Tall towers, breathtaking skyscrapers and historic buildings… It’s the architectural marvels that make the city a ‘must-see’ on your itinerary

Downtown Chicago is a visual smorgasbord with so much to see and explore. I travelled from Oak Park, a suburb, to the city by the El(or L) train which takes one back to 1893 when Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition that attracted nearly 26 million visitors during its six-month run. In order to provide transportation to the fair, the Chicago Transit Authority introduced the first elevated train to Chicago. Today, the L train encircles the city’s central business district referred to as the Loop. Chicago’s cultural interests can be traced to this era, when its orchestra, library and major museums were established.

Splendid buildings

As I near downtown, Petula Clark’s appealing song ‘Downtown’ rings in my head and spellbound I get my first glimpse of the towering, lofty, sky high, gleaming glass enclosed skyscraper — a striking close up view as the L train speeds past. This is the city that gave the world its first skyscraper. Today, thanks to the genius of Daniel H. Burnham, creator of the famous Chicago Plan of 1900, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies von der Rohe, Helmut Jahn and several others, Chicago is a living museum of architecture.

Chicago’s world class architecture is a major part of Chicago’s identity. Burnham’s unique plan consisted of the city’s unobstructed lake front, its citywide system of parks, and its green belt and forest preserves. Just steps away from Buckingham Fountain is the lush Grant Park rose garden. I speak to Jason Nieses, Director Tours and Volunteer Services of the Chicago Architectural Foundation (CAF). He defines the role of the CAF, “It is a non-profit organisation dedicated to educating the public about architecture and design and has 400 volunteers or docents who work towards that mission. They are out in the streets interpreting buildings and things as part of an urban museum.”

He discloses something very interesting. “Many historic buildings in Chicago are undergoing a significant transition now. As buildings age, the technology and infrastructure within them cannot keep up with the rate of obsolescence, so many offices are being converted into residences, condominiums and rentals.

The businesses actually want to be located in the western part of downtown. The people want to live on the eastern part of the Loop facing the lakes and parks. Thus Chicago is saving some of its historic architecture.”

I ask Jason about the upcoming Trump Towers and he replies, “Donald Trump is the developer of Trump Towers being constructed right next to the Chicago River. It is designed by a local architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill and when completed will be the tallest building in the city. It will be used for varied purposes — as a hotel, a condominium and as offices. Skidmore designed Sears Towers and The Hancock Observatory, Chicago’s tallest and most important icons.” I take the CAF “Chicago old and new tour” and find it fascinating, as it introduces architecture and public art from 1871 to the present. Chicago’s downtown intersections are what makes the city so vibrant.

The tour explores five architectural styles – the Chicago School of Architecture, Beaux Arts, Modernism, Post Modernism and Deconstructionist.

The Santa Fe building from where we start is a wonderful example of the Chicago School and the Beaux art style. The same is true of the Art Institute of Chicago in front of it. The Art Institute has two bronze lions at the entrance and a grand staircase as one enters the building with Roman and Greek sculpture.

The tour concludes at the Millennium Park which is a mix of green space, contemporary art and architecture. It has the Cloud Gate sculpture by Anish Kapoor. It also has the Frank Gehery designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the most sophisticated outdoor concert venue, majestic and awe inspiring.

At the same venue, the South Indian classical violinist L. Subramanium is scheduled to perform at the World Music Festival in Chicago (September 15). After the tour, I lunch at the Corner Bakery which is a chain with a bakery-cum-restaurant. It has pavement seating like the Parisian cafes from where one can take in the picturesque skyline and watch the happy-go-lucky tourists on Michigan Avenue. In downtown Chicago, the north end of State Street is a vibrant area and became the Theatre District. There are old movie houses, built in the 1920s with beautiful interiors.

I’m lucky to see the runaway Broadway hit “The Colour Purple” in Chicago’s Theatre District at the posh Cadillac Palace Theatre. The matinee concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Symphony Centre on Magnificent mile is scintillating and listening to the Chicago Blues at the internationally famous Blues Club is a delightful experience. Downtown Chicago comprising the Magnificent Mile on North Michigan Avenue is a hub for hotels, restaurants and the finest shopping. Chicago is a melting pot of many creeds and cultures giving rise to a variety of foods and burgeoning restaurants. I enjoy exotic food at some of Chicago’s avant garde restaurants such as Greek Islands, Penang and Rezas. And also savour Chicago style deep pizza. Chicago has a galaxy of museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art. A couple of places in downtown host the Farmer’s market, weekly selling fresh produce. “Urbs in Horto” which is Latin for city in a garden is Chicago’s motto. Lovely multi- hued flowers bloom in the flowerboxes on medians in the streets throughout the city. Lake Michigan borders the East coast of Chicago and the Chicago River flows through the middle of the town providing beautiful landscapes.

Visitors can go on an exhilarating architectural cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady, to get a unique perspective of the city’s buildings. The “Windy City” as Chicago is often known as, has won many accolades as a great travel destination!

MEERA RAJAGOPAL

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