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Architect Explores Chicago's Hidden Architecture & History

Today on AD Architect Lynda Dossey leads us on a walking tour of Chicago, highlighting the captivating details found in its storied architecture.

Released on 11/15/2022


I'm Lynda Dossey, I'm an architect,

and today, we'll be taking an architectural walking tour

of the Loop in downtown Chicago.

[slow jazz piano music]

In the early 1880s and through 1900,

during the first economic boom of Chicago,

all the train lines were built in the Loop

to, sort of, demarcate the downtown area.

[slow jazz piano music]

We are standing in front of the Monadnock building.

It was completed in 1891,

and it is the last, possibly,

but definitely the tallest,

fully masonry, load-bearing high rise.

It caps out at 291 feet

and, pretty much, met the limit that you could go for height

for a true, load-bearing structure.

You can track how the loads are translated vertically

by looking at the windows at the top

where the depth of the thickness of the wall

is only 18 inches.

But by the time we come down to the base level,

the walls are six feet thick

and they actually get thicker below grade

working their way to a raft foundation

that's sitting on Chicago's marshy soil.

At the entrance, they used granite

to, sort of, demarcate where you go in

and carved the name onto the building,

but all the rest of it is brick,

layered upon layer upon layer upon layer,

and it gives this, sort of, sculptural quality

as though the whole building has been carved from clay,

just because of the uniformity of the material.

The majority of the buildings at the time

were highly articulated.

The original design of this building

was intended to face over the brick

with a highly ornate Egyptian motif,

however, other people in the firm, and the owner,

decided to leave it as is showing the raw form

and the raw materiality of the building.

So, the oriel bays, and also the tri-part window,

where you have the central window

with the two flanking windows,

is a very typical style for the First Chicago School,

here in Chicago,

that began with the first round of skyscrapers

in the 1880s to the 1900s.

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We're in front of the Inland Steel building.

It's the first building that was built in the Loop

in over 20 years and it was completed in 1958.

As the headquarters of the Inland Steel

manufacturing company and steel provider,

they wished the building to express

all the many products and services that they offered.

So, as a consequence,

they made the decision to use brush stainless steel

over their entire facade with glass.

It marks an extreme departure

from the majority of buildings

that had been built in the Loop to that time.

Up until this point, most of the high rises here in the Loop

were all masonry or terracotta clad or stone clad

on top of a steel frame construction.

In this building, you can see the steel

on the exterior of the building

and it's clad solely in glass.

There's no motifs, there's no ornament.

It's just stripped down raw materials

as minimally as possible.

This stripped down, minimalist, pure brute form

is, kind of, what defines the Second Chicago School.

It espoused upon many of the ideas that Mies van der Rohe

had been sprinkling around Chicago in some of his own works.

The columns were all articulated

along the edge of the floor plate

and long span beams were installed between the columns

which means there are no interior columns

and it is one big floor plate of nothing

to lay out for office space.

The express structure on the outside of the building

as the aesthetic ended up being, kind of,

a defining moment of the American skyscraper

moving forward after World War II.

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We're across river from Marina City,

one of Chicago's cities within the city.

Marina City was the first post World War II complex.

It houses retail, a marina, an office building,

a movie theater, and a skating rink, when built,

but it was capped off by these amazing residential towers

that are just striking.

When completed, the towers were the tallest,

residential tower in the world,

but also the tallest reinforced concrete building

in the world.

If you were to compare and contrast this building

to the other buildings in the area,

in the 1960s was an exploration of concrete

in the Beton Brut form, as a high rise here.

This is, kind of, pushing past

the original Beton Brut aesthetic

into something more elegant.

But unlike the other systems,

of where you're framing with steel, which has to be square,

concrete allows you great fluidity of form.

That's clearly evident

when you look at the structural ribs and cantilevering

that's happening.

You can see the beams coming up off of the columns,

springing and curving around, creating the actual structure

that keeps the cantilever spanning.

The uses of the buildings have evolved now

so that the office building is now a hotel,

the movie theater is now a performing arts venue,

and the skating rink is gone and replaced by a restaurant,

but the marina is still active,

and the housing towers are still

some of the most amazing views and apartments in the city.

[slow jazz piano music]

So, the building behind me, mostly above me,

is the Willis Tower,

although most locals will refer to it as the Sears Tower

because it was built by the Sears Roebuck Company

as their headquarters.

They had to buy 15 different buildings,

and pay the city $2.7 million,

to close and decommission a street,

so they could put together two whole city blocks.

During the process,

they discovered that the bundled tube system

is the most efficient way to build tall.

You have one square in the center

that's, sort of, being braced

by all the surrounding squares.

So, as you look at this building,

there's one square that will continue up

to the very top of the building,

and, as the other ones come on,

it starts to self buttress itself all the way down

and the floor plates get smaller and smaller.

There is a local story

that they bundled together nine cigars

in the office one night and pulled them up

to the highest that they wanted,

and that's how they determined the final design

of the top of the building.

For 25 years, this was the tallest building in the world,

and it is still the tallest building in Chicago.

For tourists, you can go up to the observatory floors

where they've added, recently,

a new feature called the ledge.

If you look closely at the very top of the building,

you, sort of, see these glass boxes

protruding out of the facade

and you can look through a glass floor all the way down.

[slow jazz piano music]

We're standing in front of the Thompson Center,

formerly the State of Illinois Building.

It was built by Helmut Jahn and completed in 1984.

He won a design competition

and his competition was, let's just say,

less conventional than the others that were submitted.

The building relies on an extruded donut plan

taking up the whole site,

but then it carves away the whole south eastern facade,

opening up to the government buildings

that are catty-cornered opposite the street,

and it also allows pedestrians on the outside

to be able to look in and see their government at work.

The whole concept was this idea

of transparency in government.

The color scheme is one of those things

that is frequently debated amongst Chicagoans,

but the general idea was it was red, white, and blue.

As part of that carve on the southeast corner,

the facade also tilts its way back,

which actually allows more light into the atrium,

but it also allows a relief to the city blocks around us.

All of these buildings are very square and tall

and they just, kind of, compress you in.

So, by carving the building back,

you're creating a relief for everyone on the plaza.

The glass is a mix of many different types of glass,

so some of it's reflective, some of it is clear,

some of it is Spandrel glass, which is back painted,

some of it is metal panel that's glazed in

to give the pattern across the surface.

The building also ties into the CTA Clark station,

which is the one of the busiest CTA stations in town,

as all the train lines in the Loop come to it,

including the Blue Line that runs out to O'Hare.

This is the point of departure into the downtown area.

If you walk up to the building,

you can get a glimpse into the atrium,

and you can see all the exposed structure

that's holding up the atrium blazing,

and also all the different balconies

and interconnecting stairs

between the levels inside the atrium.

So, it's a very super tech kind of building.

All the structure is exposed and revealed

and it's telling you the story

of how the building is put together.

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We're standing in front of Aqua Towers,

completed in 2009 by Studio Gang architects,

headed by the design efforts of Jeanne Gang.

It is world famous and well known for its undulating facade.

The facade is not random.

The idea was to stretch out the balconies

as far as you could,

to look around all the forest of other high rises

around here to seek a better view

for something else in the city.

The other benefit of all those towers

is it breaks up the facade,

which also breaks up the reflections on the glass,

actually making this high rise bird friendly

to the point that PETA awarded it its Proggy award,

also in 2009.

The building was not performed

in any sort of three dimensional CAD.

The curves were mostly followed along by hand

on trace paper, similar to how one might do animation.

[slow jazz piano music]

Right now we're in front of 150 North Riverside,

completed in 2017 by Goettsch Partners,

and Magnusson Klemencic as the structural engineers.

This building is rather remarkable

in the sense that it's on a lot that nobody wanted

because they thought it was too hard to build on.

25% of the lot is allowed to be built on.

That's the only part of the building that touches the ground

and actually goes down into foundations.

A part of that is a consequence of the fact

of the riverfront setback requirement by the City,

that's occurring on this side,

that sets the building back 75 feet from the river's edge.

On the other side, were the Amtrak train lines

that prevented any structure coming through down below,

and limited what could be built up above.

From level eight down to level four,

are cantilevering columns,

that are bracketing the floor plates back to the core,

and holding the whole system up.

For this reason, a lot of the locals refer to it,

alternately, as the Guillotine and the Tuning Fork

and the Champagne Flute

'cause we are fond of nicknaming our buildings here.

But it's an amazing feat of engineering

and this building has already won countless awards

for both design and engineering.

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