Chicago Architecture

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Architects Bruce Graham and Fazlur Rahman Khan are credited with transforming Chicago's skyline by designing John Hancock Center in 1969, and then later in 1974, adding what was for a long time one of the tallest buildings in the world - The Willis Tower (Sears Tower). But Chicago's architectural legacy goes way back with landmarks like The Rookery in 1888 designed by Daniel Burnham and John Well and the Robie house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1909.

Architecture is an integral part of history, in fact, rooted in it (think of all the historical sites you know - Petra, The Taj Mahal, The Colosseum). And there might be only a few other cities that celebrate architecture the way Chicago does. Popularly known as the birthplace of the skyscraper, Chicago has seen the evolution of architecture through the times. From ornate to minimalist, the city celebrates its architectural masterpieces with tours and events like The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago (OHC), Chicago Architecture Biennial, Chicago architecture boat tours and even CityPASS Chicago.

Here we have curated a list of essential Chicago buildings that is a treat for visitors.

Architecture in Chicago

Willis Tower or Sears Tower

Formerly known as Sears Tower, Willis Tower was designed by mastermind engineers Bruce Graham and Fazlur Rahman Khan of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The building that changed Chicago's skyline also used to be the tallest building in the world. Today, tourists visit Willis Tower for The Ledge, a glass cage box at 1353 feet in the air, that extends 4 feet from the Skydeck.

Farnsworth House

Constrcuted by one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House is an iconic example of modern architecture. Famous for its architectural style that emphasizes simplicity and clarity, Farnsworth House is an embodiment of 'less is more'. It is located around 60 miles from Chicago, but if you are interested in learning more about the evolution of architecture in modern times, this masterpiece of International Style of architecture is a must visit.

The Rookery

The Rookery was designed by Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root as an office building in 1888. 17 years later, Frank Lloyd Wright renovated the lobby to give it a less ornate and more simplistic look. Visitors are captivated by the Light Court that is lit up by natural light streaming in through the steel trusses that surround it, as well as the grand European entrance arch and stairway.

John Hancock Center

Also designed by the team behind Willis Tower, Bruce Graham and Fazlur Rahman Khan of SOM, John Hancock Center was one of the tallest buildings in the world when it was completed in 1969. Even today, it is one of the best examples of efficient structural systems in the world. The tower houses the TILT platform observatory on the 94th floor and a restaurant and bar on the 95th floor.


A 21-st century entrant to the ever evolving Chicago architecture scene, Aqua gets its name from its striking appearance - that of ripples in water. Aqua is basically a quintessential Chicago skyscraper in that is it a glass cage. But the masterpiece is the addition of slabs that extend off of the building, serving as balconies on each floor, structured to give a flowing water-like effect.

The Best Way to See Chicago Architecture

Open House Chicago

The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago (OHC) is an annual, free of charge event held in October where the public can access Chicago's most iconic structures. The event is part of a worldwide Open House network and opens up around 200 buildings in Chicago, some of which are rarely open to public. The OHC is an amazing opportunity for visitors and locals to learn and discover more about the rich architectural history and diversity of Chicago.

Chicago Architecture Biennial

The Chicago Architecture Biennial is an international exhibition that celebrates contemporary architecture and attracts more than half a million visitors every year. In its inaugural year, the exhibition had exhibits presented by over 120 architect firms from over 30 countries at the main exhibition at Chicago Cultural Center and many satellite exhibitions throughout the city. The event is a great way for students and lovers of architecture to learn and interact with the latest and greatest in the field.

Chicago Architecture Boat Tour

Chicago is a gorgeous city and it is exciting to walk around, gazing up at beautiful buildings around. But Chicago has it own unique way of showcasing its star attarctions - by taking an architecture boat tour. Offering a completely different angle to view the stunning architecture that makes by the city's skyline, boat tours are offered on Lake Michigan during the summer. Popular ones include Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise, Seadog River and Lake Architectural Tour, and Chicago Line Architectural Cruise. Of course, for those of you who want to explore the buildings up close, there are options for architecture walking tours in Chicago as well.