are located in Chicago. Aqua tower is the tallest building designed by a woman (Jeanne Gang) in the world. Contemporary Chicago is a beautiful conglomeration of old and new: a wonderful mixture of scales, colors, densities, and uses that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else on Earth.
Day one began with a red eye from Los Angeles. We landed at O’hare at about 5am during a nasty rainstorm. The trees hadn’t quite gotten their leaves back. We had to find our way to the L train and take the blue line all the way into the city, in the dark. The sun was just starting to come up when we finally emerged from the subway tunnels and onto the streets of Chicago. There was a brutally cold wind blowing off Lake Michigan, and the wind driven rain stung. An umbrella was useless. There was a chance for snow that night, and the winds picked up as the day went on. We knew we had to suck up the cold for a few days because it would be over 80 degrees by the end of the week. For Chicago, this was just a normal Wednesday in April, and the day was just beginning. Most of us didn’t get a wink of sleep on the flight, so our day was only half over. This was a free day, and I decided to explore the touristy areas of the city and get that out of the way early, so I spent most of the day along the Magnificent Mile and at Navy Pier. As a group we decided to take a trip up to the Hancock Observatory right as it opened, and it was nothing short of spectacular. We all took lots of pictures, timelapses and (much needed) naps!
Looking south from the Hancock Tower
Looking north up Lake Shore Drive from the Hancock Tower
Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier
North Loop from Milton Lee Olive Park
Navy Pier’s new ferris wheel (with fancy enclosed gondalas!)
Day Two was spent exploring the Loop. We visited the Chicago Cultural Center, and were given extensive tours of the Spertus Institute and SOM’s Chicago office. We also visited classic Chicago buildings such as the Sears Tower and Tribune Tower. We took the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Architecture Cruise tour up the Chicago River. I highly recommend this tour to anyone visiting the city, it was fascinating!
The double curtain wall facade of the Spertus Institute
Admiring the views of Lake Michigan and Millennium Park
View of Aon Center and North Loop skyscrapers from the Spertus Institute
The interior of the Rookery by Frank Lloyd Wright
The Reliance Building (Arch History???)
The Tribune Tower, and a new Apple Store along the Chicago River
Buildings along the South Branch of the Chicago River
Day Three was dedicated to the Millennium Park area and consisted of visits to the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago by Renzo Piano, Maggie Daley Park, the Bean, and the Pritzker Pavillion by Frank Gehry. We also visited Aqua by Studio Gang.
The bridge connecting the Art Institute with Millennium Park
Lobby of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago by Renzo Piano
“The Bandshell” at Pritzker Pavillion by SOM and Frank Gehry
Gehry’s bridge over Columbus Drive
Maggie Daley Park
Aqua Tower by Studio Gang
Day Four was our first excursion outside of the Loop. We took the Red Line to the Illinois Institute of Technology and visited some Mies van der Rohe buildings, including Crowne Hall. After visiting IIT we toured Columbia College’s School of Media Productions. We also walked around Chinatown, and went to the Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library by SOM, which was very cool.
Chicago Skyline from IIT Red Line Station
Crowne Hall by Mies, IIT’s Architecture School
McCormick Campus Center
Trippy windows in the McCormick Campus Center
Entrance to IIT
Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library by SOM
Interior of the Chinatown Library
Sears Tower from Chinatown
Chicago Skyline from Chinatown Red Line Station
Day Five began with some free time in which I used to explore the Gold Coast neighborhood and kind of scrape the surface of Lincoln Park. I really wanted to see the skyline from the North Avenue Beach seawall. The rest of the day was spent in Hyde Park and on the campus of the University of Chicago. We visited several buildings on campus, including the Robie House, Mansueto Library, and Logan Center.
Historic Rowhouses in Gold Coast
Industrial era mansion near Lincoln Park (note the chimneys)
Looking north from the seawall at North Avenue Beach
Looking towards Hancock Tower from the lakefront trail along Lake Michigan
Boxes (but the two on the left are by Mies so they’re special)
Typical Neighborhood in Hyde Park
Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright
Detail shot of the Robie House
Bright and open living room of the Robie House
Historic Homes in Hyde Park
Gordon Parks Arts Hall (my case study)
UChicago’s neogothic buildings contrast with the Mansueto Library
Mansueto Library Interior
Looking Northeast from Logan Center over the Midway Plaisance
Day Six was our last day in the city. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 6:30 so we had most of the morning the explore the areas close to the hotel, most notably the River North neighborhood. Here we visited the Godfrey Hotel, explored the Merchandise Mart, and took one last long walk along the Magnificent Mile before we had to catch the Blue Line train back to O’Hare.
Residential Building in River North
View of the skyline from the Godfrey Hotel
The Chicago River (with a water taxi)
Taking off from O’Hare
Above the clouds on our way to Los Angeles