5 Buildings That Epitomize Chicago Architecture

The midwestern city’s rich history is on display through buildings of varying architectural styles

Adam Rubin is director of interpretation at the Chicago Architecture Center, a nonprofit cultural organization with tours, exhibitions, programs and events. With a background in historic preservation and education, Rubin appreciates and celebrates the diverse constructions, materials and designs of Chicago’s style of architecture. “I look at buildings and places and help to pull out how these buildings, as objects, tell a story about who we are,” he said.  

The Bluebeam Blog spoke with Rubin on five buildings that—in material, structure, style and intent—highlight Chicago’s history and future. Edited excerpts follow.  

The Monadnock Building … 

The Monadnock is one of these seminal Chicago buildings that is central to a lot of Chicago architecture tours that we’ve given over the years. It’s a great example of a building that really straddles the line between two types of building at a really pivotal point in architectural history. It was completed largely in two phases in 1891 and 1893. What happened between the two is the advent of structural steel to hold a tall building up.  

If you look on the north side of the building, the window areas go very deep into the wall. And that shows you that this is a building that is being held up by the very brick walls around it. But then, as you look on the south end of the building, you see a very different type of construction, because the second half of the building has a metal frame, which does all the work in holding up the weight of the building, which meant that you could decorate the walls—in this case brick walls—any which way you wanted to.  

Around the time the Monadnock was built, you were dealing with a lot of land speculation downtown and an opportunity to turn this area into a vibrant commercial corridor. So, Chicago becomes this city that a lot of East Coast developers invest in to build and create this central area of commerce. Monadnock is one of these buildings.  

William Wrigley, Jr., Building … 

I get to look at it all the time from the Architecture Center because it’s right across the street. This is a building that is still known as the Wrigley Building, of Wrigley chewing gum. They’re no longer in the building, but one of the stipulations of the lease is that the building’s name can never be changed.  

The building is clad in this beautiful multicolored terracotta, all these variations on white. It shines because you’re not looking at one solid white color. Some people have said that it has a relationship with Wrigley chewing gum, hygiene and clean tooth enamel. I don’t believe that necessarily to be true, but it’s an interesting thought and does at least draw attention to its flamboyant use of decorative terracotta, which is another material that Chicago really ran with in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

Another thing I really like about the Wrigley Building is that it tells you something about the extension of Michigan Avenue going north of the river. We take it for granted now that Michigan Avenue looks the way it does, but at the time this building was built, Michigan Avenue really did stop at the river, and north of that were much smaller buildings. The Wrigley Building is one, if not the first building, to site itself along this stretch that eventually becomes this really high-traffic, high-rent part of Chicago.  

875 North Michigan Avenue—or the John Hancock Building … 

The John Hancock Building, in a large way, isn’t decorated. Its decoration is the engineering that holds the building up. So, what you see on this building is something we call X bracing. It has these big diagonal braces, which we call tubes, that help this building go up and up all the way to 100 stories tall.  

It was initially planned to be two towers that weren’t going to be as tall, but due to some disputes with the real estate and developers, they actually had to change their plan midway through. Because the firm that built it, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, had in-house structural engineers, they were able to have architects and engineers working side by side to create this really innovative, tall building that showcased the engineering from the outside. It’s a very honest building.  

The John Hancock Center is a multiuse building and it has commercial space near the bottom. And as you go further up the top, it becomes residential. And one of the ways that works is that the X bracing on the outside makes it possible to have fewer columns or piers on the inside, helping commercial storefronts have all the space they need. And by the time you get further up the building, the residential spaces are placed to not have an obstructed view by the X bracing on the outside.  

It really sets the stage for all the super tall buildings that come after it in Chicago. There’d be no Willis Tower without the Hancock going up a few years before.  

James R. Thompson Center … 

This was built in an era that architecture was starting to be inspired by postmodern art. And what’s fun about postmodernism is that it’s highly referential to the world around it. The Thompson Center is actually a building that is very referential to Illinois. It makes you think about a dome like you would see on a capitol building. And inside, you look up at the big oculus at the top of it. One of the references here is of the Pantheon in Rome.  

By the 1980s, people were looking for transparency in government. They didn’t want a big solid building that you can’t look through and don’t know what’s going on inside. The Thompson Center is anything but that. It’s a building that has wide, open space and lots of glass. You can see all the government offices that are kind of surrounding the different floors, but it’s also a place where there is a DMV and a food court and shops. So, it’s meant to be the inside-out version of a government building and also this central plaza space on the inside.  

The Aqua Building … 

In 2009, Aqua Tower in Chicago was the tallest building designed and built by a woman-led architecture firm, which is Studio Gang. So, it’s significant in that we’re going to start to see more representation in terms of who is practicing as an architect. And the Aqua Tower absolutely is a harbinger of what is to come in the profession.  

This is a building that is very connected to place. Aqua Tower references all the water around it, Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. At its core, the Aqua Tower is a simple rectangular tower, but around it are these very meticulously designed waves, like rolling water. And they have a lot of different functions. They create a natural shading element, and they’re designed so that people who are living in the building are able to interact with each other from floor to floor.  

I think that as architecture moves forward, there’s going to be a draw to having buildings being a part of their environment. Certainly, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright were two people who were very enamored with the idea of designing buildings that looked like a part of the land from which they sprang forth. When I look at Aqua Tower, I’m seeing a continuation, an update on that idea, that buildings should be as friendly to the environment as possible, they should interact with the city around them in a way that is neighborly.  


On the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Influence … 

One story that’s told is that the fair really promoted the use of classical style architecture in civic building. Another part of the story that’s told with some frequency is that it was really the fair where Daniel Burnham was able to test out some of the ideas that he would integrate into the 1909 plan for Chicago. Some of it was theoretical, or lives in his drawings and writing about what Chicago could be. But when you start to see things like park land, and you start to see things like the Lower Wacker Drive system, these are all things that really came out of experiments in the fair. 

Through that experimentation and trying out what a city could be in the context of a fair, Daniel Burnham was able to create some things that really do change the way we move around Chicago today and the way we move around a lot of other cities. So, I like the idea of the fair as a prototype of what is to come, even if nobody wants a city that is uniform in how it looks and how it’s designed and who it’s catering to. 

On The Tribune Tower … 

Like the Monadnock, this building can be a few different things at once. And I think Chicago would be a very, very different city if that building were not standing where it is. I’m lucky enough to get to work in a place where I can look at both the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower out the front window, and it always looks like they’re having a conversation I’d want to be a part of. 

The Tribune Tower is one of these examples that a building isn’t the sum of its style. This is a building that for a long period of time housed reporters and newspaper offices. It takes some cues from gothic-style buildings and art deco. It’s built in the 1920s, where the U.S. is reflecting on what just happened in World War I. It’s reflecting on destruction in Europe and this moment in history where you can either look to the past for things like gothic style churches, or you can look forward to things like art deco and what was then called modern design.  

It’s a very smart building. And even though it’s converting to high-rent condos, as many historic buildings are, it’s a way to preserve and keep some of these wonderful, older pieces of architecture, so I’m all for it. 

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