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Partridge's Chicago: My kind of town

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As the British Council for Offices conference in Chicago draws to a close, its chairman David Partridge picks his 10 favourite buildings in the city that gave birth to the modern workplace

It’s no secret that Chicago is an architect’s city. It is home to buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan (who was the subject of my Diploma dissertation at Cambridge).

It is the birthplace of the skyscraper and, one could claim, of the modern office. And it was the first city in the United States to benefit from city planning at scale – The Burnham Plan. It was inarguably the 1893  Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition, with its centrepiece  White City, Daniel Burnham’s early masterpiece, that put Chicago on the international map.

The World’s Fair also featured as a main attraction a large rotating wheel designed by an engineer by the name of George W Ferris.

Here are my architectural highlights.

The John Hancock Center

John Hancock Center

The Hancock Center dominates the skyline of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Its stacked ‘X’s are immediately recognisable, making it one of the best-known profiles in the city.  The structure is a wonderful marriage of art and engineering – testimony to the partnership of Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan, colleagues at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, who designed a 100-storey structure that could withstand the powerful winds that whip in off Lake Michigan. On completion, the tower was the world’s second tallest building and, while long since surpassed in height, the view from the observation deck with the city laid out before you is still one of the best.

The Burnham Plan and Reliance Building

The Burnham Plan

One couldn’t really consider Chicago’s cityscape without mentioning Daniel Burnham, the visionary behind the city’s first metropolitan plan. The Burnham Plan improved the city’s lakeside, developed its highway system, tackled the freight and passenger railway systems, created its outer parks, ordered the streets systematically, and created a civic centre to oversee all this.

Reliance Building

But Burnham wasn’t just a planner: his practice designed the Reliance Building – still one of the most elegant structures in Chicago. The Reliance is noteworthy as the first skyscraper to employ large plate glass windows in its design, unwittingly anticipating a trend for glass-clad structures that would continue throughout the 20th century.

The Willis Tower

The Willis Tower

Most people know it by its original name, the Sears Tower.  With its distinctive twin white spires that reach into the sky above Chicago (above), it was the tallest building in the world on completion in 1973. It is now merely the highest building in Illinois.  When it was first occupied it was the home of Sears, Roebuck and Co, then the largest retailer in the world.

It is still one of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s best-known buildings; the Chicago firm has been one of the most successful in the world over the past 80 years and has completed more than 10,000 projects in the US and abroad in that time.

IBM Building

The AMA Plaza building – formerly known as the IBM Building – is a classic Modernist tower designed by Mies van der Rohe. It was to be his last building; he died just before construction began in 1969.  It evokes the black steel and glass aesthetic van der Rohe employed at the Seagram Building in New York and the Kluczynski Federal Building in the downtown Chicago Loop. The design betrays the original occupier’s requirements: electrical system, floor strength and ceiling height were all critical to accommodating large raised-floor mainframe computing equipment that was typical of the time.

Crown Hall

Crown Hall

Despite being spoilt for choice, given his considerable impact on Chicago’s cityscape, van der Rohe’s masterpiece is Crown Hall. It was completed in 1956 and sits in the Illinois Institute of  Technology campus, just outside the city centre.

It was Mies that made famous the phrase ‘less is more’, by which he meant that less decoration and adornment was, in contrast to Classicism, more impactful.  And it is the simplicity of Crown Hall’s design that is truly striking. The building was so influential it is difficult now to appreciate just how revolutionary the design, conceived a little more than a decade after the end of the Second  World  War, was at the time.

Marina City

The two towers of Marina City are a Modernist highlight for me, and not just because of their presence on the skyline. Many see it as the inspiration behind the residential resurgence of inner cities during the post-war years, when populations were in decline.

Marina City was designed in 1959 by Bertrand Goldberg as a mixed-use residential/commercial complex on the north bank of the Chicago River, and was the first building in the United States to be built with tower cranes.

When it was finished in 1964, Marina City’s two towers were the tallest reinforced concrete buildings, as well as the tallest residential buildings, in the world.

Lake Point  Tower

John Heinrich and George Schipporeit’s Lake Point Tower sets itself apart from the rest of Chicago’s buildings both geographically and aesthetically. It is the only skyscraper to the east of Lake Shore Drive and its curved facade – finished in 1968 – was a departure from the bold, straight lines of the majority of buildings in downtown at the time.  

Whereas the buildings that Mies van der Rohe was designing in Chicago followed the form of straight lines and bold, squared silhouettes, Lake Point Tower was actually inspired by Mies’s unbuilt 1922 design for a ‘Glass Skyscraper’ in Berlin, which was similarly non-uniform.

Prentice Women’s Hospital

It was a divisive design, either loved or loathed by Chicagoans. But I will miss this building; it was demolished last year after sustained efforts to save it.  The Prentice was a Brutalist icon that brought Louis Kahn’s work to my mind. It was a genuinely unique structure: four nine-storey curved towers that rose spectacularly from a rectangular base on the campus of Northwestern University.

Bertrand Goldberg’s vision was only made possible thanks to the early use of computer-aided design. Engineers at Bertrand Goldberg Associates employed software used by aircraft designers to create three-dimensional maps that enabled them to accelerate the building process.

The Poetry Foundation

This building is a real sanctuary in a busy, modern city. Its design when viewed from the street is actually quite discreet; John Ronan Architects has created a structure protected by an outer shell of perforated dark zinc cladding, shielding a wonderful glass and wood-filled building from the outside world.

At the centre is a small garden from which you can see into the foundation’s atrium and library. The latter is a great place to sit and read, write or think and makes the Poetry Foundation one of the best buildings to enjoy at ground level in a city of otherwise soaring, iconic towers.

Aqua Tower

Aqua Tower

Chicago architect Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower is a sinuous, multi-use, 82-storey skyscraper that is as practical as it is striking. The building sits among other high-rises, challenging Gang to find a way to provide clear views for residents through the neighbouring structures.

Aqua Tower

She did so by adding ‘waves’ of balconies across the Tower’s exterior; some reach out by as much as 12 feet. They not only secure the highly-prized views that occupants crave, they also create the distinctive fluid ‘waves’ across the facade.

The sinuous balconies that inspired the building’s name serve a further practical purpose by providing shade from the sun. I think the Aqua Tower is the most wonderful marriage of form and function and shows that Chicago’s timeless ability to be on the cutting edge of design is still going strong.


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