Chicago: A Design-Lover’s Destination

A guest post by: Lynn Burshtein

Chicago’s nickname may be the “Second City” but in 2015 the city seems to be at the forefront in celebrating architecture and design. The year is an exciting one for the city as it presents new spaces and events that shed light on the city’s place in the canons of modern architecture.

This past June, the city hosted NeoCon the biggest commercial interiors event in North America (roughly 50,000 visitors). Works from designers Herman Miller, Knoll, Steelcase and Teknion were displayed among 700 exhibitors. More significantly: beginning in October and continuing until January 2016, Chicago will kick off its inaugural Architecture Biennial. An idea conceived by Mayor Rahm Emanuel along with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, this international architectural event will present an array of exhibitions, large-scale installations and program of events free-of-charge – all of which are aimed at promoting public engagement in design and spotlighting Chicago’s place on the world stage of architecture.

Of course along with these special events, there are a number of permanent attractions for architect and design lovers. The longstanding seasonal boat, walking and bus architecture tours are attended by countless tourists. The Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago appeals to visitors with an interest in modern architecture.

In addition, the relatively recent Millennium Park boasts Jay Pritzker Pavilion (in its Frank Gehry-ian glory); the interactive Crown Fountain as well as Anish Kapoor’s famous “Cloud Gate” (aka the “bean”).

But to appreciate the present-day design wonder that is Chicago, it is important to have an understanding of its architectural evolution and the early visionaries who left their mark on the city. Many of the more prominent buildings were built after 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire had destroyed much of the downtown core.

Within a decade of the fire, the city was a boomtown. The architectural pioneers of the Chicago School championed steel-frame constructed buildings with large plate glass and what would be the first of many skyscrapers. Throughout the first part of the 20th Century, a myriad of building styles emerged, reflecting competing aesthetic visions, but all celebrating Chicago as a thriving center of commerce. The succession of skyscrapers were built. In the 1920s and 30s, Art Deco and Gothic styles achieved popularity.

Then the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the Prairie Style of architecture, which was influenced by the landscape and plant life of the Midwest prairies. His 1909 Robie House with its geometrical style, horizontal proportions, and long overhangs on low-pitched roofs, was considered very innovative in its day.

Later, during the 1940s, the next wave of building design emerged, known as the Second Chicago School of Architecture. Influenced by the growing popularity of European modernism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, would introduce Chicago’s progressive, modernist look that was closely tied to the International Style (derived from the Bauhaus design movement). This style was a celebration of minimalism and sparse design. The adage of “less is more” was strongly adhered to.

The 1960s “Mad Men” era saw an emergence of cutting-edge designs. Bertrand Goldberg’s mix-residential and office use buildings Marina City, located across from the Loop district were tall, cylindrical towers that were “corncob” shaped. Famed architect Fazlur Rahman Khan was also important around this time. With his tubular design of high rises, he created two notable landmarks in the city, including the John Hancock Center and the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower).

Marina Towers

But whereas midcentury modernism considered “less is more”, the postmodernist school of design that followed thought “less is a bore.” A reaction against the stark steel and glass boxes from the International Style, the postmodern architects in the 1970s and 80s would bring about more opulent designs. Postmodernist architects would construct a building with reference to its context, borrowing elements and symbols from older neighbouring structures or elements, while adding playful ornamentation.

With the recession in the 1990s, buildings were constructed with a more subdued aesthetic, more sober lines and a focus on efficiency. The new location of the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1996 referred back to the modern style of Mies Van der Rohe.

But the beginning of the 21st Century has seen a renewed energy in terms of Chicago architecture, not the least of which is exemplified by 2009’s Trump Tower (Chicago), situated on the Chicago River, all shiny and sleek, with rounded edges. And the Aqua Tower which opened in 2010 with its wavy-shaped balconies that mirror the river’s waves, had garnered much attention.

Trump Tower & Wrigley Building

No doubt, the 2015 Architecture Biennial will “cement” Chicago’s reputation as a destination for design lovers. However its legacy as a significant contributor to the world architectural stage is already well-established.

*Chicago River Architectural Cruise was provided courtesy of First Lady Cruises Walking tour courtesy of Barbara Zenner and Choose Chicago.
*Photos of Wrigley Building and Trump Tower and Marina Towers: Courtesy of Adam Alexander Photography and Choose Chicago
*Photo of Cloud Gate: Courtesy of City of Chicago



Founder, CEO at Addicted
I’m ADDICTED to great travel, amazing food, better grooming & probably a whole lot more! Mark Munroe is the Creator and EIC of ADDICTED.