From its historic skyscrapers along the riverfront to the avant-garde sculptural structures in Millennium Park, Chicago is arguably the architecture capital of America. The opening of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial on September 16 further cements that reputation.
The largest architecture and design exhibition in North America, the Biennial highlights the work that is transforming the architecture and design industry today, featuring practitioners from more than 20 countries in exhibits, talks, and tours open to the public through January 7, 2018. The Biennial’s opening also coincides with Expo Chicago, an international gathering for modern and contemporary art (September 13–17), making it the perfect time to visit. Not sure where to begin exploring the city’s hundreds of architectural icons by big names like Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe? We’ve narrowed it down to nine spectacular buildings we think truly standout.
Architect: Bertrand Goldberg Associates
Year built: 1968
Marina City is a famed Chicago landmark that has been featured in celebrity films (see: “The Hunter” with Steve McQueen) and on rock album covers (see: “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” by Wilco). Located downtown along the main branch of the Chicago River, this mixed-use complex, built of reinforced concrete, features two 588-foot-tall cylindrical towers with distinctive scalloping on the facades.
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Year built: 1910
Considered the most iconic example of his Prairie style, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House is a modern architectural masterpiece. Its flat, expansive planes, strong exterior horizontal lines, low-pitched roofs, and use of natural materials mimic the mid-western plains. Long bands of windows and art glass windows allow light to filter beautifully into the house, blending interior and exterior spaces. Located on the University of Chicago campus, this National Historic Landmark is an American architectural gem.
Architect: Studio Gang
Year built: 2010
At 82 stories, this 876-foot-tall mixed-use building aims to “create a community on its facade,” according to the architects at Gang Studio, whose principal is Jeanne Gang. To achieve this, Gang situated outdoor terraces on each floor of Aqua Tower, encouraging neighbors to interact. The building’s distinctive, undulating look comes from placing floor slabs at varying heights on the tower, based on views and natural light. A large green roof atop the LEED-certified building provides stunning outdoor space and views.
Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Architect: Gehry Partners
Year built: 2004
A whirl of brushed stainless steel ribbons and a billowing trellis of crisscrossing steel pipes frame this stage located in Millennium Park. Designed by the visionary architect Frank Gehry, Jay Pritzker Pavilion stands at 120 feet tall, with a stage clad in Douglas fir that can be enclosed with glass doors, allowing it to be used during cold weather. With 4,000 seats (the park’s Great Lawn, can accommodate another 7,000 people) and a state-of-the-art sound system, this is one piece of architecture not to miss.
United States Post Office, Loop Station
Architect: Mies van der Rohe
Year built: 1973
When Mies van der Rohe left Germany for Chicago, he brought the Bauhaus’s no-nonsense notions of efficiency and Modernism with him. American architecture was never the same. It’s impossible to pick a favorite among van der Rohe’s many Chicago buildings – his fingerprints are all over the city – but the United States Post Office, Loop Station at the base of the Federal Center – which also includes two imposing skyscrapers erected by van der Rohe – is as good as any for viewing for his masterful work. Set apart from the skyscrapers but still clearly part of a unit, this low, glass-and-steel structure is a paradigm of his work. The shape of the structure not only connects it to its surroundings, but also defines the surrounding public plaza while providing human scale and a light shaft into an urban canyon.
Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership
Architect: Krueck and Sexton
Year built: 2007
Designed by Krueck + Sexton Architects, this environmentally-sensitive building features state-of-the-art program spaces, classrooms, a library, 400-seat theater, and event space. Located in the Historic Michigan Boulevard District, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership‘s 10-story, faceted facade is built from 726 individual pieces of glass in 556 different shapes, allowing an astounding amount of light to penetrate interior spaces. This gesture is both practical and metaphorical – the Spertus logo is a flame paired with the phrase yehi, Hebrew for “let there be light.” Surrounded by historic buildings, that were also innovative in their heyday, the Spertus Institute strives to respect history (linear form, scale, and materials complement nearby buildings, for example) while looking to the future.
Joe and Rika Mansueto Library
The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago features a groundbreaking, elliptical glass dome structure and solar-controlled glass. But that’s just the beginning. The building, which is primarily situated underground, can hold up to 3.5 million volumes. Because tomes are arranged in metal bins and stacked in racks 50 feet high, they require just one-seventh the space of regular stacks. When patrons request books, robotic cranes transport bins to the main floor.
The Rookery Building
Architect: Burnham and Root (updated interior by Frank Lloyd Wright)
Year built: 1888
Located in the financial district, this Chicago landmark was built in 1888 by Daniel Burnham and John Root in the style known as the Chicago School. When Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to remodel the central light court and lobbies of The Rockery Building in 1905, he delivered one of his most stunning interiors. The result is a dramatic, luminous space that marries the building’s original ornamental ironwork with Wright’s own vision.
Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo
Architect: Studio Gang Architects
Year built: 2011
Though it’s technically not a building per se, this pavilion, which also functions as an outdoor classroom, dresses up a previously dilapidated area along the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo, transforming the habitat into an exhibit about pond life. Inspired by a tortoise shell, the pavilion is built from curvaceous, prefabricated wooden planks and covered fiberglass pods that allow light to filter through.