I’ll admit that my first real impression of Chicago architecture was as a young Wilco fan, seeing Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City rise, in somewhat sinister form, on the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I only saw the twin buildings in person for the first time last year, when I moved to Chicago. Up close, the corncob structures were bigger than I’d ever imagined, and I halted to survey their dizzying, petaled balconies. That’s the thing about concrete buildings: when executed with sculptural flair, their material, raw and tough, presents unparalleled, arresting drama.
Chicago is home to dozens of such unique, concrete beasts. For a new map published by Blue Crow Media, Chicago-based architect Iker Gil has selected over 50 examples of concrete and Brutalist buildings across the city and its suburbs to highlight. Many are famous, like Marina City, but there are also many that are lesser known, like the University of Chicago’s Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences, whose fortress-like exterior also made me freeze when I first encountered it. The double-sided guide features a map as well as an inventory of the buildings, illustrated with photographs by Jason Woods. Woods’s images are formal, with the buildings captured in black and white but set against a blue sky — a pleasing visual twist.
Iker, who also serves as director of MAS Studio, provides a brief introduction to concrete architecture in Chicago — a city perhaps known more for its pioneering use of steel to construct the first modern skyscrapers. Works by Goldberg and Walter Netsch (of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or SOM), he writes, were among the visionary architects who gave the city its first concrete marvels; included in the map are SOM’s hard-edged libraries for Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. Among more recent constructions is a private house by Tadao Ando — which appears foreboding from the street — and buildings by Studio Gang such as the SOS Children’s Villages Lavezzorio Community Center.
There are many other sites I had never seen or even heard of before, such as the Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital, or the Kirsch Residence — a futuristic single-family home in Oak Park built in 1982. All together, they show how concrete in Chicago was used for a variety of practical-use buildings, from residential to administrative to university campus structures.
As Iker notes, the city has witnessed the demolition of several significant concrete buildings in recent years. One was Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, a spaceship-like behemoth that was destroyed five years ago. Marina City, on the other hand, is luckier, having had its future recently secured: in 2016, the city named it an official landmark.
The Concrete Chicago Map is the 12th local map Blue Crow Media has produced so far, following ones that celebrate the modernist architecture of cities including Paris, New York City, and Berlin. In the smartphone era, the idea of a paper map may seem a little backward, but the striking design of these maps would be difficult to replicate on a small screen to similar effect. Unfolded, they provide a unique, tactile way to explore overlooked, irreplaceable landmarks in our sprawling cities.
Concrete Chicago Map is out now from Blue Crow Media.