Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Never the city you saw last time

CHICAGO/ARCHITECTURE. I will never forget the thrill when I for the first time saw Chicago’s skyline. It was in October 1974, I was a bewildered Swedish exchange student in Indiana on my first excursion to the big city.
I gazed at the brand new Sears Tower, then the tallest building in the world, and the forest of skyscrapers in the Loop. Chicago instantly became my favourite city and it still is a favourite.
I’ve been back many times since then. Thanks to a good Chicago friend, who is a superb guide, I’ve seen many of the neighborhoods that make the city so special. And thanks to the fantastic Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) and its passionate volunteer guides, I’ve done many tours in a city that few can rival when it comes to modern, world-class architecture.
CAF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about the city’s architecture and the history behind it. CAF offers 85 different tours and if you would like to get a taste of it you can check out this blog which sets out to take all tours during the course of 2010.
On my latest visit I had a chance to squeeze in two CAF-tours. At the end of the first one, the classic River Cruise (right), the guide used these words from Mark Twain (Americans love to quote him) to describe what we had just experienced:
“It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago – she outgrows her prophecies faster that she can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”
That was exactly how I felt this time. I hadn’t been to Chicago for a number of years and there were so many new things to see.
As our River Cruise began, we immediately passed one of the new landmarks – the gleaming Trump Tower. Next to it stands the 52-story 330 North Wabash (formerly the IBM Plaza), one of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s black modernist skyscrapers in Chicago, now dwarfed by its neighbour.
A cruise along the Chicago River is a like riding through a man-made canyon lined by colossal pieces of architecture. The guide takes you through the styles; beaux-arts, art deco, modernism, post-modernism, and the great names of architecture that all came here to build the city that saw the birth of the skyscraper.
We pass the massive Merchandise Mart, one of the biggest buildings in the world, and we turn our heads up to see the aging giant now called Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower).
If you’re in Chicago just for a short stop-over and only have time for one trip, take the River Cruise.
Another day I join one of CAF:s many walking tours, this one called Modern Skyscrapers. We look at many of the buildings that set the style for high rise buildings in the decades following World War II, like Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Plaza built 1959-74.
One of the more unusual buildings on the tour is the Metropolitan Correctional Facility (left), a high rise prison in the middle of downtown Chicago. The triangular 27-story tower, designed by Harry Weese and completed in 1975, has a rooftop exercise yard.
We end the tour in Millennium Park, near CAF headquarters at 224 South Michigan Avenue. This is another of the great new attractions in Chicago that I hadn’t seen before. Opened in 2004, Millennium Park has been a success and is probably one of the best examples in the world of how a new public space can add life to a city.
Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain are instant favourites.
If you have the time, you should also take a tour of the older skyscrapers of Chicago, not very tall by today’s standards, but revolutionizing at their time.
One of my favourites is the Marquette Building, built in the 1890’s in what often is called Chicago’s golden age for architecture. This 17-story office building has a fantastic lobby highlighted by a mosaic conveying early Chicago history (right).
The Marquette Building is a prime example of the early “Chicago School” type of architecture that became world famous. It was also one of the early steel-frame buildings, a technique that made skyscrapers possible.
Mark Twain went on to describe Chicago as a place for “achieving new impossibilities”. I wonder what he would say today.

This is the third in a series of reports on architecture in Chicago.


Cloud Gate, or "the Bean" as Chicagoans call it, in Millennium Park.


Heading into Chicago's man-made canyon on a River Cruise.