Art of Tall Buildings: Chicago Architecture River Cruise

Last Updated on August 29, 2017 by Janet Frost

Don’t stare up at the buildings they will know you are from the country…” My Mother regaled us with this axiom of wisdom every time we ventured downtown Chicago from the suburbs. Today I hail from Wisconsin, not exactly the country but I still stare in awe at Chicago’s skyscrapers. The industry refers to them as Tall Buildings these days, with the CTBUH (Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat) holding court on the tallest and best buildings in the world.  I recently spent time among some of these giants. Chicago, with its Big Shoulders, provides an inspirational environment for the Art of Tall Buildings.



The CAF River Cruise blipped onto our radar after several friends and fellow bloggers shared rave reviews. We decided to spend an afternoon on the Chicago River.




That 70’s Show

In the 70’s, when my Mother was still directing my vision downward, I had been on a school field trip to this very River Cruise.  My, how 45 years can change a landscape.  Back then the Wrigley and Tribune buildings reigned supreme over the less than pristine riverfront.  At that point even the iconic Willis Tower (AKA the Sears Tower) was still just a shell of steel girders.

Art of Tall Buildings
Wrigley Building and Chicago Tribune Building looking north on Michigan Ave.


Today the CAF River Cruise docent highlights the Art of Tall Buildings with more than 20 examples looming over the river scene. The river was gleaming and buzzing on this perfect summer day. I don’t remember ever seeing so many people actually recreating on this river. The newly revamped and expanded Riverwalk bustled with weekenders. There were food trucks and vendors, casual music and public art, relaxing lounge chairs and fast-paced running paths. All of it saying “Welcome to Chicago”.

Chicago Riverwalk
Chicago River
Chicago River
Recreational Boat Tie-up on the Chicago River



Art in its many forms can be an enigma for the casual observer. I generally respond to art with a naive appreciation of the whole, does it strike me as pleasing overall or is it jarring, or boring. The idea of buildings as an art form challenges our perception of art. The cruise docent enlightened the crowd with details of the architects responsible for designing each building.



In the art of tall buildings sometimes the designs are meant to represent their surrounding environment. They display the art concept of Contextualism. Our docent describes this as a design that flows in harmony with its environment.

Chicago Architecture River Cruise
Aqua Tower by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architecture






Such as the spectacular Aqua Tower designed with wave-like balconies that not only resemble the water of the river and lake but also allow a variety of city views.




Or the reflective 333 W. Wacker Dr, showing off its neighbors and mimicking the hue and flow of the Chicago River.




333 W. Wacker Drive designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox is another great example of contextualism and reflection that I like to capture in photography.















The docent explained that the art of tall buildings is often about complementing or contrasting the neighboring buildings. A towering competition if you would.  Like the iconic Willis Tower and 311 S. Wacker Drive.



The Willis Tower was built in 1973 and exudes brute force with its black exterior and tubular construction.  In art terms it represents Modernism at its best. The world renowned Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) designed this icon. It stood as the tallest building in the world for 25 years.


311 S. Wacker Drive, built in 1990, stands respectfully to the side but equally royal. The design, by Kohn Pedersen Fox of NY, was meant to create a comparison/contrast relationship with its hulking neighbor.  Contrasting Modernism with Post-Modernism, dark with light, angular with spherical. They share a tubular construction and variable sectional heights.

Looking back up the river I felt they looked like a King and Queen observing their kingdom.




Rather than a comparison/contrast relationship with neighbors, several of the river buildings chose to reflect everything around them.  As a photographer these are my favorites to shoot.

Art of Tall Buildings

This shot highlights two buildings playing off of each other and their environment.  The one in the reflection is 300 S. Wacker with a clever stylized “you are here” map of Chicago.  The red flags mark our location along the river.  Its counterpart across the river is Gateway Center IV, with a spectacular reflection of its neighbors and lovely contours following the flow of the river.



Of course the art of tall buildings must include some form of competition.  The river has been a gallery for several “one-upping” architects over the decades. The building most distinctive in my memories is the Marina City designed by Bertrand Goldberg.  He was committed to innovative designs of self-contained communities.  He immigrated from German where he had studied under architect van der Rohe.  Guess whose building sits next to his Marina City.  Mies van der Rohe’s  AMA Plaza, in its boxy modernism, tries to trump Goldberg along the Michigan Ave curve of the river.  Speaking of “trumping”, the Trump International Hotel and Tower, designed by powerhouse SOM, overshadows  everyone.

One of my favorites, Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg
























From l-to-r Marina City, AMA Plaza and Trump International Tower. Competing Tall Buildings between the Wabash and State St bridges. (photo credit to














Flashy Trump International Hotel and Tower
























As the docent continued to shower us with fascinating details of Chicago River history and development, I became aware of repeating architect names. The names seemed to roll off her tongue with familiarity, like Picasso or Rembrandt. Who were these architects? Where was their work found? Just here in Chicago or worldwide?  I have engineers in my family so I also wondered where the art of tall buildings and the physics of tall buildings converges?



To answer these questions I interviewed a Technical Adviser from SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), one the biggest and most prestigious architecture firms in the world. Stephen D. Ray PhD MIT,LEED AP BD&C, advises on mechanical engineering , sustainable green construction, and heating/cooling air flows. He is also an Associate Professor at North Park University, an engineering school located in Chicago.

Dr. Ray with his impressive alphabet of education and industry certifications is one of the most congenial geniuses I have ever met.  My first question tried to dig further into the working relationships on these Tall Buildings, between the artistic design architects and the complex technical engineers. Who plays the more important role, the artist (AKA architect) or the structural experts (AKA engineer)?
Dr. Ray graciously chuckled at my loaded question. He explained that there are many roles that have to work together on these huge construction projects. Even within the field of Architecture their are design architects and technical architects. There are usually project managers each running one of numerous specialty areas of the overall project.  For instance there might be a team for the materials, design and structure of the concrete portions; a team for the materials, design and structure of the glass. Or advisers such as Dr. Ray who works on wind vortices, sustainable heating and cooling air flow designs, or structural testing.


I was curious about these big architecture firms, do they work globally or regionally? And how do they get the jobs? Dr. Ray said that projects usually start with a Real Estate Developer who chooses a site they think will be profitable.  They determine the purpose of the building (ie office space, residential etc) based on the surrounding area and again profitability.  The Real Estate Developer puts out an Invitational Design Competition.  The “big” names mentioned on the tour, such as Kohn Pedersen Fox or SOM are routinely invited to these competitions across the world.  A firm like SOM has branches in 10 world leading cities like New York, LA, London, Dubai, and Chicago.
Wow, how does the little guy ever get a chance to build a name in this business?
Dr. Ray agreed it is pretty difficult to break into the big leagues of tall building construction. There are predictable names that will almost always get invited to compete for projects.


Female Architects

The Aqua Building was credited to a woman, Jeanne Gang. How common is it for women to be the lead architects on these tall buildings? Dr. Ray explained that this is evolving in architecture just like all other fields.  He referred me to a recent article in the 2017 third quarter issue of  CTBUH Journal.   

The entire issue discusses the contributions of women in the field of Tall Building construction. Women such as Natalie de Blois of SOM who helped design the Lever House (NY) in the 1980’s, Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang who created The Aqua (CHI) in 2008 and Niccole Dosso of SOM  the technical architect of the new One World Trade Center (NY) 2014.

A quote from Sara Beardsley of Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill (CHI) sums up the issue:

“A challenge women face is that, historically, the tall building field has attracted and retained a lower proportion of women architects than most other specializations in architecture.  This issue may be related to similar challenges currently faced in other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, as tall building design is as much a science as it is an art. However, great strides have been made in the past few decades, as more female design and technical leaders in the tall building industry continue to emerge and be recognized for their contributions.”



There was one building on the tour that really captured my curiosity.  150 N. Riverside appears to be balanced on one narrow stem at its base. The docent explained that the site was limited by the rail system underground, and the site had sat vacant until a designer came up with a way to build on a narrow base. She also said that this building kept a tank of water at the top to compensate for the wind effects.
Dr. Ray  confirmed that it is common to use water for that purpose.  Water is very heavy and obviously fluid.  So it creates a counter movement to the wind that prevents the building occupants from feeling the Windy City whistling around them. SOM actually has a wind tunnel in Chicago for the testing of their tall building designs.

Art of Tall Buildings
150 N. Riverside by Goettsch Partners
Balancing Act















I have barely scratched the surface of the art of tall buildings or the technical conflagration it requires to raise these giants. My knowledge base of this industry is very primitive but that doesn’t limit my curiosity. Thanks to this wonderfully informative CAF River Cruise, I will never look up at tall buildings in the same way again.
I will do more research into female architects and their stories.  When we were in California we heard about a female architect, Julia Morgan, who spent most of her career building the Hearst Castle. I would love to know more about her. Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang also looks like a fascinating personality.
A special thank you to Dr. Stephen D. Ray of SOM for his time and patience. I know that he has a passion for green and sustainable construction and will play an important role in the urban habitats of the future. I will also keep my focus on his accomplishments over the years.

If you want to feed your curiosity I highly recommend visiting the Chicago Architecture Foundation at:
224 South Michigan Ave, Chicago.
They have over 85 tours that explore the architecture of Chicago in a wide variety of styles, history, and neighborhoods.








3 thoughts on “Art of Tall Buildings: Chicago Architecture River Cruise”

  1. One of the best ways to see my city! And any time spent on the water is the best time 🙂

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