Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago’s Architectural Masterpieces
Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - The Chicago School of Architecture
Chicago is renowned worldwide for its iconic architecture, and much of the city's distinctive aesthetic can be attributed to the Chicago School. Emerging in the late 19th century, the Chicago School was one of the first uniquely American movements in architecture, breaking from old European styles to forge a visionary path forward.
At the core of the Chicago School was the idea that a building's form should follow its function. Instead of overlaying classical ornamentation, architects focused on rational designs which leveraged modern construction methods like steel framing. This enabled the creation of skyscrapers, allowing unprecedented vertical growth within Chicago's downtown.
Early influencers like John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham paved the way for the Chicago School's emergence. But it was Louis Sullivan who became its greatest champion. Sullivan's forward-thinking philosophy is best encapsulated by his quote "form ever follows function." His streamlined, ornate-free designs for commercial buildings helped define the Chicago Style.
Sullivan's protégé Frank Lloyd Wright then took the ethos of the Chicago School beyond commercial architecture into homes. Wright's Prairie Style houses embodied organic forms and open floor plans, revolutionizing residential design. Buildings like the Robie House and Unity Temple became icons of the movement.
As the 20th century progressed, the Chicago School waned as architectural fashions changed. But its legacy looms large throughout Chicagoland. From the terra-cotta clad Wrigley Building to the art deco Tribune Tower, commercial architecture continues to reflect those early innovations. And Frank Lloyd Wright's influence persists in the work of modern architects.
For architecture buffs, the best way to experience the Chicago School is up close. Guided tours from the Chicago Architecture Center offer insights on legendary buildings. Or take an architectural river cruise along the Chicago River downtown to witness the soaring steel and glass façades. From the ground, the Chicago School skyscrapers live up to their ambitious vertical designs.
What else is in this post?
- Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - The Chicago School of Architecture
- Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style Homes
- Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Mies van der Rohe's Less is More Aesthetic
- Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Art Deco Skyscrapers of the Loop
- Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Neo-Gothic Churches and Cathedrals
- Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Louis Sullivan's Form Follows Function
- Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Daniel Burnham's City Beautiful Movement
- Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Modern Marvels like the Willis Tower
Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style Homes
Of all the architects who emerged from the Chicago School, none is more synonymous with American architecture than Frank Lloyd Wright. Though he started his career firmly within the Chicago Style, Wright eventually forged his own distinctive aesthetic known as the Prairie School. And through his residential projects, he brought the Chicago School's principles of simplicity and function into the realm of single-family homes.
Wright's Prairie Style homes embodied his vision of "organic architecture" - buildings designed in harmony with their natural settings. To achieve this, Wright did away with the ornate trim and classical motifs of Victorian homes. Instead he opted for long horizontal lines, low-pitched roofs, and open floor plans which blurred the division between indoor and outdoor space.
Natural materials were critical in Wright's Prairie Style. Local brick, wood, and stone lent an earthy, textural quality. And the use of repetition and geometry in windows and other details underscored the careful integration of parts into a unified whole.
Some of Wright's most iconic Prairie Style projects dot Chicagoland, offering architecture buffs the chance to step inside his vision. The Frederick C. Robie House in Hyde Park is considered his masterwork. Built in 1910, the Robie House encapsulates Wright's philosophy with its cantilevered roof,expansive art glass windows, and open flowing spaces.
Oak Park, Wright's longtime home, contains the greatest concentration of his Prairie works. Here you can tour the Winslow House, renowned for its hearth-oriented floor plan, or Unity Temple, which pioneered modern reinforced concrete architecture.
Beyond the Chicago area, projects like the Martin House in Buffalo, NY and the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, NY also provide immersive Wright experiences. Though diverse in form, they unite in showcasing Wright's mission to meld architecture with nature through clean lines, spaciousness, and natural light.
Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Mies van der Rohe's Less is More Aesthetic
As the Prairie Style waned in the late 1920s, another modern vision emerged in architecture - the International Style. And in Chicago, no architect came to define this new aesthetic more than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
German-born Mies was a legendary figure in European modernism before fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and moving to Chicago. There, he took up a directorship at the Armour Institute of Technology (later IIT), designing its iconic modernist campus. This cemented his influence over a generation of American architects.
Mies' architectural philosophy represented a radical departure from the Chicago School. In place of decorative ornamentation and reference to nature, his designs pursued an aesthetic of pristine lines, pure geometry, and open transparent spaces. As he famously stated, "less is more."
This minimalist approach is evident throughout Mies' projects. Exteriors feature little more than steel, glass, and concrete, stripped of unnecessary elements. Floor plans emphasize openness and flexibility through use of moveable interior walls. Details are sparse, but chosen with artful precision - a signature Mies element is the crosswise I-beam, adding visual interest through carefully composed shadow lines.
Mies' "skin and bones" architecture, as it came to be known, reached its apex in the 1950s and 60s. His most iconic buildings from this period include Crown Hall at IIT and the Seagram Building in New York. These structures exemplify his mastery of glass curtain walls and structural clarity.
In Chicago, architecture enthusiasts can witness Mies' genius firsthand at IIT. A campus tour showcases his signature style in the signature Crown Hall - an open, flexible classroom space framed by enormous glass facades. The 1962 Alumni Memorial Hall is also a standout, its black steel and glass form embodying the International Style ethos.
Beyond IIT, Mies' 860–880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments offer a glimpse of how his minimalist aesthetic translated to residential spaces. These pristine white towers contrast dramatically with the ornate Beaux-Arts architecture along nearby North Michigan Avenue.
Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Art Deco Skyscrapers of the Loop
As architectural fashion moved from the minimalism of the International Style toward more decorative aesthetics in the 1920s, Chicago’s skyscrapers underwent another dramatic transformation – into towering Art Deco monuments.
The Loop, as Chicago’s downtown is known, contains one of the world’s greatest collections of Art Deco high-rise architecture. Walking these bustling streets, you can’t help but crane your neck skyward to admire the bold vertical lines, sleek geometric shapes, and lavish ornamentation of buildings like the Chicago Board of Trade, 35 East Wacker, and the Carbide & Carbon Building.
After the sober functionality of the Chicago School designs, the Art Deco movement represented an exuberant return to imaginative styles with a hint of escapism. Fueled by the Roaring Twenties boom, developers wanted eye-catching prestige projects, and Art Deco delivered with its lavish terra cotta friezes, brightly colored bricks, rich marble facades, and sleek copper and stainless steel trims.
Yet the whimsy of Art Deco was underpinned by Chicago School principles – form still followed function, just wrapped in more lavish packaging. Setbacks, towers, and vertical piers maintained visual interest while allowing sunlight to reach the streets. And new zoning laws encouraged bold vertical expressions with striking silhouettes.
Architects relished the chance to incorporate exotic motifs drawn from ancient cultures like Egypt, Mesoamerica, and India. Sphinxes, jaguars, and elephants peer down from facades alongside stylized plants and geometric designs. The fusion of imagery evoked far-flung travels in the Jazz Age.
The 35 East Wacker Building is one of the most breathtaking embodiments of this style. Its green terra cotta facing shimmers in the sunlight between bold vertical piers. Exotic Mayan relief panels depict scenes like an elephant hunt, while the upper stories display a bright mosaic frieze of geometric flowers. It’s a true vertical delight.
Another icon is the Carbide & Carbon Building, designed to resemble a crystal champagne bottle. Its dark green exterior and gilded gold top mimic the drink, while its base is adorned with glowing art deco illuminations at night.
Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Neo-Gothic Churches and Cathedrals
Beyond the steel and glass towers, Chicago's skyline is also defined by soaring spires and intricate ornamentation - the Neo-Gothic places of worship built by its faithful communities. As waves of immigrants arrived from Europe in the late 19th century, houses of worship were among the first civic monuments erected. And architects found inspiration in medieval cathedrals, creating contemporary American versions from modern materials like steel and terracotta.
The Neo-Gothic style is characterized by its references to medieval Gothic architecture in elements like pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and spires. But instead of heavy stone, these ambitious structures exploit modern skeletal framing to reach skyward. Inside, they mimic the grandeur and splendor of Europe's cathedrals with soaring naves, stained glass, and ornate finishes.
Two prime examples crown the city's skyline - the Second Presbyterian Church with its ornate 330-foot spire, and St. Michael's Church in Old Town with its iconic 196-foot tower. Up close, take time to admire the intricate terracotta relief work adorning their facades. From scenes of saints and angels to floral and geometric designs, these decorations reference Gothic tradition in contemporary form.
But the crown jewel is undoubtedly the immense Saints Peter and Paul Church in West Loop. Completed in 1891, its skyscraping spires reach over 300 feet high, making it one of Chicago's tallest structures. The ambitious interior reflects this scale with towering arches and massive stained glass depictions of saints stretched across the nave. Often nicknamed "The Cathedral of the West," it stands as a monument to 19th century audacity and faith, a contemporary Gothic wonder.
Beyond individual monuments, some of Chicago's most charming neighborhoods showcase Neo-Gothic architecture on a community scale. Take a stroll through areas like Wicker Park, Noble Square, and Andersonville to witness entire streetscapes of steep gables, arched doorways, and intricate brick facades adorning row houses and apartment blocks. While modest individually, together they evoke the Gothic urbanism of medieval Europe transplanted to the Midwest.
Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Louis Sullivan's Form Follows Function
No other architect encapsulates the ethos of the Chicago School more than Louis Sullivan. His built works and philosophical ideals helped define what became known as the Chicago Style during its formative era. Sullivan's most famous quote, “form ever follows function,” perfectly captures his belief that a building’s design should be shaped purely by its intended purpose, not unnecessary ornamentation.
Throughout his early career, Sullivan had the opportunity to put this philosophy into practice as he collaborated on ever larger commercial projects in Chicago. Buildings like the Wainwright Building in St. Louis and the Guaranty Building in Buffalo NY exemplify his restrained, functionalist approach for skyscrapers. Exteriors feature a stripped-down classically inspired tripartite form of base, shaft, and capital. Ornamentation is limited to evocative geometric and plant-inspired designs that accentuate structural or functional features. For Sullivan, decoration should serve to highlight, not obscure, a building’s intended use.
Sullivan’s most iconic building is the Carson Pirie Scott department store on Chicago’s State Street - considered his creative pinnacle before his eventual decline. The lower stories feature grand display windows to entice shoppers inside. The central mass rises in a solid vertical shaft. And the upper floors evoke the building's commercial purpose through a crown of delicate metalwork reminiscent of intricately woven textiles and garments for sale within. Form indeed follows function.
Sullivan’s interiors were equally radical, presaging modern open concept designs. For spaces like the Trading Room in the Chicago Stock Exchange, Sullivan did away with isolated offices. Instead, he created a unified, flexible space through use of structural steel supports, expansive windows, and an uncluttered floor plan optimized for trading activities.
Though Sullivan’s buildings were initially controversial, his rational designs helped liberate American architecture from rigid Victorian styles ill-suited to emerging building types like skyscrapers. By proving ornament did not need to mask structural realities, Sullivan paved the way for the clean-lined Modernism that followed.
Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Daniel Burnham's City Beautiful Movement
Of all Daniel Burnham’s contributions to Chicago’s architectural legacy, perhaps none is more impactful than the City Beautiful Movement he helped spearhead at the turn of the 20th century. This urban planning philosophy shaped the metropolis we know today.
At its core, the City Beautiful Movement sought to address issues emerging from rapid, haphazard urbanization. As Chicago boomed in population, problems like congestion, pollution, and disease threatened quality of life. City Beautiful aimed to combat these through conscientious design, creating beautiful civic spaces that uplifted the human spirit.
Burnham first expressed this vision in his famed 1909 Plan of Chicago. It called for grand neoclassical monuments, lush parks, stately municipal buildings, and Parisian-style boulevards. Beauty and order would reign in place of grime and gloom.
Much of the plan was implemented over the following decades. The double-decker Wacker Drive along the Chicago River came to fruition, as did expansions of Grant and Lincoln Parks along the lakefront. Burnham’s most iconic contribution was the creation of North Michigan Avenue as a splendid bifurcated boulevard studded with Beaux-Arts monuments like the Michigan Avenue Bridge, Tribune Tower, and Chicago Water Tower.
Beyond infrastructure, City Beautiful’s influence shaped cultural institutions. The Municipal Pier (now Navy Pier) debuted as a monumental public pleasure pavilion. Adler Planetarium's symmetrical classical facade evoked Greek temples. The Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium added neoclassical grandeur to the lakeshore.
For Burnham, architecture and urban design could uplift the human spirit, driving social progress. By designing spaces that inspired awe and civic pride, people from all walks of life would feel dignity. Critics argued City Beautiful represented elite interests rather than genuine social change. But its vision successfully transformed Chicago from ramshackle frontier town to orderly metropolitan marvel.
The movement waned by the 1920s, as modernism supplanted neoclassicism in architecture. But the civic ambition and humanistic spirit behind City Beautiful still resonates in 21st century urban planning. Whenever architecture is leveraged to enrich communities, whether through green space, public transit, or amenities, Burnham’s progressivism shines through. The built environment’s profound impact on quality of life remains integral to urbanism.
Windy City Wonders: 13 Ways to Marvel at Chicago's Architectural Masterpieces - Modern Marvels like the Willis Tower
While the classic icons of the Chicago School, Art Deco, and other bygone eras define much of the Windy City’s architectural character, the skyline continues to evolve with contemporary projects. And the city boasts one structure which encapsulates modernist audacity - the Willis Tower.
Formerly known as the Sears Tower, this immense 108-story structure reigned as the world’s tallest building for over two decades after its 1973 completion. It remains the second tallest in the Americas today behind only One World Trade Center.
But beyond its superlative status, Willis Tower embodies multiple architectural firsts. Its bundled tube structural system was unprecedented in scale. Multiple steel tube cores work in unison to distribute stresses and support the immense height. This innovative framing enabled a record 1,450 foot height.
Visually, the design represents a marked departure from both classic Chicago School logic and the Miesian glass box aesthetic. Shimmering black aluminum and bronze glass sheath the structure in sleek, abstract minimalism - a sheer veil devoid of any reference to traditional architecture. Form no longer follows function. Instead, cutting-edge technologies and materials create a new architectural vocabulary.
While groundbreaking structurally, the Willis Tower was equally radical in its treatment of interior space. The design did away with a traditional central core, utilizing multiple distributed cores spaced along the perimeter to maximize open floor space. This created some of the world’s largest and most flexible commercial floors at the time - over an acre per floor.
For the public, the Willis Tower’s main attraction is its Skydeck on the 103rd floor. 1.5 million annual visitors take in the gut-dropping views from glass balconies extending 4 feet outside the building’s face. The recent addition of a thrill ride called The Ledge takes the experience even further, with guests enclosed in a glass box that extends from the Skydeck out into thin air. Definitely not for the faint of heart!
While the hyper-modern Willis Tower shocked some Chicagoans upon its completion, it has come to represent the city’s enduring ambition to push the boundaries of architecture ever skyward. The spirit behind early Chicago School innovators carries forward into cutting-edge projects that continue to rewrite the rulebooks of structural engineering and expressive form.