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A Brief History of Chicago Architecture

by LizBehler August 2014 - last edited October

City skyline at sunset | Brief History of Chicago Architecture


As the birthplace of the skyscraper, Chicago is recognised around the world for its architecture. And though the buildings here aren’t known for their age, thanks to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, they are known for their inventive designs.

After the fire, the city underwent a construction boom, attracting notable architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, looking to reimagine the city from the ground up. This influx of interesting design resulted in Chicago becoming a sort of giant open-air museum.

Chicago Water Tower | Brief history of Chicago Architecture

Chicago Water Tower at night © Rudolf Balasko/iStock/Thinkstock

Although the fire destroyed nearly all of the buildings downtown, a few did survive. The Chicago Water Tower still stands at the north end of Michigan Avenue. Originally built in 1869, it was used, as its name implies, as a water tower and was tapped for firefighting, but those days are long gone. Now, the building operates as a miniature art gallery, free to the public.

John Hancock Center | Brief History of Chicago Architecture

John Hancock Center from the sky © Kristopher Kettner/iStock/Thinkstock

Juxtaposing the old with the new, across the street from the Water Tower stands the John Hancock Center. It may only be the fourth tallest building in the city, but when it was built in 1968, it was one of the tallest buildings in the world. The Hancock is easily one of the best perches in Chicago, with 360-degree views of the city and Lake Michigan. To take them in, you can head up to the observation deck, where you have the option to tilt out 1,000 feet above street level on an 8-person structural feature that literally tilts you out and away from the building, providing downward-facing views. If you’re short on time, skip the lines for the observation deck and opt instead to go to the Signature Lounge, a bar on the 95th floor where you can sip a cocktail while taking in the views.

Willis Tower | A Brief History of Chicago Architecture

Willis Tower © Flickr/Wouter

Another place to get a bird’s eye view is from the observation deck of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). Built in 1973 and standing 110-stories, it’s the tallest building in Chicago, and second in the United States (the newly finished One World Trade Center in New York is taller).

Marina City | A brief history of Chicago Architecture

Marina City © Flickr/EthanKan

Marina City (a complex of two towers lovingly referred to as "the corncobs" by locals due to their unusual shape) is another standout. Designed by Bertrand Goldberg and completed in 1964, the towers were built as a city within a city. The reinforced concrete structures were made to function as residential buildings, complete with a theatre, swimming pool, gym, bowling alley, ice rink, shopping mall, restaurants and a marina.

Pritzker Pavilion | A Brief History of Chicago Architecture

Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion © Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

But not all of the city’s architecture is made up of towering skyscrapers. In Millennium Park, Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, constructed of undulating pieces of metal, serves as the heart of the park. If you’re lucky enough to visit Chicago in the summer, there’s no better place to lay down a picnic blanket and catch a free concert.

Robie House |  | A Brief History of Chicago Architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House © Dan Smith

To the west of downtown lies Oak Park, home to the world’s largest collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was here that Wright developed and perfected his signature Prairie Style, distinguished by its cantilevered roofs, long bands of windows and natural materials. There are more than 80 examples of the architect’s work, including Wright’s Home and Studio, where he lived and worked from 1889 to 1909. For more Wright, visit the University of Chicago’s campus to see the Robie House, one of the best examples of Prairie style architecture.

Crown Hall | A Brief History of Chicago Architecture

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall © Arturo Duarte Jr.

Nearby, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, another pioneer of modern architecture made his mark. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was appointed head of architecture here, and was commissioned to design several buildings for the campus. The most significant is Crown Hall, widely recognised as the architect's masterpiece, featuring huge expanses of glass and following his famous “less is more” minimalist design.

Aqua | A brief history of Chicago architecture

Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Building © Flickr/John Picken

Chicago is constantly growing and changing shape. In 2010, Jeanne Gang’s Aqua, a multi-use building, which features an undulating facade of outdoor terraces that change in shape from floor to floor opened. And in 2009, Trump International Hotel and Tower, situated on the Chicago River and covered in sleek blue glass, became the city’s second tallest building.

The River serves the main link and the Great Lakes | A Brief History of Chicago Architecture

A river cruise is a great way to see the city’s architecture © pigprox/iStock/Thinkstock

One of the best ways to take in the city’s architecture is with a tour. The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers a variety of walking and bus tours, but their most popular is their River Cruise. The 90-minute tours are led by docents, and give cruisers background on more than 50 buildings along the Chicago River.

Header image © Chicago skyline - Songquan Deng/iStock/Thinkstock

Virgin Atlantic operates a seasonal direct service to Chicago from London Heathrow. Book your flight today.

Have you ever been on an architecture tour of Chicago? Have any favourite buildings to share? Let us know in the comments below.

Written by Liz Behler

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About the author: LizBehler

Liz Behler

Liz Behler is a Chicago-based writer and editor who covers food, drink and travel. Her work has been published by a number of outlets, including Fodor’s, Wine Enthusiast and National Geographic. She previously worked as Features Editor for AOL Travel before leaving her post to travel non-stop for a year. Follow her @LizBehler