Chicago’s New Architecture Center Is an Essential Stop for Design Lovers

The Chicago Architecture Center now makes its home in the last skyscraper designed by midcentury modernism pioneer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. AFAR got a behind-the-scenes tour.

Chicago’s New Architecture Center Is an Essential Stop for Design Lovers

The Chicago Architecture Center has found a new home right by the river.

Photo by Angie McMonigal/CAC

Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper and, on August 31, visitors will have a new place in which to explore the city’s soaring structures and storied buildings when the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) opens.

AFAR got a sneak peek inside the spacious facility, which houses an expanded, 3D-printed city model, a gallery with supersize replicas of the world’s most famous and significant skyscrapers, a design studio, a lecture hall, an exhibit space, and a boutique.

A modern-day welcome to the Windy City

The venue’s new home is at 111 E. Wacker Drive in The Loop—about a mile north of its previous location at 224 S. Michigan Avenue. Among the first features visitors will encounter in the new, 20,000-square-foot CAC, formerly known as the Chicago Architectural Foundation, is the first-floor Chicago Gallery.

Exhibits here highlight several subjects, including how Chicago became a hub of modern architecture, the city’s earliest and most recent skyscrapers, its most notable architects, and its nearly 80 neighborhoods. It will also showcase some of Chicago’s unique residential designs, as well as cutting-edge, current projects.

Chicago bar

The Chicago Model Experience is a sprawling miniature model of the city.

Photo by Anthony Tahlier/CAC

The Chicago Gallery’s centerpiece is the Chicago Model Experience, a 3D-printed, miniaturized version of the city that has grown significantly since it was exhibited at the CAC’s South Michigan Avenue space. While there used to be 1,300 buildings on display, it now boasts 4,250 structures, including some that are currently only partially built.

“The model will reflect what’s going on with building in Chicago. We start printing the models when they start building,” says Dan O’Connell, the CAC’s director of communications and public affairs. “It’s really keeping time with Chicago’s growth and building up.” Among the partially completed buildings is Vista Tower, a 93-floor skyscraper designed by Studio Gang and being erected just down the street at 363 E. Wacker Drive.

An adjacent movie screen and interactive lighting installed above the model combine to illustrate the city’s early growth and its rebirth after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Skyscrapers from around the world

Another feature that O’Connell and the CAC’s president and CEO, Lynn Osmond, agree will likely be among its most popular is Building Tall. The exhibit is housed in the Drake Family Skyscraper Gallery, which overlooks the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, Michigan Avenue Bridge, and Chicago’s all-glass Apple store through 40-foot windows.

The light-filled space will house giant scale models of some of the world’s key skyscrapers. Among them is a 36-foot-tall model of Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower, designed by Chicago architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill (AS+GG); it will be the world’s tallest building when it’s completed in 2020.

“Building Tall” is a feast of model skyscrapers with window views of other real-life structures.

“Building Tall” is a feast of model skyscrapers with window views of other real-life structures.

Photo by Tom Harris/CAC

Of the exhibit’s universal appeal, Osmond says, “People love skyscrapers, so it could be the little kid that looks up and says, ‘Wow, Mommy, this is cool,’ or it could be the adult that goes, ‘Wow, I never knew about these innovations that make skyscrapers stand up.’”

In general, the new CAC, whose interiors have been reimagined by AS+GG, will cater to guests of all ages and with all levels of interest in and knowledge of architecture, Osmond says. One feature designed to help budding architects hone their drawing and design skills is its Arcelor Mittal Design Studio, which will offer hands-on experiences.

The Joan and Gary Gand Lecture Hall will host guest speakers for presentations that are open to CAC members and members of the public who purchase tickets. Kicking off the CAC’s new expanded programming on September 27 is Design Dialogues: The Obama Presidential Center, presented by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, lead architects of the project on Chicago’s South Side.

Throughout the CAC, specially trained exhibit hosts will be on hand to interact with guests. “They’re going to be on the floors, allowing you to ask questions and allowing them to go deeper on a certain subject matter,” Osmond says. “So it’s not like having to stand in front of a computer—which heaven knows we all do all the time. It’s actually having a conversation and having the ability to engage and ask questions and be curious.”

Updated explorations

The exhibition host program is an extension of the CAC’s 400-plus volunteer docents, who lead its river, walking, bike, and bus tours that depart from the riverfront directly across East Wacker and from the CAC’s street-level box office.

To take advantage of the CAC’s new location, new walking tours were introduced this summer: Chicago Icons: Connecting Past and Present, Chicago Architecture: A Walk Through Time, Art Deco Skyscrapers: The Riverfront, Must-See Chicago, and Chicago Modern.

Three tours celebrating the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair are also offered this year. On the popular walking tours, which have been rewritten to reflect the CAC’s new location, docents guide guests through examinations of the exteriors and, in some cases, interiors, of some of Chicago’s most significant buildings, from early icons (The Wrigley Building) to contemporary structures of more controversial style (the James R. Thompson Center).

Because the cost of tour tickets now includes the Center Experience, says Osmond, all of the tours have been trimmed from two hours to around 90 minutes “so that people feel like they can experience it all in one day.”

A citywide celebration

In honor of the CAC’s August 31 opening, city officials have proclaimed the date Architecture Day, a designation O’Connell hopes will evolve. “This year, it marks our opening, and we have all these events surrounding the opening week and weekend,” he says, referring to a ribbon cutting with mayor Rahm Emanuel, as well as prize giveaways and other activities. “We hope to build on it each year and make it a kickoff to the fall season. It’s a moment for us to look at where we’ve been the past seven or eight months and where we’re going next.”

Looking to the future, Osmond predicts that the new CAC will influence how travelers shape their visits to Chicago. “I think in many ways this is going to end up being a kind of visitors’ center where people will come to start,” she says. “Everyone will hear about the city model and they’ll say, ‘The first thing you do when you come to Chicago is you’ve got to see this city model and then go out and explore.’ So it’s going to give not only architecture a new name, but I think it’s going to be a landing platform for visitors, period.”

Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas). Admission: Adults, $12; student (with ID), $8; members and children under five, free. Memberships from $80. Tour prices vary.

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