It’s impossible to summarize all there is to see of Chicago architecture in a single article, but here we highlight 6 of the most significant buildings in the city’s skyline. Culturally and historically important, as well as visually stunning, any visitor to the Windy City with even a remote interest in architecture shouldn’t miss the chance to see them in person.
Aqua is as much sculpture as it is a residential block in the heart of the city. With its façade of undulating balconies that change slightly from floor to floor, creating a wave-like, rippling surface, it fits the nautical theme of its Lakeshore East location. The balconies on this 82-story, 870-foot-high modernist structure extend as much as 12-feet from the building, and they have a total of seven miles of railings. Designed by Studio Gang Architects, Aqua won the Emporis Award for the Best New Skyscraper of the Year in 2009.
An iconic Chicago structure and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, the John Hancock Center, with its distinctive X-bracing, tapered form and black granite façade, topped out on May 6, 1998, as the tallest building in the world at the time outside of New York City. Currently, it’s the fourth-tallest building in Chicago, at 100 floors and 1,128 feet. Visitors can take in seemingly endless views on its 94th floor observatory, the SkyWalk, or dine at the 95th floor’s Signature Room, looking out over Chicago and Lake Michigan. Fun fact: Forty-seven floors of the Hancock Center are residential. It is like a city unto itself, and people do not have to leave the building. The people who live there have their own post office, supermarket, day care center, shops, full-sized swimming pool, library, gym, and other amenities.
Considered by many architecture fans to be the best in Chicago, this classic art deco skyscraper is actually the second Chicago Board of Trade building to be built at its location in the center of the city. The first was torn down in 1929 after being declared unsound, and its 45-floor replacement was completed in 1930. The building is known for the adornments on its exterior – dozens of statues reflecting the activities going on inside the Board of Trade. The icing on the cake is the solid aluminum statue of Roman goddess Ceres, perched atop the building’s copper pyramid. Fun fact: This was the location where the television show Soul Train began in 1970.
Another giant – both literally and figuratively – in the world of Chicago architecture, Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower) is the tallest building in the U.S. and the seventh-tallest freestanding structure in the world. The structure is formed from 9 bundled square tubes, each one 75 feet wide; two of the tubes are 50 floors high, two are 66 floors high, three are 90 and two are 108. Twenty-eight acres of black anodized aluminum panels and approximately 16,100 bronze-tinted windows form the tower’s façade. The 103rd floor is occupied by SkyDeck Chicago, an observation deck featuring a glass-floor balcony known as “The Ledge.” The 1.5 million SkyDeck visitors each year enjoy 360-degree views of up to 50 miles — including Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
The design of this new-Gothic building was the result of a $50,000 prize hosted by the Chicago Tribune for “the most beautiful and eye-catching office building in the world.” The construction finished in 1925, complete with ornate buttresses surrounding the peak of the tower (especially visible when the tower is lit at night), as well as sculptures and decorations such as a carved image of Robin Hood and a howling dog. The base of the Tribune Tower contains over 120 stones from important locations all around the world, including the Parthenon in Greece, the pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India, the Alamo in San Antonio, the Great Wall of China, and Injun Joe Cave in Missouri.
With its gleaming curves and multi-tiered setbacks, the Trump International Hotel and Tower re-invigorated Chicago’s super tower scene when it was finished in 2009. It was the first major new tower to touch the city’s skyline in more than 20 years. It’s the second tallest building in Chicago, after Willis Tower; the residential units on the 89th floor broke a 37-year world record held by the John Hancock Center for the world’s highest homes off ground level. The asymmetric shape of the building, made of concrete instead of steel, gives it a different appearance from each angle, and the setbacks provide visual continuity with its surroundings, matching the heights of the Wrigley Building’s main block, the twin towers of Marina City, and the IBM building. It apparently took the designers over 50 models of the building to get the design right – all worth the stunning result.
Aqua Photo credit: George Showman
John Hancock Center Photo credit: Basil D Soufi
Chicago Board of Trade Photo credit: Daniel Schwen
Willis Tower Photo credit: Soakologist
Tribune Tower Photo credit: Luke Gordon
Chicago Loop view of the Trump International Hotel and Tower from Wabash Avenue. Photo credit: John Picken
Guest Author Bio
Alicia Russo is the Director of Social Media for CityPASS. With the Chicago CityPASS you can see the top attractions in Chicago for less. Visit our plan your visit to Chicago page for help planning a trip you’ll never forget.