1968–2018: Iconic Chicago Architecture


Introduction: Walking around Chicago is an amazing experience. I’ve had my camera close by for the past 15 years, and still I’m amazed. It wasn’t until 2009 that I realized photographing architecture was not just my passion, but my responsibility and purpose. This city is known for its architecture. It is the birthplace of the skyscraper and city planning. Many people consider Chicago to be the capital of modern architecture.

Chicago is where new prototypes and trends in architecture have taken off. In a way, Chicago collects excellence when it comes to architecture. I always find driving or walking around the city peaceful, particularly in the early morning when the sun hits the top of the buildings. In a forever-changing city saturated with people, it is a great feeling to take in the buildings that withstand the elements and age alongside us.


1. 1969 – 875 North Michigan Avenue
(formerly the John Hancock Building)

   Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

   Lead architect: Bruce Graham

   Structural Engineer: Fazlur Khan



Currently carrying the simple title of 875 North Michigan while official naming rights are being sorted out, many Chicagoans simply call this “Big John,” but, for me, it’s the Hancock. I’ve always thought of this building as so handsome and mighty. I also appreciate how it was a trendsetter—its construction took chances, like using a composite of concrete and steel. It was also the first mixed-use tall building that included a parking garage, which just so happens to be my favorite.


2. 1972 – CNA Center

    Architect: Graham, Anderson, Probst & White



This building is so much fun and, since a young age, I have loved looking for it in the skyline. You really can’t miss “Big Red,” known formally as the CNA Center. The reason why it’s admired and sticks out has everything to do with the fact that it’s painted red. Other than that, it’s just a simple building. Simple is good—yes—a red, simple building is better.


3. 1973 – Aon Center (at sunset)

    Architect: Edward Durell Stone & Associates, Perkins+Will



Keeping things simple is always successful. Architect Edward Durell Stone knew that, as did Perkins+Will. This is why the Aon Center is so beautiful. Its sleek and simple design is why this building stands out in the skyline and is timeless. Its white exterior gives the Aon Center the ability to transform throughout the day and year. In particular, it takes on many moods and colors during sunrises and sunsets. This tubular steel-framed structure was originally clad in white Carrara marble. Unfortunately, the marble could not withstand Chicago’s harsh winter weather and began to crack. In 1990, a deconstruction and reconstruction from white marble to white granite took place, costing approximately $80 million.


4. 1973 – Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower)

    Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

    Lead architect: Bruce Graham

    Structural Engineer: Fazlur Khan



Once the largest retailer in the world, Sears, Roebuck and Company recently filed for bankruptcy. Time is telling and markets change, but Sears will forever be a part of Chicago history. In the 1970s, they purchased land for the future site of their headquarters. Little did they know they would be taking on and commissioning a building that would forever change architecture, especially the skyscraper.

This building is genius. There is no doubt that when you mention Chicago architecture, the Willis Tower—or Sears Tower as Chicagoans still call it—is always among the buildings listed. It was once the world’s tallest building. It remains the world’s tallest steel building. It was among the first skyscrapers to use the tubular structural system, pioneering a concept still used today. The architectural concept of the Willis Tower was once illustrated by its principal architect by using bundled cigarettes. The building consists of nine tubes, really nine skyscrapers, bundled together. This created structural support, along with concrete reinforcements set into bedrock. Everything about the Willis Tower was so well thought-out, thanks to the very close collaboration between its principal architect and engineer.


5. 1983 – 333 West Wacker Drive

    Architect: Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates



This corner has a storied history, so it’s only proper that a magnificent building should stand there proudly. The curved green-blue glass building follows the bend and three branches of the Chicago River, also known as Wolf Point. 333 West Wacker Drive has always been at the top of my list of buildings that I love to photograph. Wolf Point had been a resting point for traders, and it hosted their first settlement before it became Chicago. So, whenever I see it, I can’t help but think about how its curving is a salute to the river and its surroundings that evokes the color of the river with its green-blue glass. Meanwhile, the opposite side of the building has a remarkable notch at the top, saluting the city’s street grid.


6. 1984 – Crain Communications Building

    Architect: Sheldon Schlegman of A. Epstein and Sons.



It’s good to be different. I like different. But when the Crain Communications Building was completed, not everyone felt that it was different in the right way. You either appreciate the uniqueness of this building or you’re not a fan. Both stances are understandable, but I’ll argue that this is an awesome 1980s building. I’ve always known the Crain Communications Building as “The Diamond” because that’s what I’ve always seen, with a bit of an Egyptian flare due to the alternating bands of white aluminum, stainless steel and reflecting glass. The design gives the illusion that the building is split down the middle, though it actually is just slightly disjointed. I have so many images of “The Diamond”, but my favorites are just before the sun is going down when the building is at its most stunning.


7. 1985 – James R. Thompson Center (the “Space Ship”)

    Architect: Helmut Jahn



I’ve always been on the fence about the James R. Thompson Center. Ultimately, what made my mind up was really understanding the design and thinking behind the materials, colors, and curves. This space–some call it a spaceship–brings together government and the public. It took inspiration from a neoclassical dome; in particular, from the old Chicago Federal Building’s dome. The Thompson Center sliced the dome in half, and allowed the public to be a part of government. This bold, brilliant building deserves to be saved, though there are several publicized obstacles following years of neglect, and budget remains a major issue. It is Illinois’ responsibility to rehab it, repurpose it, or find someone willing to maintain and care for it.


8. 2004 – Charles M. Harper Center

    Architect: Rafael Viñoly



Glancing at the Charles M. Harper Center on the campus of the University of Chicago, it’s only natural to do a double take back at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House just across 58th Street. When you’re inside and enter into the Rothman Winter Garden, you’re taken aback by how beautiful it is. That is because the Harper Center is influenced by–and is a tribute to–Robie House and Rockefeller Chapel, both adjacent to it. You would never think that Prairie Style (Prairie School) and Gothic Revival could mix until seeing and experiencing this building. Rafael Viñoly’s goal was to also design a space of unity, a place where people gather to collaborate, as well as to accommodate the latest methods for teaching and research in business and economics.


9. 2004 – Jay Pritzker Pavilion

    Architect: Frank Gehry



Part of Daniel Burnham’s big plan was a park for the people. Millennium Park is just that, with the Jay Pritzker Pavilion serving as the bandshell. However, this is not just any bandshell. It can be considered one of the most successful public spaces. What I love most about the pavilion are the steel ribbons and how they stretch out to the audience. I also appreciate the buildings behind the steel ribbons; it’s as if they too are a part of the performance as an architectural collaborator.


10. 2009 – Aqua

      Architect: Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang Architects



I shot the Aqua just before sunrise. The concrete balconies so beautifully captured waves of water, and I was excited for what it could be upon completion. It turned out that Aqua is spectacular in every way, particularly in its thoughtfulness towards sustainability. Soon after it was finished, I was gazing at it when it started to snow. Those moments of such peace are forever in my memory due to how breathtaking it was. The balconies give the residents an experience of interacting with one another, as well as the vantage point to view other landmark buildings. Its name is also very fitting, with the design resembling waves from wind picking up water on Lake Michigan. The building is a vertical landscape of peace and tranquility.


11. 2009 – Trump Tower

     Architect: Adrian Smith, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill



Regardless of your political views, please look at this building for what it is–purely stunning. The Trump Tower is the tallest reinforced concrete structure in the world, the tallest residential building in the world, and the second tallest building in Chicago. This very tailored building’s sleek design is certainly memorable. I’m not so sure we needed the big sign. Thankfully, while gazing upon this building, I’m too distracted with how much I appreciate the curved rounded edges, especially in the early mornings or right before sunset.


12.  2017 - River Point

       Architect: Pickard Chilton



Much like 333 West Wacker Drive, River Point reflects the river. In fact, you can see the river in the building’s reflection as you walk on the east side of the building. The arch bellows in and is directed right at the river. It thrills me to see this building in its location. Its name is fitting since it sits where the branches of the river connect. What the building and its history have in common is opportunity. This is the first downtown skyscraper built since the recession.


All photos by Lauren Whitney.


A Chicagoland native, Lauren Whitney has been a freelance architectural photographer since 2009. Photographing architecture is not just her passion,

but also her purpose and responsibility.



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