On a sunny summer day in Chicago, visitors to the Chicago Architecture Center had only to cross busy Wacker Drive to board the tour boat that would take them past the architectural icons that line the Chicago River. On board, docents pointed out landmarks such as the white terra cotta Wrigley Building completed in 1924 and the corncob-shaped Marina City towers from 1967 designed by Bertrand Goldberg.
The Instagrammable itinerary, ranked as the city’s top attraction on TripAdvisor, has long been the most popular offering from the nonprofit formerly known as the Chicago Architecture Foundation. With last fall’s move eight blocks north to One Illinois Center, to a building designed by the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the renamed Chicago Architecture Center gained a prominent riverfront location and a platform to tell the story of Chicago design and its global influence.
“We’re opposite the cruise dock, in the last building Mies designed on the site of Fort Dearborn where the city was founded,” said Lynn Osmond, the president and chief executive of the Chicago Architecture Center, emphasizing its centrality, both geographically and historically.
The design nonprofit already drew nearly 700,000 annual visitors before it opened the new location on the recently transformed riverfront. But with the move, the center has expanded its function from acting as a starting point for architectural tours to include 9,000 square feet of gallery space (from 1,600 square feet prior), which the institution is using to make its case for Chicago as a city of design in exhibits ranging from resource conservation to global skyscraper design.
Beside the center’s front door sits a nearly 40-foot-tall scale model of the as-yet-unbuilt Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, designed by the Chicago-based architect Adrian Smith and intended to be the world’s first one-kilometer-tall building. It tapers as it rises through a cutout in the floor of the second story skyscraper gallery to graze the 26-foot-tall ceiling. The airy, window-walled skyscraper gallery, where architecture students recently mingled with visitors from Ohio and England, exhibits models of iconic tall buildings worldwide including the elegant Chrysler Building in New York City and the London tower by Norman Foster nicknamed the “Gherkin.”
“Chicago invented skyscrapers and we’re still building the tallest buildings in the world, though they just may not be here,” Ms. Osmond said, referring to the now-demolished Home Insurance Building, built in 1885 and considered to be the first modern skyscraper, and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world, completed in 2010, also by Mr. Smith, then with the Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Visits begin on the ground floor where more than 4,000 buildings fill out a 3-D scale model of Chicago, the centerpiece of a multimedia show illustrating th development of the city. During the presentation, dramatic lighting paints a core of the pale gray buildings orange to illustrate the Great Fire of 1871 that razed more than 17,000 structures. The Fire is largely credited with attracting architects who rebuilt Chicago with new 20th-century aesthetics.
While skyline stars like 875 N. Michigan Ave., formerly known as the John Hancock Center, and the Willis Tower are highlighted in the show, and well-known architects of the past including Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan get a lot of attention in displays, other exhibits focus on neighborhood design and vernacular architecture in styles like the bungalow and the two-flat and illustrate how the city developed around industry, urban planning and natural resources like Lake Michigan.
In learning about the forces that created Chicago’s urban plan, Ms. Osmond hopes visitors will “go back and look at your own city in new ways.”
From a practical standpoint, the new headquarters centralizes the indoor and outdoor attractions offered by the Chicago Architecture Center. In addition to the museum exhibits, the center is now the hub for its many tours — 75 on foot and 20 by bus, bike or elevated “L” train — including the boat tours that launch just across the street. Walking tours range from “Must-See Chicago,” including the Wrigley Building, to modern skyscrapers, and most run about 90 minutes.
During the pedestrian tour “Chicago Architecture: A Walk Through Time” ($26), the docent Eileen Jacobs moved quickly from the city’s origins as a 17th-century fur trading post to the Great Fire that left 100,000 homeless. She credited the advent of lightweight steel-frame construction as a solution to the “horrible chocolate-pudding soil here.”
While never straying more than five blocks from the center, the tour stopped at a 1928 bank by the architectural firm Rapp and Rapp featuring a squirrel on the facade as a reference to squirreling away money; the Art Deco-era Chicago Motor Club by Holabird and Root with period lobby murals within what is now a Hampton Inn; and the 1929 Carbide and Carbon Building, resembling a champagne bottle in the fizzy days before the Great Depression.
The 90-minute trip ended looking at the Vista Tower. Not yet finished but already revealing its undulating shape, the design by the Chicago architect Jeanne Gang represents a contemporary chapter in Chicago’s newly central design story.