The Chicago Architecture Center (CAC), which opened its doors on August 31, 2018 as the new home of the Chicago Architectural Foundation, provides a fabulous, in-a-nutshell overview of the history of Chicago architecture. It’s also the perfect launch pad for your personal discovery of the city’s stunning buildings and their enduring legacy.
Here are six reasons to make the CAC stop #1 on your visit to Chicago.
1. Mies Van der Rohe built it
Fittingly, the CAC has made One Illinois Center (111 E Wacker Dr) its home. Completed in 1967, this is one of legendary Mies van der Rohe’s final designs, rising above a former rail yard and the original site of Fort Dearborn (1803), the US Army’s westernmost post. The building is notable for its International Style, incorporating elements of Mies’ earlier work and the ideas he brought with him from pre-WWII Germany. The International Style is marked by an emphasis on volume, with the use of planes of glass to encase spaces versus masses of brick or stone, and a dependence on the elegance of materials and technical perfection over applied ornamentation. The overall effect is one of lightness and monumentally, with sweeping views of the city skyline. Which brings us to the second reason to visit.
2. It sits on the Chicago Riverwalk
Every statuesque window of One Illinois Center affords stunning views of Chicago’s award-winning Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian-friendly stretch that extends from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street. It’s populated with intimate coves, breezy cafes, wineries and bars, public art, monuments and museums, and provides access to mesmerizing excursions on the water (more on that later). The building also gives you a picture perfect view of two of Chicago’s most historically significant buildings: The Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower. Read more about these and other iconic Chicago buildings here.
3. Its Skyscraper Gallery has the power to wow
The Skyscraper Gallery on the second floor is actually comprised of various ancillary exhibitions. But the centerpiece is undeniably Building Tall, filled with oversized scale models of the world’s tallest buildings to illustrate “how people live, work, build and imagine tall buildings.” From the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpar and the Chrysler Building in New York, to Chicago’s own 875 N Michigan Avenue (formerly the John Hancock Building) and Willis Tower, each looms in ethereal white, with every detail replicated. Other exhibits in the space, represented on towering panels, include From Me to We: Imagining the City in 2050, Designing the World’s Tallest Building: The Story of Burj Kahlifa (currently the world’s tallest building), and Chicago’s Skyscraper Architects.
4. So does its Chicago city model experience
This expansive model of the City of Chicago is located on the Center’s first floor, in an extremely atmospheric, low-lit gallery that maximizes all the drama that you’ll soon see unfolding. The model includes more than 4,200 individual buildings, reproduced with startling accuracy, while dynamic video, interactive touch screens and light projections help to tell the amazing story of Chicago’s founding, trials, tribulations and architectural victories, from the tragedy of the Great Chicago Fire to the glory of Frank Lloyd Wright.
While this immersive experience definitely draws all the attention, don’t miss out on the other exhibits in the space. My favorite is At Home in Chicago, where you can peek inside Chicago’s most iconic styles of residential architecture — workmen’s cottages of the 1830s-1890s, bungalows and courtyard buildings of the 20s and 30s, high-rises in the 1960s, etc. Illustrated descriptions and diminutive models also allow us a glimpse into the way Chicagoans live and the physical environments architects have created in answer to their needs.
5.You can take walking and bus tours from here
The CAC has created more than 85 tour itineraries. In fact, this fall alone, scheduled walking tours (priced at $26 and up) include Historic Treasures of Chicago’s Golden Age, Chicago Modern, Food and Architecture of 1893, Tiffany Treasures and Art Deco Skyscrapers. If you’d rather sit back and enjoy the ride, bus tours ($35 and up) currently on the schedule include Frank Lloyd Wright, Devil in the White City and Discover Chicago’s Historic Neighborhoods (through September 20), which is a unique double-decker bus tour that takes you to some of the city’s most fascinating neighborhoods, including Greektown, Little Italy, Pilsen, Chinatown and Bronzeville. Visit the CAC box office on the first floor or buy tickets online here.
6. Its architectural cruise is voted #1 in the city
For the ultimate tour experience, book your ticket for the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady, voted Chicago’s #1 tour by TripAdvisor users. CAC docents with incredible knowledge of the city and its architectural legacy, provide an insightful overview of architecture in downtown Chicago while you relax on a luxurious vessel with uncompromising views of the Chicago skyline. Tickets are $44.48 plus tax for the 1.5 cruise, and can be purchased at the CAC box office on the first floor or online. First Lady departs below the CAC on the southeast corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Drive, along Chicago’s Riverwalk. The blue awning marks the spot!
The CAC is open seven days a week, 9am-5pm. General admission tickets are $12.