Looming in the distance is the 110-storey Willis Tower. At 1,451 ft, the stratospheric building was the world’s tallest when it was completed in 1973. And if you love trivia, it has six roof-mounted robotic window washing machines to clean its 16,100 windows! I get a crick in my neck looking up at a skyline that hardly ever dips.
But that’s no wonder, as I am in Chicago, the home of the skyscrapers, where steel giants seem to defy gravity. Many people head to this city for its calorific deep-dish pizza or to experience its Blues music. But to an architectural aficionado like me the draw is certainly its stunning buildings. Hemmed in by water on three sides, the Windy City (a nomenclature it has earned due to the chilly gusts coming from Lake Michigan) chose to grow vertically and many of Chicago’s greatest edifices (with almost every noted architect having a signature building here) border the Chicago river, making river cruises a top draw for tourists. I sign up for a boat tour with Chicago’s First Lady Tours, where during the 90-minute trip, a qualified guide from the Chicago Architecture Foundation, points out various buildings, their architectural features and some quirky aspects. All the while Frank Sinatra’s iconic song plays in my head: “Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town. Chicago, Chicago, I will show you around.”
Taking off from Michigan Avenue River walk, we slip under the city’s low-slung bridges as traffic rumbles overhead, and watch the sun reflect off sleek glass facades. Our guide explains that as many as 32 moveable bridges, many of them bascule bridges, criss-cross the river. These operate like seesaws
to allow tall ships to pass. “Mind your head. Sit down when you see a bridge,” she warns us.
“One of the biggest turning points in the city’s architectural history was the Great Fire of 1871 when more than one third of the residents were rendered homeless and over 17,000 buildings were destroyed. Many famous architects landed in the city and used the blank slate to reinvent it and create its futuristic buildings,” she explains.
The Magnificent Mile is the most stylish shopping street today, lined with highend brand outlets like Gucci and Prada. She points to the gleaming white Wrigley Building on this stretch, built in 1921 on a triangular plot of land, with its elegant clock face, which served as the headquarters of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley. Its tower was inspired by the design of the Spanish Seville cathedral and this building, made of glazed terracotta, was the first in the city to have an air-conditioning system.
Across the road is the iconic Tribune Tower, home to the famous Chicago Tribune newspaper, built in 1922, inspired by the Rouen Cathedral in France. It has flying buttresses and a facade embedded with 120 rocks and stones from all over the world – the Parthenon, Notre Dame, and the Berlin Wall as well as from the Great Wall of China. Some were gifts to the owner of the newspaper; others were collected by the foreign correspondents of the publication.
We glide past 35 East Wacker Drive, also called the Jewelers Building, with its huge dome, spires and arched windows, dating back to 1925. This was where the city’s diamond jewellers had their offices – they had special car elevators where the loaded jewellers could drive into as a security measure so that they did not get robbed walking from their cars to the building!
Offering a great counterpoint, the curvy 82-storey Aqua Building that houses a fivestar hotel, apartments and condominiums with its undulating balconies, catches my eye. The building creates a surreal, rippling effect that seems like flowing water! The building was recognised by PETA for being bird friendly; its cutting edge design makes it more visible to birds so that they don’t crash into it.
We mosey past whimsical Marina City – a building that reminds me of corn cobs, two circular towers of residential blocks with a small marina for boats attached to its base.
Designed by noted American architect Bertrand Goldberg in 1964, it was one of the earliest buildings to have a ‘city within a city’ with gyms, retail stores, restaurants, an ice rink and the bottom 19 floors devoted to spiral parking ramps. My favourite building is 333 Wacker Drive designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and sheathed in greenishblue glass reflecting the river, sky and the structures around it. “Notice that the river makes a sharp turn at this point and the building was designed in such a way that the façade curves with the river while the street-facing side is angular,” explains our guide.
She points out the green conscience of Chicago – numerous green roofs and rooftop gardens on flattop skyscrapers, designed to reduce heat gain and provide insulation. I love the fact that old warehouses and factories along the river have morphed into condominiums with their own river walks.
I gaze at the Art Deco landmark, Merchandise Mart, a mammoth building with four million square feet of space, which was the largest building in the world when it was constructed in 1930. Owned by the Kennedy family for over half a century, this functioned as a wholesale market for all kinds of goods, under one single roof. Around 29 million bricks, 40 miles of plumbing and 4,000 window frames were used in its construction. The building is so large that it once had its own zip code! By the end of my boat tour, I am reminded of the words of Spanish architect Cesar Pelli: “Very tall buildings enter into a realm that many cultures consider sacred.” In Chicago, sacred is all around!
The author is an ardent traveller and the views expressed in the article are her own