A Guide to Chicago’s Architecture and Why it Really is Worth Seeing

Four architectural styles that define the city. Plus, buildings you should see including the Chicago Cultural Center and the Marina City towers.

Photo by Starcevic/istock

Architecture has always been a major travel draw. Since their construction, the Colosseum, the Eiffel and CN towers and the Empire State Building have been luring travellers from around the world. If there’s one city packed with architectural reasons to visit—from classically designed mansions to modern skyscrapers—it’s Chicago.


View of downtown from the Chicago River, photo by James Caulfield


First incorporated as a town in 1833, Chicago grew rapidly as the United States expanded westward—the city’s prime location on the southwestern edge of the Great Lakes made it an important transportation and trading hub. That growth was nearly stunted, however, by the Great Fire of 1871, which destroyed 17,000 buildings and displaced 100,000 people. But the city rebuilt quickly, and the catastrophe paved the way for the Chicago we see today.

Reconstruction brought with it innovation and creativity. In 1885, local architect William Le Baron Jenney unveiled the Home Insurance Building, the world’s first steel-frame skyscraper (it has since been demolished). This was followed by the emergence of architects Louis Sullivan (nicknamed the father of skyscrapers) and Daniel Burnham, who designed the plans for the World’s Columbian 
Exposition (or Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. It was the de facto coming-out party for the new Chicago—a city that rose from the ashes, beaming with promise.


 is still a 
defining element
 of Chicago’s 


For nearly a century, the Windy City would be a playground for national and international architects, including American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who learned from Sullivan and developed the Prairie School style, and German-born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, known for moving Chicago’s architectural style into the modern industrial age. Other innovative architectural advancements credited to the city include the introduction of tubular framing to skyscrapers, which was first done by Bangladeshi-American Fazlur Khan for the Plaza on DeWitt 
building. This structural system is now used in nearly every high-rise in the world, including One World Trade Center in New York City.

Today, innovation is still a defining feature of Chicago’s architecture. The recently unveiled Apple flagship, brought to life by Foster + Partners, has been much talked about thanks to its modern, laptop-reminiscent silhouette (huge glass walls and an ultra-thin roof). In 2015, the city launched the Chicago Architecture Biennial, North America’s largest architecture and design exhibition, featuring award-winning and innovative architects from around the world.

Architecture stands tall in Chicago, and there are dozens of styles to discover. To help navigate the dizzying landscape, here is a guide to four styles that have contributed to Chicago’s lasting architectural legacy and have helped shape the city’s skyline.


Beaux Arts

Chicago Cultural Center, photo by James Caulfield


Influenced by classic Greek and Roman motifs, which includes design elements such as columns, embedded statues and cupolas (dome-like structures on top of a building), Beaux Arts was popular in the late 1800s and was the primary style used for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. As a result, this style still has a major presence in Chicago’s skyline, with some of the city’s most important buildings coming from this era: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Elks National Memorial, and Union Station are just some examples. To sleep inside a Beaux Arts building, book a room at the renovated Blackstone Hotel, a red-brick tower designed by local architect Benjamin Marshall in 1910.


Prairie School

Frank W. Thomas House, photo by James Caulfield


Inspired by the Midwest’s flat landscape, this style used very few decorative elements and favoured horizontal lines instead of vertical, with flat, cantilevered roofs often extending out over the buildings. Prairie School homes provided a nature-leaning juxtaposition to the towering, more modern buildings of the Industrial Age. Visitors will have to venture beyond the city centre and into Chicago’s neighbourhoods to see this distinctly American architecture expression, which was pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1900s. The suburb of Oak Park has the highest concentration of Prairie School architecture in the United States, and it’s also where Wright’s Frank W. Thomas House, credited as the architect’s first work in this design style, is located.


International Style

860-880 Lake Shore Apartments, photo by William Zbaren


In the 1930s, an austere yet elegant modern look, which used materials like glass, even more steel for support and remained largely free of exterior design, blossomed in Europe. The International Style reached the United States when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe moved to Chicago in 1938. His iconic 860-880 Lake Shore Apartments, two towers nicknamed the Glass House apartments, was the first project in this style in Chicago. He also designed the IBM Building—now the Langham Hotel—and the Chicago Federal Center with a similar, sleek look. Arguably, the most famous example of International Style is the Willis Tower, designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan.


Mid-Century Modernism

Marina City towers, photo by Xavierarnau/iStock


Chicago’s mid-century architecture features much of the same bare-bones ideology as International Style, but doesn’t adhere to the principles of minimalism quite as rigidly. Mid-century Chicago design features softer angles and more curves, and poured concrete is used alongside steel and glass. While the name might initially lead to visions of stout Palm Springs vacation homes, in Chicago the mid-century period produced towering skyscrapers, too, including Bertrand Goldberg’s “corn-cob” shaped Marina City towers. The 100-storey John Hancock Center, a mixed-used high-rise development—it’s filled with offices, condos and restaurants—opened in 1969 also by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan, and is perhaps the best-known product of this era.