03 October 2022

Dizzying heights: the Chicago skyline at night is breath-taking
Why Chicago is the top place to visit
A towering trip to dizzy, dazzling Chicago is topped off with the thrill of a tilting observatory for Teresa Levonian Cole
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hen, in the 1970s, they planned to build the world's tallest skyscraper here, there was a problem: Chicago's famous winds. The solution was a feat of ingenuity — nine bundled 'tubes', to buttress the main tower. Thus, the Sears Tower (since renamed the Willis Tower) sways only eight inches in a squall. If you can bear the height and the crowds, you can stand on a glass-bottomed projection on the 103rd floor.

Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, home to the early prairie-style architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and some of the late Modernist buildings of Mies van der Rohe (whose design for a skyscraper at London's Mansion House was famously scuppered by Prince Charles). It was, in fact, Mies's last oeuvre which brought me to Chicago. Completed in 1972 as the IBM building, the tower of grid-like black steel and glass has, with the help of the architect's grandson Dirk Lohan, recently had its first 13 floors converted to house the new Langham Hotel.
On Floor 94 of the John Hancock Tower offers 360 views across the city
From my room on the 13th floor Club Lounge (not so high as to be shrouded in the mist that enveloped the summit of neighbouring Trump Tower, which trumpets its identity in gaudy 20ft high letters), you can survey downtown and the mouth of the Chicago River where it meets Lake Michigan. While the
The famous 'The Bean' sculpture by Anish Kapoor
"Nothing had quite prepared me for the feast of dizzying architectural delights."
austere exterior of Mies's listed building could not be altered, the minimalist limestone-clad interior has been embellished with an international collection of contemporary art, sculpture and video installations by the likes of Anish Kapoor. But nothing had quite prepared me for the feast of dizzying architectural delights. This, I discovered, is best appreciated from a worm's eye view, aboard a riverboat.

From this perspective, the Y-shaped branches of the river reveal every 'ism' known to architecture: the incongruous marriage of Art Deco and Neo-Gothic (the Tribune Tower), the crypto-Classical 1920s block where Al Capone hosted weekly poker games (London Guarantee & Accident building), the bizarre 1960s carpark-cum-condominiums (Marina City), all the way to an 1890s warehouse converted into newly-chic apartments. The city's oldest building is a wooden house from 1836.

But even that had lofty aspirations. It was relocated, one winter, and had to be raised by hydraulic equipment over the elevated rail system. The machinery froze, so the house remained, for two weeks, suspended in mid-air. Apparently, we have Mrs O'Leary's cow to thank for Chicago's architectural supremacy. According to popular lore, the animal knocked over a lantern and caused the Great Fire of 1871 that destroyed a huge swathe of the city. It required rebuilding. And when, in 1909, architect and planner Daniel H. Burnham exhorted Chicago to 'make no little plans' for its future, the city took his words to heart and echoes them still. Today, a short stroll from the hotel, the giant metal ribbon that is Frank Gehry's pavilion dominates Millennium Park, which has just celebrated its tenth anniversary.
Yet while Chicago's buildings reach for the stars, another world is concealed beneath its surface: a dark underbelly redolent of the Windy City's shady gangster past. Not the labyrinthine 'pedway', pedestrian system, which offers shelter from the icy winters, but sinister roads beneath the rusting, clanking tracks of the El rail system, and double-decker underpasses that resemble a futuristic Gotham City.

Far from the elegant boutiques of the 'Magnificent Mile' on North Michigan Avenue, where Oprah owned a 57th-floor condo and Jerry Springer frequents Starbucks, this 'other' Chicago has been the setting for dozens of movies, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Transformers 4 among them.
The 77 official community areas offer something for everyone — from the fabulous Chicago Symphony Orchestra in stuccoed Symphony Hall, to equally fabulous jazz in the bare bricks of Thalia Hall, a restored venue with a beer-themed restaurant in the former Czech brewery district.

Gentrification, meanwhile, gathers apace. The former meat-packing district is now home to galleries and trendy restaurants. Only the water towers atop the buildings, a protected feature in the area, speak of its humble past. On my last day, I plucked up courage for Chicago's latest attraction. It was a glorious sunny day, and from the observation deck on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Tower, the 360-degree views were spectacular. But since May, visitors have been offered a new thrill: Tilt! does just that.

As I stood on a narrow ledge, my nose pressed against the glass window, the mechanism tipped forward until I was cantilevered at a stomach-lurching angle of 30 degrees, 1,000ft above the ground. Did it add anything to my experience of Chicago, beyond an attack of vertigo? No. But I earned a sticker, which reads: 'I Tilted!' Would you?

Original article published in Apr 2015. All info and prices correct at time of publication.

"From the observation deck on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Tower, the 360-degree views were spectacular."
Chicago cool and British charm at The Langham Hotel
Chic shopping in Alexander Old Town
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra
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