Skip to main content

Curious City

Chicago Architects: Why the City’s New Buildings Don’t Look Like Its Classics

Editor's note: This piece was produced in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which provided research, expertise and other assistance during its development.

Rachel Glick recently moved to Oak Park from the West Coast. Visiting downtown, she was quickly struck by the diversity of building types of Chicago. We have Art Deco, neo-classical, modernist, and contemporary buildings sometimes within the same block. And while Chicago’s architecture is famed for this kind of diversity, Rachel found herself disenchanted by the stylistic hodgepodge. She thought many of Chicago’s newest buildings had a generic style you can see in any modern city. After travelling overseas and seeing cities in Israel and Italy with city-wide buildings styles, sometimes enforced by city codes, she wondered why Chicago architecture doesn’t honor its past more:

If historic architecture in Chicago is so celebrated and admired, why don't we build more new buildings just like those beautiful historic ones?

Architects have always wrestled with some version of Rachel’s question. Should buildings emulate the forms of the past, or should they innovate and create an aesthetic unique to the era and the society in which they are built? What role do new materials, new technologies, and new expectations play in determining how a building should look? And what does it mean for a building to be considered “beautiful” anyway?

Rachel’s question is an opportunity to consider Chicago’s contemporary landscape. Rachel’s question comes up often during tours conducted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. An exploration of the answer can — ironically — lead to a greater appreciation of contemporary buildings. Judging a building to be “ugly” or “boring” is part of the fun of looking at architecture, so we encourage you to be critical. However, if you understand the reasons a particular building looks a particular way, a building you once dismissed as “ugly” may get an upgrade to “interestingly ugly.”

There are reasons — practical, aesthetic, philosophical — today’s buildings look the way to do. To better understand those reasons, we’ve talked to some of the people responsible for recent buildings. We have assembled a virtual panel of living experts to answer four questions that get at the heart of Rachel’s broader question. Rachel accompanied us during several interviews, and her perspective has evolved, so we invited her to answer the same questions as our panel of expert practitioners.

What are the three most beautiful buildings in Chicago?

Ann Thompson: In answering this, I am focusing on the word ‘beautiful’ ... and it is very hard to limit it to three! Wrigley Building, Louis Sullivan’s Krause Music Store, Jay Pritzker PavilionSpertus Institute.

Brad Lynch:  In chronological order: The Rookery, Robie House, Inland Steel Building

Mark Sexton: It's equivalent to asking what three parts of your body do you like the most. The Inland Steel Building is an incredible building that looks better today than perhaps the day it opened. The Hancock Building is just an incredibly impressive building. I look at Hancock as the ultimate embodiment of the function and structure of the building becoming its architecture; being beautiful and totally functional. It has an incredible image whether you’re far, medium, or up close. I would say the Daley Center and I would say Marina City. I end with four of the most beautiful buildings in the city of Chicago.

Joe Antunovich: The Reliance Building, the Robie House, the Tribune Tower. And the Wrigley Building. And the Farnsworth House. If you ask me three most beautiful buildings in Chicago I'll respond with the five. Two of those are amongst the finest houses built in the world of the 20th century. But all have spectacular detailing. All have impeccable quality. All have attention to detail that's remarkable.

Rachel Glick: The Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, Aqua.

What relationship should new buildings have to the past?

Joe Antunovich: New buildings, when located In historic neighborhoods or adjacent to historic neighborhoods, should respect the scale, texture, and overall context of the historic makeup of the neighborhood. The quality of the materials and the quality of the finishes and the overall quality of the architecture should be comparable to the quality of the historic buildings that are adjacent to the new buildings.

Mark Sexton:  A new building should learn from the past. It should be inspired by the past. I think it can spring from the past. The one thing I wouldn't do is copy the past.

Ann Thompson: Robert A.M. Stern says that “architecture is a conversation across time.”  Architecture is part of a continuum of thought, a product of its past and a reflection of the present. All new buildings are naturally related to what came before. The question is with what confidence and quality of thought do they move the conversation forward.

Rachel Glick: New buildings should incorporate the buildings around them into their design. I think the architects look to the past and see what worked: What styles we still love and what styles are functional and make sense.

Brad Lynch: If I Google that question, the first response is: “Don’t let your past relationships affect your present one.” This is probably true for architecture as well.

What are the challenges in designing buildings inspired by historic architecture?

Ann Thompson: The challenge in designing buildings inspired by the past is largely economic. We associate historic Chicago architecture with ornament, stone cladding, varied fenestration, setbacks — all expensive elements. Not all buildings can support the cost of these elements. Apart from the additional material cost of limestone over precast concrete, the added detail requires more time for design, coordination and execution. These costs escalate quickly in a large-scale building.

Joe Antunovich: Duplicating historic architecture so that it meets precisely adjacent or neighborhood historic buildings is very difficult to do these days because those historic buildings are very, very expensive to duplicate. You do see this achieved at many universities where the architecture of the campus is continued. And they are good examples of how historic buildings can be continued and emulated. However, in a neighborhood where a developer is building a building or a community is building a community center, to emulate the exact architecture of these historic districts is just financially beyond the pocketbook of most people involved.

Mark Sexton: There's nothing inherently challenging designing buildings inspired by historic architecture. The classic skyscrapers of Chicago developed more than a hundred  years ago all have a base, a middle, and a top. They have a particular expression of the skyline. All of that is still completely relevant. Being inspired is appropriate. It's when you actually take it and say "I'm going to make it appear to be historic architecture” that you run into challenges.

Think about operable windows. In the 1920s, you needed to open windows for ventilation. Modern office buildings are air conditioned. So adding a window that looks operable, or is operable, runs the risk of being superfluous and unneeded.

Just about every building has a tight budget, and when you add a superfluous detail, like a historic-looking window, you may be adding material or decreasing performance. I think we need to look for solutions that minimize material and maximize performance. I don’t believe nostalgia should be a driving force in design.

Brad Lynch: One should not mimic, one should only find inspiration. Although if you must have an answer to the question, I suppose you could say that finding the appropriate balance of historical inspiration without copying or mimicking is the challenge.

There is a big difference between evoking a historical influence, and mimicking a historical building type. As an example, for seven hundred years, the architecture of Venice was influenced by Islamic architecture as much as it was by Byzantine. There are no copies of great Islamic buildings in Venice; yet, the overall fabric of buildings in Venice is unique to the region because of that influence. When the modernist architect Carlo Scarpa worked in Venice in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s in and around these buildings, he created a sophisticated balance between a modern approach and respecting the historic structure through details and materials, but never by copying.

How does today’s generation of new buildings stack up, compared with Chicago’s history of great architecture?

Brad Lynch: As a percentage of construction, I believe it is unchanged over the decades — that only five percent of the buildings built are memorable or of good design. The problem today is that there are so many tall buildings being built that the 95 percent of mediocre or bad buildings are more prominent on the skyline than they have ever been before.

Mark Sexton:  Most buildings being built today don't stack up to the historic architecture of the past. An example of a great building that does stack up is the Trump Tower. I think it will stand the test of time, and will be looked at 50 years from now as an example of what Chicago was doing at the beginning of the 21st century. But when we talk about the historic architecture of the past, we're looking at just the great buildings like the Tribune Tower,  Wrigley Building, the Reliance Building or the Monadnock. The majority of buildings that are built, whether they're historic or contemporary, are mediocre at best.

Ann Thompson: The architecture of our generation confidently continues the history of great architecture in Chicago. I believe we should be proud of the legacy we are continuing.  A number of notable buildings built over the last ten years, including projects currently in design, will move the conversation forward in a significant way. That being said, for the legacy to continue Chicagoans need to demand better design throughout the city and its neighborhoods.

Joe Antunovich: I think there are a number of excellent new buildings that have been built in the city: buildings that reflect the modern epoch, modern technology and modern design aesthetic. But I think that many times modern buildings, when they're placed within historic districts or historic neighborhoods, do not reflect the surrounding culture of the architecture.

Rachel Glick: Right now it seems like a little bit of golden age. The Trump Tower and a few others have a very iconic feel. But they still don't stack up to what was done before. Today's buildings are big and mighty, whereas the historic ones are not quite as grand, but they're certainly more ornate, and they made a statement with their details.

Our Panel of Practitioners

Mark Sexton, AIA, Founding Principal, Krueck + Sexton Architects

Mark Sexton, along with his design partner Ron Krueck, designed the Spertus Institute on South Michigan Avenue. Sexton attended the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) a generation after Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and was strongly influenced by him, even though his designs incorporate less regularity and greater playfulness than those of Mies. (Architecture enthusiasts affectionately call him “Mies.”) For the record, Rachel is charmed by the distinctive facade of the Spertus Institute.

Brad Lynch, AIA, Principal, Brininstool + Lynch

Brad Lynch, along with his design partner David Brininstool, is responsible for several award-winning contemporary residences and public buildings in the region, including the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin. As the firm notes on their website, their work “unabashedly celebrates its kinship with the rigorous modernism of Mies van der Rohe.” Lynch attended the University of Wisconsin, where he studied art, engineering and landscape architecture.

Ann Thompson, AIA, Senior Vice President of Architecture and Design, Related Midwest

As a licensed architect at a major developer, Ann Thompson is responsible for the design approvals and decisions made by Related Midwest. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has been on staff at Related Midwest for the past 21 years. She generously invited Rachel and Curious City into a “secret room” at Related Midwest to see a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scale model of a new Streeterville luxury residential building in development, which was designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. The structure is inspired by the forms, setbacks, and ornamentation of the 1920s Art Deco era. Related Midwest also commissions very contemporary buildings, including a high rise residence designed by Morris Adjmi for the West Loop. She explained that Related can only afford to develop in the historically inspired style she calls “modern classicism” when they expect to sell or rent apartments to very high end clients.

Joe Antunovich President  Antunovich Associates

Antunovich Associates specializes in restoring historic buildings, such as the Reliance Building/Hotel Burnham, as well as designing new buildings which incorporate contemporary materials and aesthetics to fit into the context of historic neighborhoods. The firm celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015. Antunovich studied architecture at the University of Southern California.

Rachel Glick, Curious City Questioner

Rachel Glick accompanied Jen Masengarb and Jesse Dukes on three reporting trips, visiting several buildings in Chicago, speaking with Ann Thompson about plans Related Midwest has on the boards and with Mark Sexton about the design of the Spertus Institute. She maintained a strong preference for Chicago’s skyscrapers of the 1920s, but she also was intrigued to learn about the modernists of the mid-20th century. Her first impressions of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s black steel and glass buildings were not favorable. But after learning more about the philosophy of Mies, and looking at the exquisite details and order of the Federal Plaza, Rachel allowed “There is a beauty in it.”

Rachel is recently married and changed her last name to “Glick”. She says if any of her friends hear her on the radio, “They won’t know it’s their old friend, Rachel Newman.”

Jesse Dukes is Curious City’s audio producer. Jen Masengarb is Director of Interpretation and Research at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @jmasengarb.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X