The Landmarks of Chicago

The architecture of Chicago reflects the history and development of the American architecture. In particular, it demonstrates an eminent domain of the downtown in Chicago with buildings constructed in various styles. The most prominent buildings in this area are Chicago City Hall, the Daley Center and James R. Thompson Center.
Chicago City Hall is a building of a classical revival style. This style was common in the period between late 19th and the early 20th centuries, when the trends of modernist culture dominated. It was constructed in 1911, and was officially made public on February 27 of that same year. The architectural firm in Chicago, Holabird & Roche proposed an innovative design with C-shaped corridor. Owing this distinctive feature, the building was lighter inside than buildings of traditional style. The complex steel work of the construction made large court-rooms in the building durable enough. Chicago City Hall consists of two twin buildings – County and City buildings that are seamlessly connected. County building was finished earlier, in 1908, while the completion of City Hall took another 3 years.
The Daley Center was built instead of the city block near the County Building in 1965. Originally, that building was known as the Civic Center, but then it was renamed after mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley. The construction was made of self-weathering steel and durable glass, and designed by Charles Murphy. Another feature of the building is its spatial flexibility. The Daley Center marked another epoch of architecture that is the beginning of postmodernism. It is a model of international style architecture, designed as a skyscraper. Thus, modernism was replaced by a postmodernist philosophy movement.

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The architecture style of the third building, James R. Thompson Center, appeared as a result of progressing postmodernism. Its construction is made of steel and glass like the Daley Center, but it looks very unusual. The shape of the Center is associated with futuristic technology. The building was completed in May 1985. Originally, the leadership of Illinois presented it as the State of Illinois Center, but in 1993 the name was changed to honor the longest serving governor of Illinois, James Thompson. It is a large building that takes the entire city block.
This essay will describe 3 buildings in Chicago – Chicago City Hall, Daley Center and James R. Thompson Center. It will also compare these buildings and try to explain their meaning.

Chicago City Hall

In the early 20th century, it was very fashionable to construct urban office buildings. However, when the authorities of Chicago made a decision to erect City Hall, they had to take Chicagoans’ opinion into consideration. The people of Chicago had traditional views concerning the architecture and did not want their City Hall and County Building to be like a skyscraper. When a well-known architect Henry Cobb proposed a modern 14 story skyscraper as a model for civic monument, his proposal was declined by the local people. Thus, the architectural firm in Chicago, Holabird & Roche had the commission for a project of classical style building, County Building and City Hall. It was a challenging task: they had to design a classical public monument that could also meet the architectural requirements for the office building. The firm managed to accomplish the task successfully. 60 years later the building turned into a landmark of the city.
After the completion, Chicago City Hall looked like a grand classical monument. It was a large 11 story building that consisted of two seamlessly connected structures. The material of the building was selected in such a way that it was associated with the ancient times. Woodbury granite is ideal for this purpose.
Relief sculptures serve as a beautiful decoration of the exterior of the City Hall. For example, the entrance of Chicago City Hall was designed with the help of 4 relief panels. The sculptor, John Flanagan used granite to sculpt these panels. But the panels served not only as a sophisticated architectural part of the building. They represented four principal concerns that the authority of Chicago perceived as their priorities: schools, parks, playgrounds, and water supply.
The facade of City Hall is also made of granite. The feature of the façade is 10 monumental Corinthian columns. The columns are hollow, but they consist of 15 granite segments. Each segment is about 9 feet in diameter. The caps of the columns are very –high equaling to 12 foot tall. The height of the columns is about 75 feet. The architectural firm Holabird & Roche placed those columns in such a way that they would make the building lighter inside. They also extended the exterior façade as it was planned to be a sizable construction. On the top of the structure, there is a recessed floor made of glazed ceramic. Initially, the architectural project of City Hall was planned in such a way that the building would have a central dome but due to extremely high cost this plan was declined.

On the first floor of the County Building visitors can enjoy very beautiful lobbies. The lobbies are featured with marble walls and marble stairways. The interior of the lobbies is decorated with mosaic vaulted ceilings and elegant lamps. The bronze tablets demonstrate city halls of the past – from 1837 to the present time. The design of the County Hall looks more elaborate in comparison with City Hall.
Over the last decades Chicago City Hall underwent several modifications. In the 1940s, the building had some structural challenges. As a result, the cornice had to be removed. In 1957, Council Chamber of Italian Renaissance was destroyed by the fire. In a year, visitors could see it again though in a modern style. But the major renovation of Chicago City Hall was made in the 1970s.
In 2001, a garden was created on the roof of City Hall. The designer of such an innovation was an architect William McDonough who was supported by a special team for the green roof design and Conservation Design Forum, the firm from Chicago.
The purpose of this initiative was to examine the benefits of the roof gardens, such as heating and cooling effects, and reduce the consumption of energy in the building. Testing the growth rates of various plants and the effects of rainwater runoff could also be beneficial for the science. The roof garden is the habitat of 20, 000 plants of various species. Most of these plants are prairie flowers as they are known for their ability to grow in adverse weather conditions. Though the public is not allowed access to the rooftop, it can be observed from the neighboring tall buildings. The vegetation on the roof is thriving! More than that, the abundance of flowering plants allows beekeepers who installed the bee-hives on the roof to harvest quite a generous amount of honey equaling to about 200 pounds a year.
Although Chicago City Hall may seem tiny for the needs of the city and county, responsible authorities have fully utilized the potential of the building in modern Chicago. Therefore, it will be fair to say that Chicago City Hall deserves a special status and is a good model for many architect designers. It will also possible to consider City Hall a symbol of the American society’s welfare and prosperity.

The Daley Center

The Daley Center was erected in 1965, marking the transition from the epoch of modernism to postmodernism. This was not a classical building like Chicago City Hall. It was constructed in international style, including the monument in front of it.
Chicago Public Building Commission became the commission for this building project. This project was rather costly and estimated $87 million. But the building construction of Daley Center took quite a short period of time – about 2 years. As it was mentioned before, this building was originally known as the Civic Center but on December 27, 1976 it was renamed after the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley. The building is located in the center of the Chicago Loop standing just opposite to the Cook County.
This is a flat roofed 31 story building that reaches 846 feet. It is regarded as the tallest among the buildings with less than 40 floors. Usually the buildings of this height have 50 and more stories. This feature of the construction can be explained by the necessity to make high ceilings for courtrooms. Flat roof and high ceilings is a common feature of these buildings.
But unlike Chicago City Hall, Daley Center does not have elaborate façade with classical Corinthian columns and sculptural relief. The columns of City Hall are interior. This is different than the model of Daley Center with 12 exterior columns that are made in the form of a cross. Since its columns do not hold as much weight as the columns of City Hall they are narrower at the top. At the same time, the construction of Daley Center is quite impressive – 87 feet trusses of high quality steel extending in length and 48 foot spans that are set crisscross. This was considered an innovation at that time! The bays of the structure are 87 feet wide and resemble the bridges. One of the revolutionary features of Daley Center is that it is covered with corrosive and tensile steel. This type of steel tends to rust but at the same time it strengthens the building structure even more. As it rusts, there develops a specific patina that looks natural. Due to this patina, the building’s color is red and brown.
Inside the Daley Center is quite spacious, and it can house over 120 court rooms. It also gives room for the offices of Cook County and houses the Cook County Law Library. The lobby of Daley Center is not that elaborate as in the Chicago City Hall but it is used by Chicagoans for cultural events.
The sculpture at the plaza in front of Daley Center was made by Pablo Picasso in1967. For this project he used the same corrosive and tensile steel that covered the construction. As this sculpture was open to the public, it caused a controversy among the people. Many people from Chicago and the neighboring cities tried to understand the meaning of that sculpture. It resembled many things: a horse, a lion, and a woman. Christians associated this figure with the angel.
Another interesting feature of the Daley Center is the energy and water conservation system installed in 1994. The Public Building Commission and the management company, MB Real Estate took such measures to reduce the consumption of electricity, gas and water. This project is associated with the roof garden project on the top of Chicago City Hall as the management of these buildings express their concern about the use of energy resources. However, it is important to mention different ways of achieving this purpose. In contrast, the management of Chicago City Hall demonstrated the traditional, although somewhat original way of thinking. They utilized the natural resources on the top of the roof: soil, vegetation, bees. The management of the Daley Center relied more on modern technology that allowed the conservation of the resources. This shift from a traditional way of management to increasing reliance on modern technology can be interpreted as the transformation of the American society and their adoption of scientific and technological ideas and solutions. For example, in the past many Americans had their own land and grew food for themselves and for sail. Today, very few Americans are involved in agricultural activity growing their own food, so that the majority of people go to supermarkets to buy commercial food grown with the use of modern technology and science.
To interpret the meaning of two buildings – Chicago City Hall and the Daley Center, it is important to indicate different ideas used as the architectural features. The material of Chicago City Hall, granite echoed the ancient times, and from this perspective, the building marked the traditional values, such as national sovereignty, patriotism and cultural identity. It was remarkable that the majority of Americans declined the international style of Chicago City Hall and chose a classical style. In this way, they declined international philosophy and held to the traditional mentality.
The façade of Chicago City Hall includes 4 relief panels that signify 4 major concerns of authorities: water supply, playgrounds, parks and schools. These concerns are associated with the needs of the ordinary Americans, and reflect the priorities of American authorities in their politics. The international style of the Daley Center did not show interest in domestic things inside the USA; instead, it focused on modern technology and international interests.
The progression of the international philosophical movement influenced the architecture of Chicago, and nowadays, more and more buildings are designed according to the international style. However, it is interesting to note that both, Chicago City Hall and the Daley Center are the landmarks of Chicago.

James R. Thompson Center

James R. Thompson Center was designed by a well-known German-American architect, Helmut Jahn. The massive in size structure built of steel and glass reaches 332 feet high and takes a large amount of space – 1, 193,163 square feet. This type of building can be regarded as a skyscraper. Though James R. Thompson does not resemble the Daley Center in shape, both of these buildings are skyscrapers, and follow the international style of architecture. They are designed according to postmodernist thinking. James R. Thompson and the Daley Center differ from Chicago City Hall built in classical style in many respects as they are a result of progress of the modern technology and science.
Similar to Chicago City Hall and the Daley Center, it was renamed. Originally, this building was known as the State of Illinois Center but the name was changed to honor the longest serving Governor of Illinois, James Thompson. The building was completed in 1985 and facilitated different reactions, similar to those caused by the design of the Daley Center. The reason for that controversy was the shape of the structure that looked like an Unidentified Flying Object.
The major feature of the Thompson Center is a magnificent 16 story atrium lobby. The atrium has a cylindrical form, and extends above the roof reaching the skylight. The structure of the building is made of steel which is enclosed with glass. The façade is sloping and curving in shape. It does not have any columns like the other two buildings. Instead, it is decorated with strange pillars that resemble Stonehenge pillars. Below the façade there is an underground with 2 floors. The steel of the structure exposed outside has a strange combination of colors, red and bright turquoise. The structure of the Daley Center is also made of a special colorful steel, red and brown. Though the structure of Chicago City Hall was also made of steel it was covered with the traditional building materials that were not visible. Granite and marble are the major building components of the City Hall.
In front of the James R. Thompson Center, at the entrance there is set 26 feet high sculpture named ‘Monument with Standing Beast’. This figure was made of white material and added with black stripes. The creator of ‘Monument with Standing Beast’ was the French artist, Jean Dubuffet. Many people could hardly understand the real meaning of this sculpture similarly to the sculpture at the Daley Center.
Inside, Thompson Center also demonstrates many steel works. The architect, Caroline Stevens, described it in the following way, “The combination of a tangled trellis of steel, highly reflective walls and a complex palette of blues and pinks makes for a dizzying effect. It is hardly your typical government building.” When visitors enter the building, they can enjoy a large collection of artwork made by Chicago natives. The collection has over 600 works of art including wood sculptures, oil paintings and photographs. There is also quite a large commercial area with many shops and restaurants, transit station for train lines, a blood donation center and a post office.
It is very difficult to interpret the meaning of James R. Thompson Center. It may have a futuristic interpretation. The style of this building is likely to refer to some future technology and science that people are not aware of yet. State offices and public places seem to be mixed in one area – there is no clear boundary between them. What is clear is that it is an international style of architecture though presented in an original way.


The architecture of Chicago signifies the development of American architecture throughout the history. The most prominent buildings in Chicago are Chicago City Hall, the Daley Center and James R. Thompson Center. Each of these buildings represents its own historical and cultural epoch. Chicago City Hall is the classical style architecture and refers to the period of modernism. The Daley Center is a building of international style, marking a transition from modernism to postmodernism. James R. Thompson Center marks the progression of postmodernist philosophical movement, and is a result of the ongoing development of international style of American architecture.

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