With a crop of new buildings set to reshape the Chicago skyline over the next decade, our view will soon be transformed forever.
No words have been used more frequently by Chicago architects and planners over the generations than those of famed architect and prolific urban planner, Daniel Burnham. First used in front of a Chicago city council meeting at the turn of the 20th century, the famous quote pretty much sums up the spirit of Chicago architecture and skyscraper design to this day.
A brief history
It was one hundred and fifty eight years ago when the city was ravaged by the Great Fire of 1871, killing 300 and destroying more than 17,000 buildings over the course of just two days. The monstrous fire left a charred landscape in its wake and was an utter disaster. But, it came at a time of extreme civic pride in the city, an unprecedented building boom, and a rapidly expanding population. Architects looking to make their mark in the world, like Daniel Burnham, William Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root and Louis Sullivan, saw an epic and historic opportunity. With more than a million residents, Chicago had surpassed Philadelphia to become the second biggest city after New York, and, well, they all needed a place to live. Then with the introduction of the elevator, things started looking up – literally. In 1888, Jenney designed the world’s first skyscraper in Chicago, the Home Insurance Building. Overnight, Chicago became a brooder of high-building innovation, producing such an outstanding group of architects that they changed the modern American city as we know it, and whose work would go on to have a profound influence on skyscraper building design.
Between about 1879 and 1910, these architects of the time were part of what came to be known as the Chicago School. They were the first to promote the use of the steel frame skyscraper introducing function over monument and emphasizing industrial materials. Their guiding principle was that they didn’t want to adhere to any principles. They were renegades in their time and favored using a wide variety of designs, construction techniques and materials to that of a unified approach.
Around 1940, a new wave of high-building design first appeared in the city, sometimes referred to as the Second Chicago School of Architecture. This is associated largely with the arrival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1938, whose minimalistic designs changed our skyline again and forever. The principal architecture firm of this time was Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Formed originally in 1936, they made breakthroughs in design and structural engineering during the 1960s and 1970s which led to designing several of the tallest buildings in the world including the John Hancock and Willis Tower. This again confirmed Chicago as the undisputed leader in high-rise 20th-Century architecture and led to a new generation of supertall towers.
Chicago continues to be a place where architects come to test the limits of structure and aesthetics. Our skyline now serves as a kind of barometer revealing history and the changing times and tastes of the people. From the gleaming white terra cotta of the Wrigley Building to the minimal residential towers of Mies van der Rohe right up to 21st-century supertall skyscrapers built here first and then thousands of miles away in Hong Kong and Dubai, Chicago continues to be an incubator for skyscraper design.
The Millenium Boom
And now, as we approach 2020, Chicago is in the midst of another building boom with nearly a dozen innovative projects in the works over the next ten years. Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, One Bennett Park is now the tallest all residential building in Chicago at 836 feet and is on track to open this fall. Other projects currently heading for the stars include 110 N Wacker Street, VISTA Tower, and NEMA Chicago. One Chicago Square and 1000M have been approved to break ground, and epic projects including 400 N. Lake Shore Drive, Wolf Point South and 725 W Randolph Street are on the approval track hoping to be complete by the middle of the next decade.
So, when you’re buzzing about the city this week, be sure to take a moment to pause and look up at our skyline, and in particular at these five iconic Chicago buildings. Before you know our view is gonna change forever.
With its rockstar design pedigree, it is no surprise that The Rookery has long been considered one of the finest building in the world. This iconic Chicago landmark was designed by John Root & Daniel Burnham of Root & Burnham, architecture royalty at the time, and the interior was redesigned in 1905 by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. The exterior reflects a melange of styles from Roman, Venetian and medieval architecture. But much of what makes the Rookery stand out is its interior light court which literally fills with light and air. It is a space to be seen and experienced. The building was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1972, and was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1975. 209 South LaSalle Street, therookerybuilding.com
THE CHICAGO BOARD OF TRADE
Fourteen-year old Madelyn FioRito was leaving a summer job interview at the Fine Arts Building. The lift operator passed her a note, which read; “Please come up to my studio. I have spent a year looking for a model for the statue of Ceres, goddess of grain, which I have been commissioned to do for the top of the Board of Trade building. You are the model for whom I have searched.” The note was from artist John Storrs. The young girl said yes. The statue, inspired by Madelyn, sits on top of the Chicago Board of Trade pyramid roof looking down upon the bustling city below, a sheaf of wheat in her left hand and a bag of corn in her right. It is the perfect symbol of Chicago. Designed by Chicago’s Holabird & Root, the building itself is a decadent Art Deco masterpiece, with structural design that symbolized its purpose, activity, and the city’s industrial might. 141 W Jackson Blvd, 141wjackson.com
One of the most unique things about the Aqua Tower is how the view changes – close up the balconies appear like soft clouds, billowing up the building, and from a distance the concrete balconies and reflective glass look like waves, dancing on top of pools of water. This gives the skyscraper an other-earthly, sculptural quality. There is no doubt that Architect Jeanne Gang from Studio Gang formidably solved the age old question; how you make a skyrise (essentially a box) aesthetically pleasing? Not only is it, but Aqua Tower is also a marvel of engineering with balconies designed to withstand high winds, provide shade and prevent migrating birds from flying into the windows. And because of the unique design shape and protrusion, residents can chat with neighbors above or below, which is beyond cool. 225 North Columbus Drive, rentaqua.com
Marina City was born as an answer to the problem of suburbanization in the early 60’s. The masses were leaving Chicago and in record numbers. The government was investing $3,000 in the suburbs to every $85 spent to support housing in the city. Architect Bertrand Goldberg thoroughly believed that people wanted to live in downtown Chicago. His approach to Marina City was to design a “city within a city” that could fully accommodate people’s daily routines within a short distance from their homes, bringing the seeming ease of suburban life to an urban setting. He wanted to make the city more habitable which he believed would not only have economic benefits, but it would make people happy. Fancy that. It was also the first mixed-use complex in the United States, including units for housing and businesses, and for a short time were the tallest residential buildings in the world. The now iconic corn cob shape towers have appeared on everything from classic airline posters to appearances in TV shows and background in movies like Ferris Buellers Day Off. State Street, marinacity.org
Chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley Jr. never forgot his visit as a young boy to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, in particular the otherworldly gleam of the White City. Decades later, when he set out to build his new headquarters on what would become known as the Magnificent Mile, he had his inspiration. Architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White delivered. The Wrigley Building incorporated it’s iconic terracotta facade using six different shades of white so it grew brighter as you gazed upward. Wrigley insisted the facade was maintained immaculately, keeping its appearance sparkling white, and that it was continuously floodlit, with only three exceptions; for three years during World War II, during a light replacement in 1971, and during the energy crisis in 1974. The Wrigley Building captures the weight of history, not only due to its height and steel frame construction, but for being the world’s first building to use air conditioning, and so perfectly capturing that quintessential Chicago design. The Wrigley company sold the building after receiving official Chicago Landmark status in 2012. 400-410 N Michigan Avenue, thewrigleybuilding.com