Still known by a lot of people (especially locals) as the Sears Tower, the 108-story Willis Tower held a number of impressive titles upon its completion in 1973. It was the tallest building in the world for nearly 25 years, and the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere until 2014. While it may no longer hold the title, as the first building to use architect Fazlur Kahn’s bundled tube structure, it has influenced almost all of the world’s tallest buildings designed since.
Built in 1964 and designed by Bertrand Goldberg who studied under Mies Van der Rohe in Germany at the Bauhaus, the two residential towers of Marina City remain unlike any other high rise in Chicago. The circular towers, accentuated by the semi-circular balconies, appear to be very natural in comparison with the modernist towers of the city and as such they’re often compared to corn-cobs and honeycomb. Goldberg said of Marina City that such structures could replace the “faceless anonymity of the corporate box.”
What’s more impressive than gold, actual gold, on a building? The Carbide & Carbon Building on Michigan Avenue is an art deco delight. Clad in green terracotta, it stands out in a crowd of impressive buildings, but the real eye-catching detail is the 24-karat gold leaf detailing and accents, particularly on its roof and spire. Despite it being shorter than a lot of high rises in the area, its position means the gold gloriously catches the sun on clear days, shining like a beacon from a bygone era.
The effect of water cascading down the building created by Aqua’s wave-like balconies is undoubtedly cool, but also an impressive feat of engineering that offers a number of benefits for residents. Continuing Chicago’s history as a pioneer in architecture, it was the largest project ever awarded to an American firm headed by a woman, Jeanne Gang, who was influenced by the outcroppings of Lake Michigan. It was awarded the Emporis Skyscraper Award for 2009 skyscraper of the year.
Whether you find the AMA Plaza at 330 North Wabash (formerly the IBM Building) outwardly impressive depends on your perspective. As one of Mies Van der Rohe’s last buildings, completed after his death in 1969, it’s one of the finest examples of his “skin and bones” architecture, which evolved from his “less is more” mantra. Its impressiveness lies in its subtle perfection, demonstrating a mastery of the steel and glass used to create a flawlessly simple-appearing skyscraper.
As well as having the world’s tallest building on two occasions, Chicago also once had the world’s largest. Merchandise Mart, completed in 1930, is roughly the equivalent of two-and-a-half city blocks and until 2008 it even had its own zip code. If its sheer size wasn’t impressive enough, it’s also a beautiful Art Deco structure, featuring limestone, terracotta and bronze and huge amounts of ornamentation on its exterior.
The newest building on this list having only opened in 2017, 150 North Riverside’s most impressive feature is definitely its base and superstructure design. With only a small site between the river and active train tracks to build on, the challenge was to create a typical high rise structure that would sit upon a smaller, eight-story base. In order to stop the building swaying in the intense wind, it features a complex mass damper system that uses large tanks of water in the upper levels.
In the heart of the loop stands the Chicago Board of Trade Building, another Art Deco masterpiece. Completed in 1930, it’s the end and focal point of the “LaSalle Canyon”, so-named for the tall building flanking the street on both sides. Its impressive features include multiple setbacks, stone carvings and the three-story statue of Ceres, goddess of grain. Equally impressive is the fact it doubled as Wayne Tower in Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking Dark Knight trilogy.
Chicago is also home to what is considered the finest example of the Prairie School style, the first uniquely American style of architecture. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a leader of the Prairie School movement, the Frederick C. Robie House on the campus of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park is impressive for its horizontal lines, cantilevered roof eaves and art glass windows. As well as the building, Wright designed the lighting, rugs, and even the furniture and textiles.
Also in Hyde Park, the Museum of Science and Industry is the western hemisphere’s largest science museum with 400,000 square feet of exhibit space. Housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts building, built in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition, it’s the only building that remains at the site of that historical event. Architect Daniel Burnham chose a classical revival style to give the building a grandeur to match its scale, with its domes and columns reminiscent of Greece and Rome.
The building that now houses the Chicago Cultural Center was completed in 1897 as the city’s first public library. Starting Chicago’s history of impressive libraries, it featured two stained-glass domes: the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome, 38-feet in diameter and made of 30,000 pieces of glass, which was fully restored in 2008, and a 40-foot Renaissance style dome consisting of 50,000 pieces of glass.