James R. Thompson Center

Postmodern architecture is all over downtown Chicago. and in particular three iconic skyscrapers in this style pop into my mind when I think "postmodern." To start out, there's some confusion over what the style is, and that's because it is somewhat eclectic. Generally we are talking after modernism, primarily with dark steel boxes of Mies van der Rohe and all his emulators.

Most postmodern buildings were built from the 1970s into the present day, and are characterized by a motive to reconcile the total break with history that van der Rohe proposed. While modernism was all about the future, postmodernism in many ways wanted to be the future with an integration of elements from past architectural styles and materials. 

Harold Washington Library

The Harold Washington Library (above) is quintessential postmodern. It's a hybrid of brick, stone, metal, and a hodgepodge of architectural styles that pay homage to Chicago architecture. The arches honor Henry Hobson Richardson, an early great American architect of Chicago who designed both commercial buildings and grand mansions, like the Glessner House. The green gargoyle-like ornaments on the top harken to the Gothic. The rusticated stone base lends to the hefty masonry of The Rookery or Auditorium Building.

James R. Thompson Center

James R. Thompson Center is absolutely one of my favorite buildings to step into in Chicago. Its 17-story atrium allows sunbeams to reflect off the shiny, curved balconies and stairwells that encircle it. From the outside, people tend to have more opinions about the salmon pink, grey-blue and white color palette, which was to be a muted red, white and blue since it is a government building for the State of Illinois.

Architect Helmut Jahn was certainly innovating his own approach to a glass skin to this building and its playful colors, but he was also responding to history. The zig-zag columnar shape of the building that faces the rest of the Civic Center is an abstraction of the base of a column - just compare it to the stone base you see on the columns of historic City Hall across the street. 

Cloud Gate Crain Communications

The postmodern style was also all for asymmetry and having fun with forms, such as with the Crain Communications Building (above, at right), a.k.a. 150 N. Michigan Ave, and also known as the "Diamond Building." Some people know this white and steel angled structure from the climactic scene in the "Adventures in Babysitting" movie. Its angled top cuts away dramatically, and when you look at the building up close you see that it almost looks like it was chopped into and slid into different planes. 

Postmodern architecture may not always dazzle upon first look, but give it a chance and you'll find the fun in it. 

Photos Courtesy of: James R. Thompson Center, John Picken Photography via flickr (CC BY 2.0); Harold Washington Library, Adam Alexander; James R. Thompson Center & Cloud Gate; (vincent desjardins) via flickr (CC BY 2.0)