Chicago Architecture

Chicago is world-famous for its architecture. Some of the most inventive architects and creative artists at work throughout the 19thand 20thcenturies called Chicago home, and as a result the city is the site of some of the most beautiful, original, and memorable buildings you’ll encounter in your travels. With the notable exception of a few scattered buildings, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the majority of the city’s downtown area. As tragic as this event was, it gave architects in the Chicago area at the time a relative blank slate with which to work. The result was a nearly unprecedented period of remarkable architectural activity.

Chicago is the birthplace of the modern skyscraper, as it was here in 1885 that the Home Insurance Building, the world’s first significant structure to use steel in its frame, was built. Less than a decade later in 1893, Chicago would host the World’s Fair, where the influential vision of Daniel Burnham would reach a global audience. In the years to come, Chicago would be at the forefront of multiple trends in urban design. It was here that Louis Sullivan worked to craft his vision of the modern skyscraper, Frank Lloyd Wright strove to perfect his mature Prairie style, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe aimed to push the boundaries of architectural form with his sleek-yet-exacting modernist plans.

In more contemporary times, Chicago has remained at the forefront of architectural trends and urban planning, with its skyline a consistent source of pride for locals and admiration by visitors. When it was finished in 1973, the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world—a designation it would hold for an impressive quarter-century. In 2004, Millennium Park opened to rave reviews, redefining what a public park space could be. Today, the city remains a vibrant place for architectural ingenuity and daring civic design.

Here are a few of the most famous architectural landmarks in Chicago.

Sears Tower (now Willis Tower): For 25 years this iconic structure stood as the tallest building in the world. Today, over one million people each year enjoy the spectacular views on display from its observation deck.

John Hancock CenterLocated right on Michigan Avenue, the approximately 1150-foot-tall John Hancock Center has been a popular destination for visitors to the Magnificent Mile for over 50 years.

Aon Center: The Aon Center is the third-tallest building in Chicago. Its distinctive white granite façade has been one of the most prominent features of Chicago’s skyline since the structure’s completion in 1973.

Tribune Tower: This gothic tower was completed in 1925 to serve as the headquarters of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper may have moved on, but the historic building remains a Michigan Avenue landmark.

And some of the city’s most iconic or notable architects include:

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: One of the 20thCentury’s most influential modernist architects, Mies van der Rohe lived and worked in Chicago for over thirty years. His buildings can be seen throughout the city.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Possibly the most famous American architect ever, Wright’s designs can be found throughout the greater Chicago area. His home/studio in Oak Park, just outside of Chicago, is open to the public.

Daniel Burnham: Burnham was a tremendously influential architectural figure in Chicago’s history. He is best known for designing the iconic 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago, and authoring 1909 “Plan of Chicago.”

Louis Sullivan: Sullivan is often called the “Father of the Skyscraper” for his important work in popularizing the now-legendary structure. He was also a powerful influence on the career of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Helmut Jahn: Jahn is another acclaimed architect based in Chicago. He has created designs for buildings throughout the world. In Chicago, his most famous works include the James R. Thompson Center and One South Wacker.

Frank Gehry: One of the world’s foremost living architects, Gehry’s ties to Chicago include his designs for Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park and the BP Pedestrian Bridge that links Millennium Park to Maggie Daley Park.

Rem Koolhaas: Internationally acclaimed architect Rem Koolhaas has designed buildings all over the world, including the McCormick Tribune Campus Center on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

If you’re interested in learning more about Chicago’s architectural history, here are some institutions that you can visit.

Chicago Architecture CenterThis well-regarded non-profit organization works diligently to honor and preserve Chicago’s many architectural marvels. They routinely run educational events and informative tours that shed light on Chicago’s remarkable urban design.

Chicago History MuseumThis museum’s collection dates to 1856, when the Chicago Historical Society was founded. Today it is known as the Chicago History Museum, and is home to a variety of special artifacts and exhibits.