Chicago Architecture Center

Architect: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

Owner:  Chicago Architecture Center

Location: Chicago

The new home for the Chicago Architecture Center, formerly known as the Chicago Architecture Foundation, was carved into an underused retail and exterior space at downtown Chicago’s Illinois Center. The 20,000-square-foot center, widely recognized as the city’s architectural authority, accommodates educational and lecture events, exhibitions, and retail operations. Easily accessed by regional transport, bike, and car, the new center is deeply connected to downtown and engages visitors before sending them off on the center’s incredibly popular architecture river cruise.

Founded as a nonprofit in 1966, the center is one of Chicago’s prominent cultural organizations and serves nearly 700,000 people each year. It offers unique programming, including 85 tours by boat, foot, bike, bus, and the city’s storied elevated trains. In addition, it provides interactive exhibitions, design training for teenagers and teachers, and a variety of festivals that all highlight the city’s architectural legacy.

The design of the center’s new headquarters contrasts with the austere classic elements of Mies van der Rohe’s design for the Illinois Center by offering exposed moments of raw architecture. The interior space engages visitors by appealing to both serious architecture scholars and curious visitors. The team was charged with maintaining a profile that is classic and timeless while also provocative and forward-thinking, and it made lively use of color, chiefly red, the center’s primary branding color, throughout. It is employed as a playful wayfinding element, to lend importance to signage, and as an accent on important wall space.

The Skyscraper Gallery and its permanent exhibit, Building Tall, comprise the heart of the space. The city spills through 40-foot-tall windows, which allow light to wash over the space and provide stunning views of the unique waterfront site. At the plaza level, an acoustically designed and highly reflective metal ceiling reflects the movement of the river and activates the ceiling plan. The elevator core, exhibition, and demising walls between the galleries were kept intentionally low to maintain the original proportions of the space.

This new home has made the center’s innovative educational programs for young people much more visible. In the nine months that followed its opening, the center served nearly 13,000 children, teens, families, and educators. More than 10,000 people visited the space to explore new exhibitions or participate in design studios, field trips, and other events.

Additional information

Exhibit Design: Gallagher & Associates

Signage: Forcade Associates

Lighting: Lightswitch

Engineering - MEPFP: Diligent Design Group

General Contractor: Turner Construction

Engineering - Structural: WSP

AV/Acoustic Design: ARUP

AV Design/Installation: Gand Sound Installations


Janani Kanna, AIA, Chair, Corgan, Los Angeles

Marlene Imirzian, FAIA, Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects, Phoenix; Escondido, Calif.

Taal Safdie, AIA, Safdie Rabines Architects, San Diego

Mark Bacon, AIA, BVH Architects, Ltd., Lincoln, Neb.

Jodi Ernst, AIA, Architect of the Capitol, Bethesda, Md.

Image credits

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James Steinkamp

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James Steinkamp

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James Steinkamp

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James Steinkamp

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James Steinkamp