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In Chicago, the Great Fire of 1871 destroyed 2,100 acres and 18,000 buildings at the core of the growing, industrious city, eventually clearing the way for a grand building experiment in modern design: the skyscraper. Chicago’s role as an incubator of modern and contemporary architecture — it’s home to both the first skyscraper and the architects who designed the tallest current examples — has long been acknowledged. But since 1966, the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) has championed the city as an unparalleled American center of design, sending millions of patrons to fan out across the city on docent-led walking, boating and train tours that revel in Chicago’s building history.
In 2018, the center bolstered its case by opening an expanded, nearly 10,000-square-foot museum fronting the Chicago River in a modernist landmark building fittingly designed by the mid-century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. While the center is rooted in Chicago’s architectural contributions, it also examines global design in airy galleries with 26-foot ceilings. You’ll see scale models of such international icons as New York’s Chrysler Building and the world’s tallest buildings, including the roughly 2,700-foot Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the not-yet-built 3,280-foot Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, both designed by Chicago architect Adrian Smith.
“We tell the story of the race to the top,” says Lynn Osmond, the CAC’s president and CEO, noting that the center traces the genre’s progression starting with the first skyscraper, the now-demolished Home Insurance Building, built in 1885. “You’re almost dwarfed by these models that are incredible works of art.”
That visceral sense of the power of monumental buildings, even those in the past or far away, continues in the center’s Chicago City Model Experience, a 1:50 scale model of the city with more than 4,200 3D-printed buildings (the Willis Tower, Chicago’s tallest, stands 3 feet tall in the diorama). A film-and-light show dramatizes the scope of the blaze that led to this building boom. “We burn down the city every seven minutes,” jokes Osmond.
Interactive exhibits introduce the famous designers associated with Chicago, including Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. The Me to We gallery explores the future of cities everywhere and what that means for buildings, infrastructure and people. “In 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities,” says Osmond. “We will go from being individuals to being a collective.”
An exhibit on vernacular architecture — the bungalows, Victorians and two-flats seen in Chicago neighborhoods — helps orient you to the city’s varied looks before you set out on any of the CAC’s 85 unique guided tours. That includes the center’s signature, guide-led 90-minute ride on the Chicago River. Across the street from the center, board the Chicago’s First Lady tour boat for fantastic views of the skyscraper canyon, walled by such landmarks as the corncob-shaped Marina Towers and the white terra-cotta Wrigley Building.
Most of its other tours require walking a mile or two, but on some you travel by bus or on the city’s signature elevated train, the “L,” which puts you at eye level with office dwellers and reveals building details hard to see from the street. You’ll head into the neighborhoods — from the oldest-money Gold Coast on the North Side to Hyde Park on the South Side, site of the 1893 World’s Fair — to walk the streets with docents.
Osmond suggests going out into the neighborhoods and doing one of the city’s cemetery tours. She recommends Graceland Cemetery on the North Side, resting place of city legends including retailer Marshall Field and railroad magnate George Pullman, with lavish monuments designed by the likes of architect Louis Sullivan and sculptor Lorado Taft. “You not only get to see an entirely different neighborhood but you get to hear the stories of all the amazing icons of Chicago buried there.”