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AIA Convention 2014: Circling Back to Chicago’s Loop

In the past 10 years, the Loop has reaffirmed its status as a regional economic, and architectural, center of it all. And you can see it all during AIA Convention 2014.

By Laurie Petersen

Until recently, Chicago’s downtown business district—like those of many American cities—was a virtual ghost town after office hours. There were almost no apartments and only a handful of hotels. Tourists generally made a beeline to the Art Institute of Chicago or the shopping mecca of Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River. Grand old theaters had been either torn down or reduced to movie houses showing second-rate action films. Students at the area’s higher education institutions commuted to and from classes just like their office-worker counterparts. The formal lawns of Grant Park attracted crowds only on the few days of heavily promoted outdoor festivals.

What a difference a decade makes. The Loop (named for the convergence of Chicago’s intensely spoke-and-wheel planned elevated train system) has become a 24/7 district full of residents, tourists, students—and, yes—office workers. AIA members and others attending this year’s AIA Convention 2014, June 26–28, will find that bold modern architecture has been both a catalyst and a result of this dramatic transformation.

Millennium Park is the beating heart of the rejuvenated city. The Frank Gehry, FAIA–designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion generated excitement from the moment it was announced—and by the time the park officially opened, in 2004, it had been joined by Anish Kapoor’s instantly iconic “Cloud Gate” sculpture, the video towers of the Crown Fountain, and a lushly planted perennial garden. A pedestrian bridge vaults over busy Monroe Street to connect the park to the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA.

Residential towers sprang up in response to this popular new public space. Because the Michigan Avenue frontage had landmark status, developers renovated aging office buildings into luxury condominiums or went a block west and created towers that soared above the protected landmarks. At the same time, SOM’s award-winning master plan for a 28-acre site just to the north was being implemented to create a new community called Lakeshore East. The development is so tucked away it would be unknown even to design-savvy Chicagoans if not for its famous Aqua Tower by Studio Gang Architects.

Even before the park began drawing new crowds to the Loop, the student population was increasing exponentially. In the 1990s, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago began converting historic office buildings to residence halls, and in 2000 it opened a 17-story dormitory designed by Booth Hansen on a prominent corner of State Street. Further south, several institutions joined forces to open a residence hall that occupies an entire block. Columbia College continued its two-decade campaign of repurposing historic structures and also built a new Media Technology Center, designed by Studio Gang. Roosevelt University made the boldest move of all, commissioning VOA Associates to design a 32-story multipurpose tower connected to its historic Auditorium Building, designed by Adler & Sullivan and completed 1889.

With the influx of students and condo buyers to the eastern half of the Loop, a new crop of office towers rose in the West Loop. Sleek, glassy towers by Goettsch Partners overshadowed 1980s Postmodern compositions. Residences proliferated on this side of town as well, with converted historic buildings competing with newer towers. While the design of many apartment buildings is pragmatic, there are several standouts designed by firms that include Perkins+Will and Brininstool + Lynch.

With new uses cropping up all around it, the central Loop has regained its traditional appeal to shoppers, theater-goers, and government and financial-sector employees. State Street has recovered its luster as a retail avenue, even if longtime Chicagoans mourn the conversion of Marshall Field’s to a Macy’s and do a double-take at seeing the Target bulls-eye logo inside Louis Sullivan’s former Carson Pirie Scott store. Restored historic theaters attract patrons from near and far, and newly freshened grand hotels have been joined by newcomers that include the Wit, designed by Jackie Koo, AIA. Mies van der Rohe’s masterful Federal Center reigns at the epicenter of numerous civic buildings, and Holabird & Root’s Art Deco Board of Trade Building still stands sentinel over the banking canyon of La Salle Street.

The South Loop has benefitted from the central-city renewal, stretching its boundaries to include the McCormick Place convention complex (site of AIA Convention 2014) and the up-and-coming Motor Row historic district. A pair of condominium towers by Pappageorge Haymes now defines a “south wall” of Grant Park and creates a flagship for a series of residential mid-rises that stretches south to overlook the museum campus.

The Great Recession slowed but did not stop construction activity, and the pace has recently accelerated. Michael van Valkenburgh’s landscape design for the new Maggie Daley Park is currently under construction just east of Millennium Park; and the vision of Studio Gang Architects and SmithGroup JJR is transforming the landscape of Northerly Island, a peninsula along Chicago’s lakefront. The Riverwalk designs of Ross Barney Architects and Sasaki will create recreational spaces along what is now an inhospitable stretch of lower Wacker Drive.

The liveliness of the central city has created a positive cycle in which each new building or park spurs further development around it. The visual variety of the new cityscape designed by notable architects mirrors the abundance of activities in the 21st-century downtown.

Laurie Petersen is the editor of the third edition of the AIA Guide to Chicago, to be published in June by the University of Illinois Press.

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Millennium Park and the Michigan Avenue streetwall, with the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago on the left. Image courtesy of Tom Rossiter Photography.

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Roosevelt University’s Wabash Tower by VOA Associates (Johnson & Lee, assoc. arch.), with the auditorium building in the foreground. Image courtesy of Tom Rossiter Photography.

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Looking west from the Modern Wing of the Art Institute, with the Legacy Tower condominium by Solomon Cordwell Buenz (right) and the 55 East Monroe office building with upper floors converted to apartments. Image courtesy Rossiter Photography.

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155 N. Wacker Drive by Goettsch Partners. Image courtesy of Tom Rossiter Photography.

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Sullivan Center: exterior restoration by Harboe Architects; rehabilitation and conversion by the DePalma Group. Image courtesy of Paul Schlismann Photography.

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