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Chicago Architecture Center, in the Birthplace of the Skyscraper, Tells Tale of World’s Towers

Center Opens as a Cultural Destination
September 6, 2018

The Chicago Architecture Center's new space at 111 E. Wacker Drive teaches visitors about the evolution of the skyscraper; Photo credit: CAF.jpg.

Like the towers over the surrounding skyline, the Chicago Architecture Center's new home shows visitors in dramatic fashion that the city is the birthplace of the skyscraper.

The center's building overlooks a mix of key architecture. To the north across the Chicago River, the historic Wrigley Building, clad in six shades of white terra cotta, looms near the Gothic-inspired Tribune Tower. They stand in contrast to the modern Apple Store, with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls and roof that resembles a laptop computer.

Inside, the 52-year-old organization strives to showcase the worldwide evolution of tower design in a 20,000-square-foot space with its own architectural significance: It takes up the first two floors at One Illinois Center, a 32-story office tower completed in 1970 that was designed by Mies van der Rohe, the modernist pioneer who was based in Chicago for much of his career.

Photo credit: CAF.jpg.

The space, designed by the world-renowned but locally grown firm of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, highlights its views with 40-foot windows that flood the interior with light and call attention to the 36-foot tall model of Saudi Arabia's Jeddah Tower, which is expected to dethrone the Burj Khalifa in Dubai as the world's tallest building when construction is completed in 2020.

Rendering of Saudi Arabia's Jeddah Tower, of which a 36-foot tall model is featured in the Chicago Architecture Center; Photo credit: ©Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture/Jeddah Economic Company.

And that’s part of the point. The Chicago Architecture Center, rebranding itself from its original Chicago Architecture Foundation title, aims to be another must-see cultural destination that tells the story of the skyscraper. It also tells the tales of the architects who looked to height, materials and design as eminent architectural features that have been copied the world over.

"We are reinforcing Chicago’s architectural legacy by creating a customer-designed space at a perfect location," said architect Gordon Gill, co-founder of the firm that bears his name, and co-creator of the Chicago Architecture Center’s space.

"The location, overlooking the Michigan Avenue Bridge, is at that crossroads of Chicago," he said. "The design doubles down on the remarkable visibility to create an open, accessible space that invites the city to step inside and provides a perch from which visitors can watch the city at work and play."

Inspired by, of all things, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that ravaged about 17,000 mostly wood-constructed buildings, the history of the skyscraper’s evolution is told in exhibits that show how architects have crashed through barriers in the name of design and utility.

The Drake Family Skyscraper Gallery’s inaugural exhibit "Building Tall" includes oversized models of legendary towers in Chicago and throughout the world, chronicling the genesis of breaking big on height. It offers the narrative on what architects have hoped to achieve in groundbreaking structures, most of which are standing or under construction today.

The so-called race to the top was rooted in the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, which opened in 1885. At 10 stories, it was the first tall building to have a fireproof metal frame. That legacy can be traced to today, influencing buildings from Chicago's Willis Tower, which stood as the world’s tallest for nearly 25 years, to Jeddah Tower.

Other notable towers include the former John Hancock in Chicago, with its X-braced exterior frame, to the Art Deco-inspired Chrysler Building in New York, and the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia -- still the tallest twins and the structure that surpassed Willis Tower in 1996.

Many of the towers were designed by Chicago-based architects, including Jeddah Tower, which is an Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture design.

The Chicago Gallery chronicles the history of the city through structures, starting with the balloon-frame wood homes and buildings that fueled that enormous fire. Gleaned from the ashes of that 2,000-acre devastation was the realization that the buildings that survived the fire were made of terra cotta and limestone. That led designers to look to fireproof steel and brick as the foundations for future buildings, starting with the Home Insurance Building.

The account is told through a film that uses the gallery’s Chicago Model Experience as its prop, theatrically lighting up the swath of the fire and buildings as they are discussed. This is the star attraction of the gallery, an expanded version of the 2009 model that now has 4,200 buildings, about 4 inches to 12 inches high, representing 630 blocks and 12.5 miles -- all constructed with 3D printing. Touch screens light up the buildings and offer data about them and their surrounding areas.

The center, open now in its first full week of operation, will also offer classes to young students and adults, as well as docent-led tours of the galleries, which will change periodically.

Jennifer Waters, Chicago Reporter  CoStar Group   
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