Modernist Architecture Gems: Chicago Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


If architecture were a symphony, then modernist architecture in Chicago would be the crescendo. This vibrant city is a treasure trove of remarkable modernist structures that have shaped the city's skyline and architectural heritage. From stunning skyscrapers to iconic residences, Chicago's modernist architecture stands as a testament to the city's innovative spirit and artistic prowess. So, buckle up and let's embark on a virtual tour of these architectural gems.

Marina City

First on our list is the Marina City, a modernist marvel that defines the very essence of urban living. Designed by Bertrand Goldberg, this structure is a unique blend of curves and spheres, a departure from the standard boxy skyline. The twin towers, with their honeycomb-like balconies, are a sight to behold and a must-visit for anyone keen on experiencing the essence of modernist architecture in Chicago.

  • Design: The Marina City features 65 stories of concrete sculpted into a unique petal-like design. The first 19 floors serve as a parking garage, with the remaining floors accommodating apartments and businesses.
  • Innovation: Marina City is not just about aesthetics. It's also a marvel of engineering. The building's unique design was achieved using slip-form construction, a technique that was groundbreaking for its time.
  • Significance: Besides its design and engineering feats, Marina City also stands as a symbol of urban renewal in Chicago. It was built during a time when many were moving out of the city to the suburbs. Its creation aimed to attract people back to city living by offering a combination of residential, recreational, and commercial spaces in one structure.

So, next time you're in town, don't miss the chance to marvel at Marina City's impressive design and the panoramic views it offers of the city. It's a shining example of modernist architecture in Chicago and an icon of urban living.

Farnsworth House

Second on our journey through modernist architecture in Chicago is the Farnsworth House. Nestled in a serene setting along the Fox River, this transparent glass and steel structure is a masterpiece of minimalist design. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the pioneers of modernist architecture, the Farnsworth House is a place where simplicity meets elegance.

  • Design: The Farnsworth House is a single-room weekend retreat, designed to blur the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. Its open floor plan and floor-to-ceiling glass walls provide unobstructed views of the surrounding landscape.
  • Innovation: The house's design was revolutionary for its time. Mies used a minimal structural framework and maximized the use of glass to create a sense of openness and connection with nature.
  • Significance: The Farnsworth House is not just an architectural gem, it's an embodiment of Mies's philosophy of "less is more". It represents a shift from traditional design to a more minimalist and functional approach that characterizes modernist architecture.

If you're a fan of minimalist design, the Farnsworth House is a must-see. It's not just a house, it's a piece of art that eloquently speaks of the transformative power of modernist architecture in Chicago. And who knows? It might inspire you to declutter your space and embrace minimalism in your own home.

Inland Steel Building

Next on our exploration of modernist architecture in Chicago, we find ourselves standing in front of the Inland Steel Building. Rising high in the heart of downtown, this 19-story high-rise stands as a testament to the city's industrial past and its embrace of modernity.

  • Design: The Inland Steel Building features a sleek, stainless-steel façade that gives it a distinct, gleaming appearance. The building's unique, column-free interior allows for flexible office layouts, a characteristic feature of modernist design.
  • Innovation: The building was one of the first skyscrapers to be built in Chicago after World War II. Its innovative use of steel and glass heralded a new era in skyscraper construction and set the stage for the development of modernist architecture in Chicago.
  • Significance: The Inland Steel Building is not just an architectural marvel, it's a symbol of Chicago's transformation into a modern, global city. It embodies the spirit of innovation and progress that defines the Windy City.

If you're in the downtown area, don't miss the chance to take a closer look at the Inland Steel Building. Its gleaming façade and sleek lines will give you a new appreciation for the beauty of modernist architecture. And who knows, it might even spark some ideas for your next big project.

860–880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments

Imagine gazing out your window at the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan. Now imagine this view framed by the sleek lines of a modernist masterpiece. Welcome to 860–880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, a standout example of modernist architecture in Chicago.

  • Design: Built by the renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, these twin high-rises boast a minimalist design that's all about simplicity and function. The clear glass and steel structure creates a light and airy feel, giving residents an unobstructed view of the lake and city.
  • Innovation: The 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments were a game changer in the world of residential construction. These buildings introduced the concept of the "skin and bones" architecture, emphasizing the importance of the structural framework over decorative elements.
  • Significance: These apartments are a prime illustration of the 'less is more' philosophy that has come to define modernist architecture in Chicago. They serve as a reminder that beauty can be found in simplicity, a concept that's as relevant today as it was when these buildings were constructed back in the 1950s.

So, if you're curious about the origins of modernist design, or simply want to experience an iconic part of Chicago's skyline, take a stroll down Lake Shore Drive. Who knows, you may find yourself inspired by the clean lines and minimalist beauty of these architectural gems.

Crown Hall

Have you ever wondered what it's like to stand inside a work of art? With a visit to Crown Hall, you can find out. This magnificent building embodies the spirit of modernist architecture in Chicago and is a must-see for any architecture enthusiast.

  • Design: Crown Hall is another masterpiece by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The building's open floor plan and clear glass walls create a sense of space and freedom. This is a building that doesn't just house people; it inspires them.
  • Innovation: Crown Hall is a shining example of Mies' famous "universal space" concept. This design principle prioritizes flexibility, allowing the interior layout to be easily changed to suit different needs. It's a concept that has influenced countless architects since.
  • Significance: Crown Hall is not just a building; it's a philosophy made concrete. It reflects Mies' belief that less is indeed more, and that a building's form should always follow its function. It's this kind of thinking that has cemented Chicago's place as a leader in modernist architecture.

So, next time you're in Chicago, why not pay a visit to Crown Hall? You might just find that it opens your eyes to a whole new way of looking at buildings and space. And who knows, it might even inspire you to see the beauty in the simple, functional things around you.

Federal Center

Stepping into the Federal Center in Chicago feels like entering a scene from a futuristic movie. This is the kind of place that makes you think, "Wow, this is what the future of building design looks like!"

  • Design: The Federal Center is a three-building complex that showcases the beauty of minimalism. Its design is a brilliant play of horizontal and vertical lines, with sleek steel frames and vast expanses of glass. It's hard not to be impressed by the sheer geometric precision of it all.
  • Innovation: The Federal Center is more than just a pretty face. It's also a marvel of engineering. The buildings are constructed entirely out of steel and glass — a feat that was considered revolutionary in the world of modernist architecture.
  • Significance: The Federal Center serves as a testament to Chicago's trailblazing spirit in the realm of modernist architecture. It's a bold statement that Chicago isn't afraid to break the mold and redefine what a building can and should be.

So, if you're ever in the Windy City, make sure to stop by the Federal Center. It's an experience that will leave you with a deeper appreciation for the power of design and the role it plays in shaping our everyday world.

One Illinois Center

Imagine a building that seems to hover above the ground, like a giant spaceship ready to blast off into the cosmos. That's the magic of One Illinois Center, an icon of modernist architecture in Chicago.

  • Design: One Illinois Center is a towering, glass-encased structure that seems to defy gravity. It's set on a massive plaza and appears to float above it, creating a sense of lightness and openness. The building's simple and clean lines lend it an air of elegance and sophistication.
  • Innovation: What sets One Illinois Center apart is its unique use of space. Instead of adhering to conventional building design, it boldly reimagines how space can be used and manipulated. The result is a structure that feels both futuristic and timeless.
  • Significance: One Illinois Center encapsulates the spirit of innovation and forward-thinking that has come to define modernist architecture in Chicago. It reminds us that architecture isn't just about creating structures, but also about pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo.

Next time you're in Chicago, take a moment to marvel at One Illinois Center. It's a sight that will leave you feeling inspired and in awe of the limitless possibilities of architectural design.

Rookery Building

Walk into the heart of Chicago's financial district and you're bound to stumble upon a historic gem – the Rookery Building. An epitome of modernist architecture in Chicago, this structure is a testament to the city's rich architectural history.

  • Design: The Rookery Building might be old but its design is anything but dated. It boasts a striking combination of Roman Revival and Queen Anne styles. The stunning two-story, skylit lobby is a visual treat with its intricate ironwork and beautiful mosaic tile floor.
  • Innovation: This was one of the first high-rise buildings in Chicago, setting the trend for the city's skyline. It also showcased the potential of steel-frame construction, paving the way for the modern skyscrapers we see today.
  • Significance: The Rookery is a vital part of Chicago's architectural legacy, reminding us of the city's resilience and innovation in the wake of the Great Fire of 1871. It's also a shining example of how old and new can come together in harmony, as evidenced by the lobby's restoration by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905.

So, if you're exploring modernist architecture in Chicago, don't miss the Rookery. It's a piece of history that's still very much alive, standing tall amidst the city's ever-evolving skyline.

Willis Tower

Next stop on our tour of modernist architecture in Chicago is the iconic Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower. This towering skyscraper is simply impossible to miss!

  • Height: Standing at a whopping 1,450 feet, Willis Tower was the tallest building in the world for an impressive 25 years. Even today, it holds its ground as one of the tallest structures in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Design: The building is a testament to the genius of architect Bruce Graham and structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan. Its unique bundled-tube structure was a game-changer in skyscraper design and inspired many high-rises around the world.
  • Experience: If you're not afraid of heights, step onto the SkyDeck for an unforgettable experience. The glass balcony on the 103rd floor offers jaw-dropping panoramic views of Chicago.

Visiting Willis Tower is a must for anyone interested in modernist architecture in Chicago. It's not just a building—it's a symbol of human ingenuity and a tribute to the city's commitment to architectural innovation.

Chicago Architecture Center

To round off our exploration of modernist architecture in Chicago, there's no better place than the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC). It's a hub, an epicenter, a treasure trove for architecture enthusiasts like us!

  • Exhibitions: The CAC boasts a wealth of exhibits that delve into Chicago's architectural history. One standout is the "Chicago Model," a meticulously detailed scale model of the city complete with over 4,200 buildings!
  • Education: The CAC offers a variety of educational programs. These range from lectures by renowned architects to workshops where you can try your hand at designing your own modernist structure.
  • Tours: Want to see modernist architecture in Chicago up close? The CAC offers over 85 tours, including walking, bus, bike, and boat tours. Each tour is led by a knowledgeable docent who will leave you with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Chicago's architectural gems.

In a city renowned for its architectural innovation, the Chicago Architecture Center stands as a beacon for those of us keen to learn, explore, and celebrate the modernist architecture in Chicago. So, what are you waiting for? Get exploring!

If you're inspired by the modernist architecture gems in Chicago and want to learn how to illustrate these architectural marvels, don't miss the workshop 'Composing Complex Illustrations using Basic Shapes' by Juliet Schreckinger. In this workshop, you'll learn how to break down complex subjects into simple shapes and create stunning illustrations, perfect for capturing the essence of Chicago's modernist architecture.