Chicago is a mecca for anyone even slightly interested in American architecture. From innovative, turn of the twentieth century brick warehouses, to iconic art deco towers, to sleek international style skyscrapers, to the post-modern response, and finally to contemporary, cutting-edge building design, the entire history of modern American architecture unfolds before your eyes. With so many important and lesser-known but still fine examples of buildings on every block, there’s nothing like just letting yourself wander the streets on foot and making your own discoveries. But one of the best ways to take it all in, and get a great overview while learning a little bit of the history of Chicago architecture, is by taking an architectural boat tour.
Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.
–Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe
Down on the Chicago River you get a new and unique perspective of the city’s skyline. Several companies offer architectural tours. We chose a tour led by the Chicago Architectural Foundation, figuring the tour would be more about educational facts than tired jokes for tourists. A leisurely ninety minute tour, you’ll learn the history of some of Chicago’s most iconic buildings, the city’s architectural development, as well as the history of the river itself. It was fascinating to learn that today’s Chicago River is the result of over a century of work to change it from a public health hazard to a beautiful city amenity. In 1900 a major feat of civil engineering was achieved with the reversal of the river’s flow to increase its speed and keep sewage from accumulating in it. The improvement efforts have continued throughout the years. In the 1990s the river underwent a huge clean up program, resulting in the waterway now being one of the most desirable locations to work and live along. Today you can see continued riverfront improvements underway, with new public spaces under construction making the river accessible to all.
Being on the river allows you to get some distance to capture the skyline from unusual vantage points, while also getting below the city’s ground plane to get a sense of the verticality of the architecture. You also get to capture some details only seen from the river that you would otherwise miss. I’ve been on this tour twice now and would happily do it again. With all of the city’s history, we saw quite a bit of new building construction and development, so the tour will by necessity be a constantly evolving experience.