If visitors from another planet knocked on my door and asked to see examples of great architecture, I’d quickly say, “Easy-peasy! I’ve got 5 Chicago buildings you should know…Let’s go!”
If you’re not from outer space, you already know that Chicago is the birthplace of modern American architecture…hello, skyscrapers! There are other important buildings in Chicago, so we’ll visit this topic again. For now, here’s a mix of old and new!
#1: The Monadnock: First skyscraper in the world!
The Monadnock (53 W. Jackson, in the South Loop) may not look like a phenomenal architectural structure, but it’s right up there with the pyramids. You may scoff at its puny 16 stories, but it’s the first skyscraper and was the largest office building in the world. It is still the tallest weight-bearing brick building ever constructed.
The Monadnock has a fine architectural pedigree. It was built in two distinct styles, the northern half in 1891 by Burnham and Root, one of the most famous American architecture firms and Chicago’s largest at the time. Burnham and Root were also in charge of the World’s Columbian Exposition, so when John Root died suddenly, at age 41, Daniel Burnham had to shift his focus to the Exposition. (If you haven’t read Devil in the White City, about the Exposition, Burnham, and the gruesome serial killer, get it today!)
In 1893, the Monadnock needed to expand. This time, esteemed Holabird and Root (John, Jr.) stepped in to design the south half. Their fancy staircases are the first structural use of aluminum in building construction. And, instead of using brick to bear weight, they used steel–an exciting innovation! The bricks on the outside form a “curtain wall” to cover the structure, not support it. This was a pivotal moment in architecture. (The firm would also design other Chicago landmarks, including The Palmer House and Soldier Field.)
#2: Willis/Sears Tower: Made to withstand wind
Willis Tower (233 S. Wacker Drive, in the West Loop) held the record for tallest building in the world for nearly 25 years. At 110 stories, it required exact engineering to handle unprecedented–and untested–wind loads, the natural wind forces that push and pull on the sides of buildings. Fazlur Rahman Khan, a Bangladesh-American architect, took on the challenge.
Khan’s system of “tubes,” separate buildings that support each other, was genius. The Sears Tower (its original name for 36 years) is a 3×3 set of tubes. All nine tubes go up 50 floors. The northeast and southwest tubes continue to the 66th floor, then the east and south tubes stop at the 90th floor. The final two–west and center–top out at 108 floors.
Khan, called the “Einstein of structural engineering,” died at age 52. “He, more than any other individual, ushered in a renaissance in skyscraper construction during the second half of the 20th century,” wrote Richard Weingardt in Engineering Legends.
#3: The Rookery: Frank Lloyd Wright does a makeover
The Rookery (209 S. LaSalle Street, in the Financial District) is an outstanding building on its own; its elegance and interior light court are wonderful surprises. Another Burnham and Root masterpiece, it was completed in 1888, a whopping eleven stories tall.
As stunning as the building is, it’s now most known for its 1905 Frank Lloyd Wright redesign. FLW wasted no time covering the original copper-plated ironwork that John Root, Sr. carefully created in 1886. Wright’s updates also included new staircase railings, a steel white paint job for the atrium, decorative urns at the base of the public staircase and new light fixtures. It’s FLW Prairie style, for sure.
The Rookery is a transitional structure, using both load-bearing stones and a skeletal frame. On the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Chicago Landmark in 1972, the Rookery was magical because it was able to bring in so much light and air. And…it still is magical.
#4: Marina City: Luring suburbanites back to Chicago
Marina City (300 N. State Street, in the Near North Side) opened in 1967, when city living had given way to suburbia and malls for over a decade. Architect Bertrand Goldberg was challenged with finding a way to lure the middle class back. Luckily, he had a vision. “In our ‘cities within cities’ we shall turn our streets up into the air, and stack the daytime and nighttime use of our land.”
Goldberg’s “corncob towers” were inspirational. Marina City was the first post-war urban high-rise residential complex in the United States.
Did Goldberg succeed? Absolutely! Over 80% of the original residents walked to work–and 8% of them had jobs in Marina City!
Goldberg was credited with beginning the residential renaissance of American inner cities. His model of mixing residential, office, recreational, and entertainment in high-rise towers, with a base of parking, has become a primary model for urban development in the United States and throughout the world.
#5: Aqua: Female architect, eco-friendly design
Aqua (225 N. Columbus, in the New Eastside) is not only eye candy, but sensible. What more could you ask? Aqua joined the skyline in 2009, and started gathering design awards from the get-go. Architect Jeanne Gang finally answered the question that Louis Sullivan asked in the late 1800s: how to make a plain tall building beautiful? And she did it on her very first skyscraper! (Apparently, it took a female to solve the problem…)
The building is a marvel, with curving white concrete balconies (no two are the same–and they break up wind blasts!) and tinted glass, its watery image changes throughout the day.. It sits near Lake Michigan, extending the water theme.
Gang’s plan is planet-friendly, with its rainwater collection systems, heat resistant and fritted glass, and energy-efficient lighting. And the Audubon Society gave her an award–because of her design, birds don’t crash into the building. The whole thing seems just about perfect to me.
In the future, we’ll look at more reasons for you to come admire Chicago’s architecture. I’ve got lots more to show you!