Chicago Architecture Unwrapped For First Timers

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Architecture in Chicago

Chicago Architecture Unwrapped In Fun Facts And Crazy Details

It’s a world-famous skyline filled with iconic buildings – Chicago’s architecture certainly makes your jaw drop and your neck ache! But it’s innovative too and the more you start digging about the more you can’t help but be impressed by cutting-edge design and impressive first-time building techniques that Chicago has pioneered over the decades.

I found out a lot of quirky and interesting stuff about some of the famous Chicago buildings after our recent trip to the windy city and it wouldn’t be right if I just kept all these facts to myself. So, if you find yourself in this mid-west metropolis any time soon and are looking for things to do, be sure to look up at the heights of glass, steel and concrete and be prepared to be impressed and amazed by some great bits of trivia!

Tip : Most of the following buildings can be seen from the Riverwalk, downtown Chicago, so put on your walking shoes and maybe try this alternative to a Chicago Architecture Boat Tour. Enjoy yourself on a free self-guided walking tour of some of the most famous architecture in Chicago!

1. Tribune Tower

Tribune Tower, Chicago. Famous architecture Chicago
Photo : Luke Gordon

The Neo-Gothic Tribune Tower is a result of a competition! A nice publicity stunt to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Chicago Tribune which got over 260 entries, but no surprise as the winner would take home $150k. One of the entries was for a giant head of a native American (Indian) a lá Mount Rushmore! The winning architects, Raymond and John, have allowed themselves a featured image of themselves in the entrance lobby. So if you’re giving yourself a Chicago Architecture Tour look out for the Robin Hood (for Raymond Hood) and a howling dog (for John Mead Howells).

The craziest fact I like the most though is that the building itself is host to over 140 fragments of other famous structures and buildings from around the world; a piece of the Great Wall of China, part of the Great Pyramid, and reliefs from Notre Dame, Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal and Westminster Palace to name but a few are cemented into place next to Chicagoan rock and concrete. It’s no wonder Chicago is seen as the city of architecture when it learns from all the greats!

2. Trump Tower Chicago

Trump Tower. Famous architecture in Chicago

Trump once said this was going to be the highest building in the world but Bin Laden put paid to that, Trump had a rethink and decided to scale back somewhat after the attacks of 9/11. This is quite the typical example of how those startling events would have a great impact on American architecture; no longer were architects so interested in building ‘the highest’ building around.

Two stories short of One Hundred, the Trump Tower has 3 setback features that rest at heights that mimic the surrounding architecture of Chicago. Step one is the Wrigley Building, step two aligns with the Marina City Towers and step three is the former IBM Plaza, now 330 North Wabash. So he may not have reached the tallest building in the world but he certainly made sure he highlighted to those around him how significantly smaller they were.

The particular piece of Chicago architecture has featured prominently in two films specifically – first, the final scene between the Joker and Batman in Dark Knight Rises and secondly, Transformers : Dark Of The Moon. 

Despite being designed to be both a residential and retail building, none of the retail units have ever been let. Rumour has it that many designers aren’t too interested in associating themselves with the racist tendencies of its owner.

Another controversial issue with the building has been the ginormous Trump sign which stands 20 foot high at the level of the 16th floor. Not only did some dispute that Trump didn’t get proper permission to erect it but others though it an eyesore to which Trump replied ‘As time passes it’ll be like the Hollywood sign’!

3. The Wrigley Building

The Wrigley building, Chicago. Famous chicago architecture. Walking tour chicago
photo: Wikimedia commons

Built by chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley Jr. taking ideas from Seville’s cathedral – La Giralda. The tiles which decorate the Wrigley building come in six shades of white, ranging from blue-white at the bottom to creamy-white at the top, so the building looks brighter as it rises. On occasion, the entire building is hand-washed to preserve the unique terracotta glaze which makes it gleam white. What a job eh? I shall never complain about cleaning my shower ever again!

When The Wrigley Building first opened there was an observatory above the 26th floor in the Clock Tower; admission was 5 cents and included a piece of Wrigley gum.

None of the building’s four corners is a right angle. The southwest corner is 84°, northwest 102°, northeast 42°, and southeast 132°.

Giant grasshoppers scaled the building in the 1957 sci-fi film Beginning of the End. Since then The Wrigley Building has appeared in movies including BackdraftThe BreakupThe Fugitive, and Mercury Rising.

4. The Marina City Towers

Also known as the corn on the cobs. In 1968 when construction was completed these 2 towers were the tallest concrete structures and tallest residential buildings in the world.

It was initially an urban experiment to return residents to downtown Chicago from their suburban farms and households – “In our ‘cities within cities’ we shall turn our streets up into the air, and stack the daytime and nighttime use of our land.” —Bertrand Goldberg, Marina City’s architect.

I guess he hoped that by building apartments in the same tower as gyms, a theatre, skating rink, shopping and restaurants residents would want for nothing and the lots would be filled. Nicely, his dreams were realised when Chicagoans embraced this new lifestyle concept of being able to walk to work and play at home. This set a precedent for the way the Chicago loop would carry on developing and even today many Chicagoans live downtown, not too common for American cities outside of New York.

The population of the two towers is larger than half of Illinois’ municipalities!

Long before the Marina Towers existed, in the 1830’s, Dr Alexander Wolcott owned the land and built a cabin on it for his office – nothing like an office with a river view!

In November 1975, Pepe Martina walked from the west tower to the east tower on a tightrope 60 feet above the ground as a publicity stunt to promote the building’s health and tennis club.

5. Aqua

Aqua. One of the best architecture in Chicago. Walking architecture tour Chicago

My most favourite of all, the Aqua Tower. Designed by Jeanne Gang to connect Chicago with its most natural landform – the great lake it sits on. The curving white concrete balconies and coloured glass create the impression of water trickling down the building’s sides.

The design isn’t just for aesthetics though, here’s a fun fact for you; Jeanne cleverly came up with an architectural idea which meant that each individual balcony would have its own little job to do. The concrete curves served several purposes – to shield from wind vortices, shade neighbouring apartments from the elements, prevent birds from headbutting the glass panels and ingeniously bring neighbours together by arranging the balconies in a way that people would connect with one another. Just brilliant.

6. Willis Tower (Formerly the Sears Tower)

Sears Tower (Willis Tower) in Chicago. Architecture tour for building lovers

Holding the title of Tallest Building in the World for over 25 years, it’s no surprise you catch glimpses of this monstrous skyscraper from many vantages in Chicago. It’s probably one of the most famous Chicago buildings – you can’t escape it!

It’s known for its observation deck on the 103rd floor and gets over 1 million visitors every year and was featured in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the gang watch the streets below them. But what impressed me the most was the fact that this is the mummy of all skyscrapers : without the invention of the bundled tube structure design, the architectural world would not look like it does today. Imagine you had a few cardboard loo rolls, a few more kitchen tin-foil inner-tubes, and a few more wrapping paper tubes as well. Bundle them all together and you have the Willis Tower. All 9 tubes make it to the 50th floor but only 7 carry on up the way, loosing another 2 at the 66th floor and a further 2 at the 90th. The remaining 3 soar up another 18 levels to the 118th floor, yet despite its 1,450 this structural concept is so unbelievably strong that it would pave the way for more supertall buildings around the world, including the Burj Khalifa. The sculpture of the architect in the Willis Tower lobby is definitely most warranted in honour of his architectural talents.

Formerly the Sears Tower, the largest retailers in the world, but sold to the Willis Group Holdings (a London based insurance brokers) in 1995. The name, however, didn’t change until 2009, much to the reluctance of many Chicagoans.

Some fun statistics; It is now the 12th tallest building in the world. It took 2,000 workers 3 years to build. It has over 16,000 bronze tinted windows, 25,000 miles of electrical cable, 43,000 miles of telephone cable, 104 elevators, 2 entrances and cost more than $175 million to build. It weighs the equivalent of 20,000 buses.

It’s not an exhaustive list by any stretch – Chicago has 121 skyscrapers! So, we’re only just scratching the surface here, but these were my favourite and some of the most famous architecture in Chicago. And, hopefully, there are some archi-philes out there who appreciate these fascinating facts as much as I do. It was a pleasure to write them all down and I hope it will enhance a trip to the windy city for all those architecture lovers out there. Happy sky-line gazing!

And, if you’re there with the family, check out my other post – Chicago With Kids – 2 Days Of Fun

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Some of the most famous Chicago buildings. A self-guided tour with some pretty interesting and crazy facts. Chicago architecture tour free
A Do It Yourself free Architecture Tour, Chicago. Everything you need to know about some of the most famous building in Chicago.

22 Comments Add yours

  1. scots2travel says:

    Wow, I love this, and I had no idea. I love the 140 fragments factoid. Have to say Trump Tower is stunning. And the metro tower reminds me of Singapore. I wanna go.

  2. Great post Alex! I’m so impressed by the designs behind many of these buildings. I wish I’d looked into it a bit more when I was there so I could have inspected them more closely. There’s no doubt that Trump towers is very hard to miss!! Thanks for linking #citytripping

    1. Alex says:

      I know right – every block you go down it lurking behind a corner! Very strategically placed!

  3. I want to go for the deep pan pizza 😀 , but I might have to reconsider and see more of the city, some great looking buildings in there. #citytripping

  4. I really enjoyed this post. I would like to visit Chicago one day, its on my list of American cities to see. I love a walking tour too! the Aqua building is amazing I can see why it is your favourite. #Farawayfiles

  5. I can’t believe the Willis Tower has over 100 elevators – crazy! Chicago’s architecture really is stunning and I hope to take my girls some day. It’s been years since I’ve been. Have you heard of the Chicago architecture boat tour? It’s supposed to be fabulous. Thanks for linking up with #farawayfiles

    1. Alex says:

      I have and we would’ve took it if it’s been warmer. Instead I did my own research! 😉

  6. Neha says:

    Cool architecture! I love the concept of having pieces of other great buildings incorporated into the Tribune building. #FarawayFiles

  7. Hilary says:

    I love Chicago, and this post! I’m married to an architect. ? The Tribune Tower is my favorite, as I’ve always loved putting my hands on the little pieces of other places embedded in the walls. I was excited to see it again after many years, and count all the places I’d been to since my last visit. Who knows, maybe it inspired my love of travel? I’ve also always loved the John Hancock building, but funny enough have never gone up inside any of them… Thanks for sharing this great post on #farawayfiles

    1. Alex says:

      Aw, my perfect reader then 😉 thanks

  8. Katherine says:

    Wow! So many impressive high rises and skyscrapers! I love checking out architecture in different cities. You can tell a lot about a city’s history by the buildings. #FarawayFiles

  9. What an interesting post, Alex. Some of these buildings are so beautiful. Like you, I love the concept as much as the design of the Aqua Tower and I think the Wrigley Building is gorgeous too. And as for the Trump Tower, pretty much says everything, doesn’t it? #FarawayFiles

  10. Allison says:

    I love how all the architecture is so unique. It was so cool for me to look at the stones from so many famous buildings on the Tribune Tower. And I am definitely in the camp of the Trump sign being an eye sore. #farawayfiles

    1. Alex says:

      The tribune tower is cool!

  11. I didn’t realize that Chicago had so many high rise buildings! And I also didn’t know that 9/11 had an effect on architects building the tallest buildings! And leave it Trump to still want to outshine others… #FarawayFiles

  12. Oh, the things you can live right next door to, and yet know nothing about… Thanks for this great piece full of interesting facts about Chicagoan architecture. I loved reading it.

  13. Jane Taylor says:

    Really interesting read – I didn’t realise the famous tight-rope walking towers were in Chicago. Love the wave one! I like the Smurfit Stone Building in Chicago (Had to look up the name). It’s in one of my favourite films growing up, ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ starring Elizabeth Shue (I made the kids watch it recently and they still quote from it).

    We had a great time in Chicago when we visited in the ’90s. It was our first experience of a proper skyscraper city and it felt surreal to walk around feelinh like little ants as they flanked you on every side. The Architectural Riverboat Tour was one of our highlights…A Trump-free zone back then!

    1. Alex says:

      Yes, India wanted to see that one too cos of the film. Had you heard there was a new adventures in baby sitting coming out!?

  14. Emma says:

    Oh this has given me a serious case of wanderlust! Mr C has visited here and said that it was very cool and amazing city. I can now see why. The skyline is stunning. I love all of the buildings.

    1. Alex says:

      Cool is the word. I never realised until this trip that America doesn’t really do ‘city centre’s’ as such, other than New York, as most cities’ downtown areas are business districts (people live in the suburbs) so Chicago is actually really unique and very very cool!

  15. remeeus says:

    nice buildings

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