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The iconic balconies of Marina City.
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16 Brutalist masterpieces that every Chicagoan should know

Love or hate the style, Chicago’s concrete buildings deserve to be recognized

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The iconic balconies of Marina City.
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Brutalism, an architectural style which derives its name from the French term béton brut or “raw concrete,” isn’t for everyone. In fact, some people downright hate it. President Trump called D.C.’s Brutalist FBI building “one of the ugliest buildings in the city.” That being said, the movement changed how people thought about and used the material as well as produced a number of important Chicago structures.

“Concrete buildings recall a time when our country invested in the civic realm, when government could be a positive caretaker of its most vulnerable people, when the nation could sincerely express collective aspirations and openness through monumental structures, and when the future could be embraced with optimism,” architecture professor Mark Pasnik said in a Boston Globe op-ed.

Popular during the 1960s and 70s, Brutalism should not be overlooked for its historical importance. Though Chicago lost a few Brutalist buildings—most famously Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which was demolished in 2014—the style might even be poised for a comeback.

“In many cases, concrete buildings captured the aspirations of the city at critical times,” Chicago-based architect Iker Gil said in a statement last year. “As we shape the future of Chicago, it is worth trying to learn from the lessons and opportunities represented by these remarkable buildings.”

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Northwestern University Main Library

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Like many college campus in Chicago and across the U.S., Northwestern University has a Brutalist building to call its own. The University LIbrary was built in 1970 by architect Walter Netsch. The complex is broken up into geometric shapes, slivered windows, and thick concrete. It’s in stark contrast with the university’s other main library, the Deering Library, which is housed in a vine-covered Gothic-inspired structure.

O'Hare International Airport Control Tower

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The late I.M. Pei designed this Brutalist control tower at O’Hare Airport in 1971. Topped by a glass crown, the five-sided structure stands 200 feet and was the tallest control tower in the country when it opened. Although Pei’s creation has been surpassed by taller towers and no longer holds O’Hare’s primary air traffic control, it still plays a role in airport operations.

Wilbur Wright College

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At Wilbur Wright College you can see four large buildings designed by Bertrand Goldberg. According to the architect’s website, “The project was notable for the Learning Resource Center, a large pyramid-shaped building, as the focal point of the design. Described by Goldberg as a learning center that ‘could operate for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,’ the building featured an enclosed central atrium that extended to the top of the pyramid.” This project was the last major project built before Goldberg died in 1997.

DePaul University Schmitt Academic Center

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This fortress-like educational building won the Concrete Contractors Association Superior Craftsmanship Award for in 1968. Commonly known as “SAC,” it houses academic and administrative offices, including the Departments of African and Black Diaspora Studies, History, Latin American and Latino Studies, Mathematical Sciences, Modern Languages, Women’s and Gender Studies and Writing, and Rhetoric and Discourse.

Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital

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Unlike Bertrand Goldberg’s demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital, the Perkins + Will-designed St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital still stands at the border of Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village. Completed in 1975, the 16-story Brutalist building features rounded vertical bays and oversized curving air intakes that give its a futuristic sci-fi vibe.

Marina City

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Completed in 1967 by Bertrand Goldberg Associates, these riverfront towers are a true Chicago icon. When the buildings were designed, the Loop was not a residential destination, but Goldberg envisioned Marina City as an experiment to try to bring middle-class people back downtown and into the city. To do this, he created a “city within a city,” which included an office building, a theater, parking for your car or boat, and retail space. 

Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist

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Although clad in travertine stone instead of raw concrete, this downtown church designed by Harry Weese still features many Brutalist traits including a concrete structure. The six-sided structure was completed in 1968 to take full advantage of its wedge-shaped site, located at the intersection of three streets. It resembles a Greek amphitheater on the inside.

55 W. Wacker Drive

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Located just across the river from Marina City, this 15-story office building was also symbolic of efforts to reinvigorate Chicago’s stagnant downtown in the late 1960s. Although the 256-foot-tall structure is dwarfed by its larger neighbors, the muscular design from C.F. Murphy Associates gives 55 W. Wacker serious street presence.

Metropolitan Correctional Center

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Also designed by Henry Weese, the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago is shaped like a triangle and opened in 1975. The 27-story Brutalist structure was built with 5-inch-wide windows to prevent escapes while not requiring bars.

UIC University Hall

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Designed by Walter Netsch and constructed in 1963, this Brutalist structure at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) stands 338 feet tall over the city’s Near West Side and was recently restored. The building is 20 feet wider at its top than at its base, and has an exposed reinforced concrete skeleton and narrow recessed windows.

UIC Behavioral Sciences Building

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In the foreground of University Hall are a low-slung group of buildings that were built for the Behavioral Sciences department. There are perplexing octagonal staircases, classrooms without windows, and deadend hallways. Also designed by Netsch, this project was a practice in what he called Field Theory—essentially a geometric approach to spatial organization which he explains here in a 1979 paper.

UIC Science and Engineering Offices

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Once again designed by Walter Netsch, this 13-story UIC building also has narrow recessed windows. There are two sections of this building—and, from the outside, you are able to see their concrete-framed scissor-style staircases. It opened in 1968.

River City Apartments

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A popular point on the river architecture tours, this 1986 Brutalist building recently underwent a controversial renovation, converting 449 condos into rental apartments and painting the interior atrium white, an area that in keeping with Brutalist form should have stayed concrete. “River City was Bertrand Goldberg’s most comprehensive urban project, marrying a great social experiment—his ‘democracy through architecture’—with the modest goal of creating a walk-to-work culture in Chicago,” according to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Raymond Hilliard Homes

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A South Side Chicago Housing Authority complex, these towers were also designed by Bertrand Goldberg. The layout was meant to maximize space. According to the AIA Guide to Chicago, “The revolutionary design theories that Goldberg developed for Marina City were applied here to the problem of public housing, creating what is still regarded as one of the city’s best examples of humane high-rise living for low-income families.”

Univeristy of Chicago Regenstein Library

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Home to over 4.5 million print volumes, the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library was completed in 1970 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with Walter Netsch as the senior architect. “Netsch was commissioned to build the library out of the same Indiana limestone as the buildings on the central UChicago quad, although the building’s Brutalist design makes the stone strongly resemble concrete from afar,” The Chicago Maroon wrote.

University of Chicago Henry Hinds Laboratory

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This academic building is quite different from the Gothic towers that populate the campus. It was designed by I.W. Colburn and opened in 1969. At first, the university remained focused on maintaining its traditional aesthetic, but as designs shifted in the ’50s and ’50s Colburn opted for a less decorative exterior with slabs of limestone. It was a forward-looking design that allowed other Brutalist buildings to move ahead, like the Regenstein Library that opened just a year later.

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Northwestern University Main Library

Like many college campus in Chicago and across the U.S., Northwestern University has a Brutalist building to call its own. The University LIbrary was built in 1970 by architect Walter Netsch. The complex is broken up into geometric shapes, slivered windows, and thick concrete. It’s in stark contrast with the university’s other main library, the Deering Library, which is housed in a vine-covered Gothic-inspired structure.

O'Hare International Airport Control Tower

The late I.M. Pei designed this Brutalist control tower at O’Hare Airport in 1971. Topped by a glass crown, the five-sided structure stands 200 feet and was the tallest control tower in the country when it opened. Although Pei’s creation has been surpassed by taller towers and no longer holds O’Hare’s primary air traffic control, it still plays a role in airport operations.

Wilbur Wright College

At Wilbur Wright College you can see four large buildings designed by Bertrand Goldberg. According to the architect’s website, “The project was notable for the Learning Resource Center, a large pyramid-shaped building, as the focal point of the design. Described by Goldberg as a learning center that ‘could operate for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,’ the building featured an enclosed central atrium that extended to the top of the pyramid.” This project was the last major project built before Goldberg died in 1997.

DePaul University Schmitt Academic Center

This fortress-like educational building won the Concrete Contractors Association Superior Craftsmanship Award for in 1968. Commonly known as “SAC,” it houses academic and administrative offices, including the Departments of African and Black Diaspora Studies, History, Latin American and Latino Studies, Mathematical Sciences, Modern Languages, Women’s and Gender Studies and Writing, and Rhetoric and Discourse.

Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital

Unlike Bertrand Goldberg’s demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital, the Perkins + Will-designed St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital still stands at the border of Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village. Completed in 1975, the 16-story Brutalist building features rounded vertical bays and oversized curving air intakes that give its a futuristic sci-fi vibe.

Marina City

Completed in 1967 by Bertrand Goldberg Associates, these riverfront towers are a true Chicago icon. When the buildings were designed, the Loop was not a residential destination, but Goldberg envisioned Marina City as an experiment to try to bring middle-class people back downtown and into the city. To do this, he created a “city within a city,” which included an office building, a theater, parking for your car or boat, and retail space. 

Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist

Although clad in travertine stone instead of raw concrete, this downtown church designed by Harry Weese still features many Brutalist traits including a concrete structure. The six-sided structure was completed in 1968 to take full advantage of its wedge-shaped site, located at the intersection of three streets. It resembles a Greek amphitheater on the inside.

55 W. Wacker Drive

Located just across the river from Marina City, this 15-story office building was also symbolic of efforts to reinvigorate Chicago’s stagnant downtown in the late 1960s. Although the 256-foot-tall structure is dwarfed by its larger neighbors, the muscular design from C.F. Murphy Associates gives 55 W. Wacker serious street presence.

Metropolitan Correctional Center

Also designed by Henry Weese, the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago is shaped like a triangle and opened in 1975. The 27-story Brutalist structure was built with 5-inch-wide windows to prevent escapes while not requiring bars.

UIC University Hall

Designed by Walter Netsch and constructed in 1963, this Brutalist structure at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) stands 338 feet tall over the city’s Near West Side and was recently restored. The building is 20 feet wider at its top than at its base, and has an exposed reinforced concrete skeleton and narrow recessed windows.

UIC Behavioral Sciences Building

In the foreground of University Hall are a low-slung group of buildings that were built for the Behavioral Sciences department. There are perplexing octagonal staircases, classrooms without windows, and deadend hallways. Also designed by Netsch, this project was a practice in what he called Field Theory—essentially a geometric approach to spatial organization which he explains here in a 1979 paper.

UIC Science and Engineering Offices

Once again designed by Walter Netsch, this 13-story UIC building also has narrow recessed windows. There are two sections of this building—and, from the outside, you are able to see their concrete-framed scissor-style staircases. It opened in 1968.

River City Apartments

A popular point on the river architecture tours, this 1986 Brutalist building recently underwent a controversial renovation, converting 449 condos into rental apartments and painting the interior atrium white, an area that in keeping with Brutalist form should have stayed concrete. “River City was Bertrand Goldberg’s most comprehensive urban project, marrying a great social experiment—his ‘democracy through architecture’—with the modest goal of creating a walk-to-work culture in Chicago,” according to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Raymond Hilliard Homes

A South Side Chicago Housing Authority complex, these towers were also designed by Bertrand Goldberg. The layout was meant to maximize space. According to the AIA Guide to Chicago, “The revolutionary design theories that Goldberg developed for Marina City were applied here to the problem of public housing, creating what is still regarded as one of the city’s best examples of humane high-rise living for low-income families.”

Univeristy of Chicago Regenstein Library

Home to over 4.5 million print volumes, the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library was completed in 1970 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with Walter Netsch as the senior architect. “Netsch was commissioned to build the library out of the same Indiana limestone as the buildings on the central UChicago quad, although the building’s Brutalist design makes the stone strongly resemble concrete from afar,” The Chicago Maroon wrote.

University of Chicago Henry Hinds Laboratory

This academic building is quite different from the Gothic towers that populate the campus. It was designed by I.W. Colburn and opened in 1969. At first, the university remained focused on maintaining its traditional aesthetic, but as designs shifted in the ’50s and ’50s Colburn opted for a less decorative exterior with slabs of limestone. It was a forward-looking design that allowed other Brutalist buildings to move ahead, like the Regenstein Library that opened just a year later.