Architecture River Cruise In Chicago

Normally, we are all about “taking the path least travelled” yet when it comes to the very popular Chicago architectural river cruises, we were all over getting in line to join the masses to take the 75-minute cruise up and down the Chicago River to see and learn more about the city’s amazing history and architecture.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation cruise is one of the most engaging, enlightening and entertaining experiences we have enjoyed in a long time.  Our guide, a retired architect, was a fascinating storyteller who made architecture both interesting and understandable, no small feat given the need to use architectural lingo like curtain wall, footprint, setbacks, art deco, post-modern, bundled tube and skeleton frame.   

A view down the Chicago River which provides a dramatic perspective to view the skyline and visual history of Chicago, which is so linked to its buildings.  

Examples of the early 20th century skyscrapers with their ornamental roof and strong vertical lines.  The early skyscrapers were church-like in their vertical thrust into the sky i.e. heaven. 

A modern skyscaper that mirrors some of the verticalness of the early skyscraper but with new materials that are much more reflective and much less ornamentation.  The age of architectural minimalism started in the mid-20th century and is still popular today. 

Did you know that “Chicago” is an Indian world for stinkweed, a plant prevalent in the swamp that is now the city?  We learned about how the “Great Chicago Fire” of October 8, 1871 that took the lives of 250 people, left 100,000 people homeless and destroyed over 17,000 homes and buildings, was the catalyst for the city to become the Skycraper City.  Chicago is home to the first skyscraper the Home Insurance Building built in 1885. It was the first building not made of bricks and mortar, but instead had a metal frame. This reduced the weight of the building and allowed taller buildings.  Subsequently, the Chicago School of Architecture was created with many high-rise buildings built form the mid 1880s to 1910.  The design of the buildings often consisted of a three parts: a wide base, a narrower tower on top of the base and a decorative top.

We also learned about the “reversal of the river.”  In the late 19th century, the Chicago River which runs through downtown, was used as an open sewer. However, since it flowed into Lake Michigan. it polluted Chicago’s drinking water. After thousands died from water-related diseases, it was determined the river needed to be reversed.  So, a 26-mile canal was dug 15 feet deeper than the river so when the sanitary and ship canal opened in 1900, the river began to flow backwards naturally as a result of gravity.  Today, the river is much cleaner and while it is still a working river, it is becoming more and more an urban playground with residential development and pathways for recreational uses along its banks.   

Th black Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower)  was  the tallest building in the world when built in 1973.  The neighbouring South Wacker Drive tower reflects many of the same massing (shape) elements but incorporates more decorative elements similar to the early 20th century towers and therefore is called post-modern architecture.  It is the tallest building in the world known only by its street name. Built in 1990, it has a larger circular crown at top that is illuminated at night to make it the most visible building in Chicago's impressive skyline. 

An example of the many parks that are being created along the Chicago river as it becomes more and more an urban playground than a working river.  

A view of the recreational pathway that meanders along the river, making downtown a more attractive place to live.  

For photographers, the river cruise simply “eye candy.”  It seems like every minute there is a new perspective, a different juxtaposition of architectural styles.  We were fortunate to take the cruise on a warm, blue-sky day – the light was spectacular.

Our tour guide was full of fun little factoids and memorable comments including:

“Architecture is the art in which you live in.”

“In Chicago, things are always changing. Nothing stays the same.”  A quote from Mark Twain

“Chicago is sometimes called Paris on the prairies as the river and its bridges are the heart of the city.”

“Tall, dark and handsome” is what some people call Chicago because its signature skyscrapers of the 20th century are tall, dark and handsome buildings – Sears Tower and John Hancock Tower. 

The contrast between the early and late 20th century architecture is very obvious in Chicago.  Note how the earlier skyscrapers were all about the vertical lines which give them an uplifting sense of place.  The late 20th century buildings often have more are horizontal lines that negate the visual verticalness of the structure making it less sky oriented.   

Another example of late 20th century minimalist office architecture.  The building's shape is dramatic with its razor-like edge and flat reflective glass facade.     It has immediate WOW factor, unfortunately there is not much to look at once the WOW is gone.  Some call this "look-at-me" architecture as it grabs your attention but doesn't hold it. 

Along the river you go under many bridges or all different styles.  This old bridge which is permanently elevate is very sculptural and provides a context for how cities have evolved.  There are 18 bridges along a 2 mile stretch of downtown. 

The lattice work as you pass under many of the bridges is incredibly beautiful and detailed. Urban beauty is often in the intricate details of the buildings, structures and public space.  It is often missing in modern urban design, which is often why people refer to the modern downtown as the concrete jungle.  

An example of the bridgehouse where the bridge operator would have a panoramic view of the river and be responsible for elevating the bridge as needed to allow shipping up and down the river. 

Our recommendations:

1.     Book the river cruise tour before you leave home so you aren’t disappointed

2.     Go on your first day as it will provide you with a perfect orientation to the city and its illustrious history

3.     Sit at or near the back of the boat. You’ll have no problem hearing well and this will prevent lots of “turning around” to see or take pictures after the tour guide finishes their banter about the buildings.  

An example of new residential/hotel architecture. Note it still has the basic elements of the Chicago School of Architecture i.e. wide base with a tower on top of the base and then a decorative element on top.  Today this is called podium point design and is very popular for condo developments  around the world. 

Marina City was completed in 1964.  Its corncob-like facade is a unique design that stands out immediately in the skyline.  At 65 floors the twin towers were the tallest residential buildings in the world when they were built. Note the bottom floors is actually a parking garage if you look closely you can see the cars.  

The CBD apartment building is another of Chicago's distinctive architectural gems.  In this case the pattern of different sized balconies creates a facade that is visually playful and exciting. 

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The Curse of Minimalism  

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 more information on Architecture River Cruises 

More information on Chicago Tourism at ChooseChicago