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A modernist space-frame building with a flat overhanging eave next to a large body of water. Getty Images

12 modernist buildings every Chicagoan should know

Steel-and-glass midcentury masterpieces by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other visionaries

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Led by pioneer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, modernist architecture flourished in post World War II Chicago. Mies and his midcentury contemporaries rejected the ornamentation of the previous generation of structures in favor of clean lines and functional, yet elegant minimalism.

Modern buildings typically used steel for exterior support, glass for the facade, and concrete for interior floors and support. These skyscrapers, residential towers, and corporate headquarters from about 1940 to 1975 reflect what’s commonly known as the International Style or “Second Chicago School” of architecture (the original lasted from 1880 to 1910).

Here are 12 essential modern buildings to know:

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1. 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive

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880 N Lake Shore Dr
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 943-0432
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These orderly twin residential towers on N. Lake Shore Drive that face Lake Michigan embody the “less-is-more” philosophy of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. When completed in 1951, some found the steel-and-glass skyscrapers too stark, but they quickly became the template for modernist towers around the world.

2. 875 N. Michigan Avenue

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875 N Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60611

The John Hancock name may be gone, but this signature 100-story tower—now known by its address—remains an unmistakable presence on the Chicago skyline. Conceived by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and engineer Fazlur Khan in 1969, the basalt-black building features a system of framed tubes and stacked steel X-braces that removed the need for internal support columns.

3. Lake Point Tower Condominium

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505 N Lake Shore Dr
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 467-0505
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Mies’ influence is felt strongly in the design of the Lake Point Tower, completed in 1968. George Schipporeit and John Heinrich, former students of Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, based it on Mies’s unbuilt design of a glass skyscraper in Berlin. At 70-stories, the curved ‘Y’ shaped residential tower was once the tallest apartment building in the world and tallest reinforced concrete structure.

4. 330 N. Wabash Avenue

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330 N Wabash Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 621-8580
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Mies’s final American building (he died in 1969 before construction began) was also his tallest at 695 feet. Originally designed as the Chicago office of the IBM Corporation, 330 Wabash is an archetypal example of Mies’ International Style with its prismatic massing, sleek curtain wall with welded I-beams, and glass-enclosed lobby.  A sculpture of the architect can also be found in the lobby.

5. Marina City

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Marina City Goldberg
Chicago, IL 60654

Architect Bertrand Goldberg, who was taught by Mies at the Bauhaus School, is best known for designing this highly influential 65-story corncob-shaped Marina City in 1959. It was meant to be a “city-within-a-city,” with amenities like a theater, bowling alley, stores, and restaurants to stop more people from fleeing to the suburbs. In Chicago, it’s sometimes called the “Wilco Towers”  because of their appearance on the cover of Wilco’s 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

6. Richard J. Daley Center

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50 W Washington St
Chicago, IL 60602
(312) 603-3054
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Chicago’s first major public building to be constructed in a modern rather than a classical architectural style, the Daley Center was heavily influenced by the steel and glass skyscrapers of Mies. Designed by C. F. Murphy Associates, the building was innovative for its huge spans of steel framing, its exceptional spatial flexibility and the first-ever use of Cor-Ten steel as an exterior “skin” for a skyscraper. The Daley Center is arguably most famous, however, for the Picasso sculpture placed in the building’s plaza in 1967.

7. Inland Steel Building

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30 W Monroe St
Chicago, IL 60603

This corporate headquarters building—completed in 1957—it was the first high-rise tower constructed in the Loop after World War II. Designed by Bruce Graham and Walter Netsch of SOM, it’s famous for its modern features such as stainless steel cladding, column-free interior, and the consolidation of elevators and other service functions in a separate tower that allowed for a highly flexible floor layout.

8. Willis Tower

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233 S Wacker Dr
Chicago, IL 60606
(312) 875-0066
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Bigger isn’t always better, but this 110-story, 1,454-foot-high modern skyscraper is a remarkable architectural and engineering achievement. SOM’s team of architect Bruce Graham and engineer Fazlur Khan designed the Sears Tower (now Willis) as nine square tubes clustered to form a square base. When it was completed in 1974, it became the world’s tallest building. Forty-five years later, it ranks only #23 on the list, but it’s still the heavyweight champion of Chicago’s skyline.

9. Federal Center

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S Clark St
Chicago, IL 60604

The Mies-designed Federal Center complex at 219 S. Dearborn was a massive steel-and-glass project erected between 1964 and 1971. There are several components consisting of today’s Kluczynski Federal Building, Dirksen Federal Building, and U.S. Post Office.

10. McCormick Place Lakeside Center

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2301 S Lake Shore Dr
Chicago, IL 60616

There’s been talk about demolishing this underutilized 49-year-old modernist convention hall designed by former Mies student Gene Summers and building everything from a casino to George Lucas’s museum. But for now, the Lakeside Center—the world’s largest space-frame structure—is still here.

11. S. R. Crown Hall

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3360 S State St
Chicago, IL 60616
(312) 567-3230
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Designed to house Illinois Institute of Technology’s departments of architecture, planning, and design, S.R. Crown Hall is considered Mies’ modernist masterpiece. The clean design of the building—which was completed in 1956 and renovated in 2005—is so simple that Mies once described it as “almost nothing.”

12. Keck-Gottschalk-Keck apartments

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5551 S University Ave
Chicago, IL 60637

Completed in 1937, this Hyde Park three-flat apartment building designed by brothers George Fred and William Keck is one of Chicago’s earliest examples of modern architecture. It was declared a Chicago Landmark in 1994.

Keck-Gottschalk-Keck Apartments
Courtesy Commission on Chicago Landmarks

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1. 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive

880 N Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60611

These orderly twin residential towers on N. Lake Shore Drive that face Lake Michigan embody the “less-is-more” philosophy of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. When completed in 1951, some found the steel-and-glass skyscrapers too stark, but they quickly became the template for modernist towers around the world.

880 N Lake Shore Dr
Chicago, IL 60611

2. 875 N. Michigan Avenue

875 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

The John Hancock name may be gone, but this signature 100-story tower—now known by its address—remains an unmistakable presence on the Chicago skyline. Conceived by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and engineer Fazlur Khan in 1969, the basalt-black building features a system of framed tubes and stacked steel X-braces that removed the need for internal support columns.

875 N Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60611

3. Lake Point Tower Condominium

505 N Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60611

Mies’ influence is felt strongly in the design of the Lake Point Tower, completed in 1968. George Schipporeit and John Heinrich, former students of Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, based it on Mies’s unbuilt design of a glass skyscraper in Berlin. At 70-stories, the curved ‘Y’ shaped residential tower was once the tallest apartment building in the world and tallest reinforced concrete structure.

505 N Lake Shore Dr
Chicago, IL 60611

4. 330 N. Wabash Avenue

330 N Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

Mies’s final American building (he died in 1969 before construction began) was also his tallest at 695 feet. Originally designed as the Chicago office of the IBM Corporation, 330 Wabash is an archetypal example of Mies’ International Style with its prismatic massing, sleek curtain wall with welded I-beams, and glass-enclosed lobby.  A sculpture of the architect can also be found in the lobby.

330 N Wabash Ave
Chicago, IL 60611

5. Marina City

Marina City Goldberg, Chicago, IL 60654

Architect Bertrand Goldberg, who was taught by Mies at the Bauhaus School, is best known for designing this highly influential 65-story corncob-shaped Marina City in 1959. It was meant to be a “city-within-a-city,” with amenities like a theater, bowling alley, stores, and restaurants to stop more people from fleeing to the suburbs. In Chicago, it’s sometimes called the “Wilco Towers”  because of their appearance on the cover of Wilco’s 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Marina City Goldberg
Chicago, IL 60654

6. Richard J. Daley Center

50 W Washington St, Chicago, IL 60602

Chicago’s first major public building to be constructed in a modern rather than a classical architectural style, the Daley Center was heavily influenced by the steel and glass skyscrapers of Mies. Designed by C. F. Murphy Associates, the building was innovative for its huge spans of steel framing, its exceptional spatial flexibility and the first-ever use of Cor-Ten steel as an exterior “skin” for a skyscraper. The Daley Center is arguably most famous, however, for the Picasso sculpture placed in the building’s plaza in 1967.

50 W Washington St
Chicago, IL 60602

7. Inland Steel Building

30 W Monroe St, Chicago, IL 60603

This corporate headquarters building—completed in 1957—it was the first high-rise tower constructed in the Loop after World War II. Designed by Bruce Graham and Walter Netsch of SOM, it’s famous for its modern features such as stainless steel cladding, column-free interior, and the consolidation of elevators and other service functions in a separate tower that allowed for a highly flexible floor layout.

30 W Monroe St
Chicago, IL 60603

8. Willis Tower

233 S Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL 60606

Bigger isn’t always better, but this 110-story, 1,454-foot-high modern skyscraper is a remarkable architectural and engineering achievement. SOM’s team of architect Bruce Graham and engineer Fazlur Khan designed the Sears Tower (now Willis) as nine square tubes clustered to form a square base. When it was completed in 1974, it became the world’s tallest building. Forty-five years later, it ranks only #23 on the list, but it’s still the heavyweight champion of Chicago’s skyline.

233 S Wacker Dr
Chicago, IL 60606

9. Federal Center

S Clark St, Chicago, IL 60604

The Mies-designed Federal Center complex at 219 S. Dearborn was a massive steel-and-glass project erected between 1964 and 1971. There are several components consisting of today’s Kluczynski Federal Building, Dirksen Federal Building, and U.S. Post Office.

S Clark St
Chicago, IL 60604

10. McCormick Place Lakeside Center

2301 S Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60616

There’s been talk about demolishing this underutilized 49-year-old modernist convention hall designed by former Mies student Gene Summers and building everything from a casino to George Lucas’s museum. But for now, the Lakeside Center—the world’s largest space-frame structure—is still here.

2301 S Lake Shore Dr
Chicago, IL 60616

11. S. R. Crown Hall

3360 S State St, Chicago, IL 60616

Designed to house Illinois Institute of Technology’s departments of architecture, planning, and design, S.R. Crown Hall is considered Mies’ modernist masterpiece. The clean design of the building—which was completed in 1956 and renovated in 2005—is so simple that Mies once described it as “almost nothing.”

3360 S State St
Chicago, IL 60616

12. Keck-Gottschalk-Keck apartments

5551 S University Ave, Chicago, IL 60637
Keck-Gottschalk-Keck Apartments
Courtesy Commission on Chicago Landmarks

Completed in 1937, this Hyde Park three-flat apartment building designed by brothers George Fred and William Keck is one of Chicago’s earliest examples of modern architecture. It was declared a Chicago Landmark in 1994.

5551 S University Ave
Chicago, IL 60637