Chicago is a big city with big projects.
NATIONAL ASLA CONVENTION CITY PREVIEW
Chicago is a city of design. Perhaps no other place on Earth has been home to so many different architectural innovations and grand landscape plans, and perhaps no other place has so altered itself with the times. Chicago is both historic and contemporary, both gritty industrial and newly sustainable, both vertical and horizontal.
Despite its humble beginnings on a wet dune facing a landlocked lake, America’s so-called second city has watched the rise of the Beaux-Arts in the wake of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the birth of the skyscraper, and the inceptions of the Chicago School of architecture, the international style, and the prairie style. Along the way it has burned to the ground, extended its landmass out into Lake Michigan, built elevated train tracks in the heart of its downtown, jacked its buildings several stories up out of the mud (literally on the backs of men), and reversed the direction of its river.
This is an especially illustrious year for the city once known as the hog-butcher to the world. It is the centennial of one of the grandest urban schemes of all time: Daniel Burnham’s Chicago Plan. A summer’s worth of activities will commemorate the event, but, in truth, the city has been embracing Burnham’s “make no little plans” philosophy for much of its history, especially in the last decade. Chicago has a “sustainable streets initiative,” is building stormwater infiltrating alleys all over town, and boasts 75 miles of landscaped street medians and four million square feet of green roofs – including city hall. And surely most landscape architects have heard of Millennium Park: one of the most expensive, written about, and, yes, successful works of design in decades.
Because of its long trajectory of design history and current cutting-edge projects, Chicago offers a lot to landscape architects planning to attend the ASLA Annual Meeting in September. If anything, the city could be a little overwhelming. Chicago is vast, and good things are happening all over town. And, honestly, the McCormick Center, where the September event will take place, is a little out of the way.
So consider this a big-picture guide to the city’s landscape architecture. We’ll describe a walking route from McCormick that hits most of the major downtown draws. We’ll venture a little farther afield to take in some of the classics. We’ll offer up a couple of specialized lists, including a “not to miss” list suggested by local landscape architects and explored (on foot and by public transit) by this author.
Some years ago, this City of Broad Shoulders might have had a bit of a chip on them, but not any more. In speaking with local designers, city personnel, and the general population, one thing is clear: Chicagoans love their city. You probably will, too.
LAKEFRONT / LOOP WALKING TOUR
It’s likely you’ll be staying near the Loop and will be shuttled to McCormick Center via the below-grade busway that parallels the downtown train tracks and Lakeshore Drive. Though this will no doubt be convenient, it is not the best way to see the city. It is, alternatively, entirely possible to walk between the Loop and the conference center, and that walk will take you past many of the downtown sites you probably plan to see anyway (and a couple of not-to-miss designs). You can walk this in either direction, or even rent a bike in Millennium Park. We’ll start at McCormick.
When the current Lakeside Center (the eastern building of the sprawling McCormick Center) was completed in 1971, it was derided as “the mistake by the lake” because its hulking black mass threatened to mar the continuous lakefront green space Chicago had been working on for more than 50 years. Not to worry: The 22-mile Lakeshore Trail runs between the building and the water and can be accessed by stairs descending from the main building terrace.
Once down on the trail, walk north (left). On your right is Burnham Yacht Harbor and on the other side of that is Northerly Island Park, famous as the former site of Miegs Field, a business airport that current mayor Richard M. Daley had bulldozed in the middle of the night. Though controversial at the time (to say the least), no one could blame him now. Though the park awaits full development, there is a walking trail, a beach, restored prairie, and artworks.
A little farther north you’ll come to a sledding hill. This is the southeastern corner of the new Soldier Field campus, designed by Peter Lindsay Schaudt, FASLA, prior to his firm’s merger with Douglas Hoerr’s. Just ahead you’ll see the stadium itself, an unusual combination of 1920s Beaux-Arts stone and new millennium glass and steel. The stadium campus comprises 98 acres, much of which is green roof over subterranean parking garages. You will have a difficult time telling the difference, however, between green roof and not (see “Sundays in the Park with Bears, Landscape Architecture, December 2004).
Wander north along Museum Campus Drive and then take a detour through the Gold Star Families Memorial. Designed by Wolff Landscape Architecture and completed in 2008, this site commemorates police officers killed in the line of duty. The project has an elegant intimate memorial space and a symbolic blue line set into the earth.
At the north end of the Gold Star Memorial, turn left and re-enter Schaudt’s stadium campus. You’ll encounter a children’s garden, more lush plantings, and another green roof area that slopes down to grade level. If there are not any events in the stadium, you can walk up into the concourses for nice views of the lake and downtown. The most notable design element of the stadium campus is how much hard surface was converted to plantings. Schaudt’s design added more than 160,000 square yards of sod, 1300 trees, and 12,000 shrubs.
This makes it kin to the Museum Campus, just to the north, into which it bleeds. The 1921 Field Museum of Natural History is the most prominent occupant of this campus, which was redesigned in the mid-1990s by Teng Engineers, with consultation from Lawrence Halprin, FASLA. Previously, the northbound lanes of Lakeshore Drive ran right here; they’ve since been relocated west. The campus also encompasses the Shedd Aquarium right on the lakeshore and the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, which sits out on a promontory jutting into the lake.
You can go through a nice tunnel under Lakeshore Drive and into the southern end of Grant Park, but better still, get back on the Lakeshore Trail just north of the Shedd. While you’re here walk around the lake side of the aquarium. This is one of the best spots to experience the vastness and the activity of Lake Michigan. Look east and see nothing but water. Look west and see one of the quintessential American skylines rising from behind Grant Park. Chicago has 26 miles of lakefront, 22 of which are public. It is all linked by the bicycle and pedestrian Lakeshore Trail, on which you stand. An exceptional ride runs from Grant Park in the Loop south to the Promontory.
For now, follow the trail north along Chicago Harbor, the true center of the city’s open space system and the most notable reality from Burnham’s Chicago Plan. Though Burnham envisioned something even more grandiose, the bisecting axis of Congress Parkway, through Buckingham Fountain (visible across Lakeshore Drive) to the lake, was a key provision. In fact, if you look at a map of the city today, the twin promontories of Navy Pier and the Adler Planetarium, with the harbor in the middle, are strikingly similar to the overall geometry of Burnham’s drawings.
Cross Lakeshore Drive (be careful), and ascend to Buckingham Fountain. This is the heart of Grant Park, a Beaux-Arts style green space designed by Burnham and landscape architect Edward Bennett in the early 20th Century. The 1927 fountain, modeled on one at Versailles, is now surrounded by permeable pavers, a perfect Chicago merger of historic and green.
Continue north through Grant Park and into Daley Bicentennial Plaza. Then cross over Frank Gehry’s serpentine steel BP Bridge into Millennium Park. Allen Freeman, writing for Landscape Architecture Magazine (see “Fair Game on Lake Michigan, November 2004), described Millennium as “a little fair of contemporary design.” It was completed in 2004 and comprises 24 acres. It sits officially within Grant Park, on land that was formerly below-grade railroad tracks. Today, the park covers those tracks, including the new Millennium Metra Station, and two parking lots. Definitely spend some time here. The key components are Gehry’s stainless steel Pritzker Pavilion; Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” known locally as “the Bean” (which is assuredly supplanting the Sears Tower – now the Willis Tower -- as the icon of Chicago); the gargantuan spitting faces of Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain; and the subdued but exquisite, national award-winning Lurie Garden, by Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, Piet Oudolf, Robert Israel, and Terry Guen, ASLA. This summer, Millennium will also be home to two temporary pavilions, by Zaha Hadid and UNStudio, to commemorate the Chicago Plan’s centennial.
Millennium as a whole manages to be current, while still remaining a part of Chicago’s Beaux-Arts tradition. Its arrangement and detailing, often credited to Chicago Park District architect Edward K. Uhlir and local landscape architect Guen, feel as if from another time, the perfect foil to the shiny, contemporary sculptures and landscapes within. But Lurie Garden is the highlight, in any season. Its layers of meaning reveal themselves slowly, and the careful balance of structure and softness, something contemporary landscape architecture strives for, is executed masterfully.
Just south of Millennium Park is the Art Institute of Chicago. The brand new Nichols Bridgeway links the two sites directly, but it is worth walking out to Michigan Avenue to the main entrance of the 1893 building. The stairway there, flanked by its stone lions, is a sort of Chicago Spanish Steps: a congregating spot for tourists, hawkers, locals, and artists. Currently on display at the Institute is a rotating collection of the original colored drawings from the 1909 Burnham Chicago Plan. Though they’re tucked downstairs in a hallway, they are worth the trip, to see what was planned for Chicago specifically, and to get a taste of that bygone era of city planning.
The Art Institute building is flanked by two garden courts. The northern one has been redone several times (most recently by OLIN) and is not particularly notable. The southern one, however, was designed by Dan Kiley in 1962 and has reached a level of maturity (and maintenance) not often seen in this master’s designs. Two gravel courts are sunken below an at-grade fountain, and the entire space is shaded by a thick canopy of hawthorn trees in a strict grid.
From here, go back to the steps, cross Michigan, and head inland along Adams Street. Pass under the clattering “L” and go one more block to State Street. Architecture buffs will want to continue three blocks to LaSalle to see the Rookery. This 1888 building is considered the masterpiece of the firm Burnham and Root. The beautiful soaring lobby with its cantilevered staircases was remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907 and was faithfully restored beginning in the late 1980s. It is open to the public and definitely worth a look.
Now head back east to State Street. This is the center of the Loop’s shopping district, and it used to be pedestrian only. In 1996, State was converted back to a vehicular route, one of the earliest malls in the country to be de-pedestrianized. It also set forth what local landscape architect Ted Wolff, ASLA, calls “the Chicago approach to urban streetscape design:” continuous planters protected by curbs and low railings, and narrower sidewalks to concentrate activity. This design theme has been subsequently implemented throughout the city.
Walk as far north as Washington, then turn left, and in one block you’ll come to Daley Plaza. This is home to the iconic untitled Picasso sculpture, and is, with the Daley Center building itself, an example of the international style (which finds its expressive height south of the Loop at the Illinois Institute of Technology). The Daley Plaza corner of Washington and Dearborn is the epitome of Chicago. Stand there and look down the grid in all four compass directions. To the west, you’ll see the Classical Revival City Hall (with its green roof) jostling for space with the devoid-of-detail iron of the Daley Center. To the east, from near to far, are the white, 1890s Reliance Building (now home to the Burnham Hotel), the best example of the Chicago School of Architecture; the more than 100-year-old girders of the “L;” the contemporary twisted steel of the Pritzker Pavilion; and the open sky above the lake. To the south is a classic Chicago building canyon. To the north are the iconic towers of Marina City, the residential “pipe cleaners” that rise almost directly from the river.
And speaking of the river, walk north three blocks to Wacker Drive and then out over the river. Along the way, as you pass under the Goodman Theater marquis, look right across the street and you’ll see the only downtown example of Chicago’s green alley program (see “Unseen Green,” Landscape Architecture, September 2008).
The Dearborn Street Bridge is on the site of the first moveable bridge built over the river, in 1834. The Chicago River has borne the brunt of Chicago’s success. It once flowed (somewhat logically) into the lake, but in 1900 the city reversed it, to keep its sewage-laden flow away from drinking water intakes in the lake. It is dyed green on St. Patrick’s Day. It is hemmed in with concrete and buildings. But Chicago wouldn’t be the same without it and the more than 20 drawbridges that span it downtown. The view from any of these is endemic to Chicago, and there’s something exciting and unsettling about walking on open metal mesh over the river while cars groan by beside you.
If you’re tuckered out, it’s a short walk from the bridge north to refreshment at one of the many eating and drinking establishments in River North. If you want to see more, continue east along Wacker Drive. Soon you’ll come to Wabash Memorial Plaza, designed by Jacobs/Ryan Associates. Essentially a grand staircase located west of the Wabash Bridge, this plaza lets you come right down to the river’s edge out in the open, a rarity in Chicago. At the foot of the plaza is Chicago’s newest piece of infrastructure, an extension of the riverwalk connecting east all the way to the lake. At press time this project, which extends public space out into the river, was under construction, but it may be completed by September.
Whether you walk down below or above on Wacker, when you reach Michigan Avenue, turn north. Beginning at the white, trapezoidal Wrigley Building right on the river, this section of Michigan is the famed Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s high end shopping district. The streetscape sports beautiful medians and sidewalk planters, but window-shopping is the draw. Most major retailers have flagship stores here, making it a mouthwatering stroll for the materialistically-inclined (and people watchers, too). Notable sights along the Mile include Chicago’s historic water tower at Chicago Avenue; the Museum of Contemporary Art just east of Michigan on Chicago, which usually has interesting sculptural work in its entry plaza; and the Hancock Center Plaza, a sunken space renovated in the early 2000s by Jacobs/Ryan Associates.
At this point, you are definitely in need of refreshment, so head a few blocks west and meander south along Rush Street, Wabash Avenue, or State Street. This area is home to several quintessential Chicago watering holes and feeding troughs (at various price points). To get back to the Loop, either walk or take the State Street subway (the red line) from Chicago Avenue or Grand Avenue.
SOUTH SIDE WALKING TOUR
In 1893 Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, which brought more than 27 million people to the south shore’s Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance. This part of town is still worth a visit, as there are quite a few historic and contemporary landscapes (and a pleasant neighborhood) within an afternoon’s walking loop. Grab the Metra South Shore Electric Line, either from the station under McCormick Place or the one beneath Millennium Park, and ride south to the 55th-56th-57th Street Station. Exit at 57th Street and head east to the Museum of Science and Industry. This is one of only three remaining buildings from the White City that sprawled across the surrounding neighborhoods and parks. It sits in Jackson Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted for the Exhibition. The lagoon just south of the museum, with its wooded island, is original (though in need of some care). For a shorter walk than this full tour describes, head west down the Plaisance to the University of Chicago, then back to the Metra station.
The lakeshore in this part of town, though, is stunning, so consider continuing south to 63rd Street, then east under the recently reconstructed Lakeshore Drive. Landscape architect Terry Guen’s award-winning “Beachside Transition” is an artfully planted gateway to the 63rd Street Beach and Bathing Pavilion. Guen used formal plantings on the park side and wilder looking grasses and shrubs on the beach side, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition of the two worlds when seen from within the tunnel.
From the beach, the Lakeshore Trail winds north to the Alfred Caldwell-designed Promontory, which, as its name suggests, juts out into the lake and provides exceptional views of the downtown skyline. Stretching from here north to the Loop is the thin lakeside strip known as Burnham Park. This green space was envisioned in the Chicago Plan and implemented in the 1920s and 1930s. Continue north to the pedestrian bridge at Hyde Park Boulevard and cross west into the neighborhood of the same name. There’s another Metra station just south at 53rd Street if you want to head back north (note that not all trains stop at McCormick). Otherwise, wander south through the neighborhood to the University of Chicago campus, centered at University Avenue and 58th Street, and explore the series of serene quadrangles surrounded by imposing neo-Gothic buildings. Architecture buffs will find Frank Lloyd Wright’s recently renovated Robie House just a block east.
Walk through one of the porte-cocheres to Midway Plaisance. This linear park was the entertainment venue for the Columbian Exposition. It was home to games, rides, and the first Ferris wheel (if you want to partake in that bit of Chicago nostalgia, head north to Navy Pier). This is why the rides-and-games part of any fair is called the midway. Today the Plaisance is a wide green space with walking paths, a skating rink, and, between Ellis and University, two winter gardens. Walk the Plaisance east almost to Jackson Park, and take the Metra back north from the 59th Street station.
Chicago’s in-town rail system comprises of eight color-coded lines, collectively known as the “L.” The L stands for “elevated,” which makes the name a bit of a misnomer, since not all of the lines are. Some run in highway medians and some even run underground. The L is old, loud, runs somewhat irregularly, and has a few strange route twists and turns. Nevertheless, it is the key transit mode for Chicagoans (mostly since the buses can be even worse), and a decent way of seeing some key works of landscape architecture that are located away from the Loop. If you’re a fan of public transit, the L is worth a ride for its uniqueness alone, but this tour also takes in eight out-of-the-way sights without the need for a car.
Start your L tour, ironically, by heading underground. Take the State Street Subway (the red line) south (toward 95th/Dan Ryan) from the Lake, Washington, Monroe, or Jackson stations in the Loop. Get off at the (elevated) Cermak-Chinatown station and head west along Cermak. You will immediately pass the Nine Dragon Wall on your right and the Chinatown Gate on your left, bridging Wentworth Avenue. Though Chicago’s Chinatown doesn’t have the bustle of coastal equivalents, it is home to an interesting park along the Chicago River.
Ping Tom Park was built on old railroad land in 2000 (see “A Cultural Revolution,” Landscape Architecture, July 2002). The design by Site Design Group is simple and pastoral, a stark contrast with the bulky railroad lift bridge that crosses the river just downstream. The park is a little hard to find. Head north on Wentworth and wander into the townhome neighborhood behind Chinatown Square. The entrance looks like a concrete driveway and isn’t advertised as a park. Look for the riverside pagoda-style arbor.
After visiting the park, continue south on the red line just one stop to the Sox-35th Station. As its name suggests, this station serves the city’s south side baseball team, whose ballpark is nearby. Walk east (in daylight only – please avoid after dark) along 35th Street under the Dan Ryan Expressway to the Illinois Institute of Technology. Best known as a completely international style campus designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1940s and 1950s, the landscape was originally designed by Alfred Caldwell. Recently, the school has seen contemporary buildings by architects Rem Koolhaas and Helmut Jahn. In the early 2000s, landscape architect Peter Lindsay Schaudt began leading a restoration effort to reclaim the historic campus from the parking lots that had begun to encroach. This work is still underway.
Wander the mid-century campus, peek into historic landmark Crown Hall, and visit Koolhaas’ student center. Then board the green line and head north through the student center (yes, the L does go right through the new building).
The green line stays elevated through the Loop, offering very Chicago-esque views of the downtown area and the river. Continue on this line all the way to the Conservatory-Central Park station on the west side. (Or, if you’re a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, take the green line all the way to Oak Park. Walk north to Chicago Avenue then three blocks west to Wright’s home and studio.) You’ll be able to see the Garfield Park Conservatory from the Conservatory station. When prairie-style landscape architect Jens Jensen designed this Conservatory in 1908, he redefined what such a facility could be. The fern room, in particular, is a masterpiece of planting design and stonework (see "Jens Jensen in 2008," Landscape Architecture Magazine). Behind the building is the City Garden by Hoerr Schaudt, an interesting contemporary interpretation of Jensen’s principles.
Nearby is the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT), a sustainable building and landscape meant to help design professionals and homeowners learn about environmentally sound practices. It is possible to walk there from the conservatory (during the day only) by following some of Chicago’s historic boulevards, which were envisioned in the 1870s by William Le Baron Jenney. Go north on Central Park Avenue (Garfield Park used to be called Central Park) to Franklin Boulevard, then east to Sacramento Boulevard. CCGT is just to the south. Alternatively, get back on the green line, head east to the California station, then take bus #94 to CCGT. The building and grounds are open to the public and tours are offered occasionally.
From CCGT, walk back west about three blocks to Kedzie and hop bus #52 north to Humboldt Park. Get off at Division and make your way to the Boathouse. The tech savvy traveler will want to pre-download a podcast tour of the park created by park historian Julia Bachrach. Humboldt was originally planned by Jenney, but much of today’s landscape is the work of Jensen, who experimented here with the prairie style of landscape architecture while parks superintendent in the early 1900s. Jensen’s most notable work was the prairie river, which was extensively reworked and restored by Chicago Parks and Conservation Design Forum in the early 2000s.
After your Humboldt tour, head back to Division and take bus #70 eastbound. This ride will run you through the fashionable Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood and across Goose Island (namesake of Chicago’s most famous local brew). Disembark at Clark and take the red line north (toward Howard) to the Sheridan station. Walk west a few blocks along Irving Park Road to Clark Street for a visit to Graceland Cemetery. Originally designed in 1860 by H.W.S. Cleveland and implemented over the next decades by Ossian Cole Simonds, the cemetery is a classic example of the pastoral style of remembrance gardens. It is currently under gradual restoration by Wolff Landscape Architecture.
Next, get back on the red line and head south. If you’re a Cubs fan, though, you are near sacred ground, so walk south on Clark Street to Wrigley Field. Stand in awe a moment or two, then head south on the red line from the Addison station just to the east.
Get off the train at Fullerton and walk east along the avenue of the same name for about a dozen blocks. You’re walking through the high-end Lincoln Park neighborhood and soon you will come to Lincoln Park itself. Chicago’s largest park began life as a cemetery in the 1850s and today its 1200 acres include a wide variety of amenities, including a free zoo, sports fields, and miles of lakeshore. The most notable sites, conveniently, are located right on Fullerton Avenue. As you enter the park, just to the right is the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond. Named for and originally designed by a Jens Jensen prairie style disciple, this undulating water feature, with its pavilions, council ring, and ledge stone, was lovingly restored by Chicago Parks and Wolff Landscape Architecture in 2002 (see “Uncovering an Oasis,” Landscape Architecture, November 2001). It is perhaps the best remaining example of its style. Just to the south is the zoo, and just north across Fullerton is the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (see “Prairie from Ground to Sky,” Landscape Architecture, December 2006) and the naturalized North Pond.
The final leg of this public transit tour is a scenic ride down Lakeshore Drive back to the Loop. Walk back west to Stockton Drive and north to Arlington and get on bus #134, which runs nonstop to the north end of downtown (alternatively, take bus #143 from the same spot non-stop to the north end of the Magnificent Mile). If you want to do just a portion of this tour, remember that all trains head to the Loop, so at any point, just find an L and ride back downtown.
Bachrach, Julia. The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago’s Parks. Chicago: Center for American Places, 2001.
Chappell, Sally A. Kitt. Chicago’s Urban Nature: A Guide to the City’s Architecture and Landscape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Domer, Dean Dennis. Alfred Caldwell: The Life and Work of a Prairie School Landscape Architect. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Gilfoyle, Timothy J. Millennium Park: Creating a Chicago Landmark. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Grese, Robert E. Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Vintage, 2004.
Smith, Carl. The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Favorite Guidebooks: Lonely Planet’s Chicago City Guide (5th Edition, 2008) and The Little Black Book of Chicago (Peter Pauper Press: 2008).