My Kind of Town

May 23, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Chicago, my home city, is architecturally significant. The birthplace of the American skyscraper, it has long been an incubator of innovation in skyscraper design. The First Chicago School was notable for its pioneering use of steel frames and large plate glass windows (aka the Chicago Window), the Second Chicago School for its steel and glass minimalist designs and tubed structural systems. 

The city's skyline is a museum of sorts: a melting pot of various styles and periods, all of which somehow blend harmoniously. It spreads out behind Chicago's front door, Grant Park and the lakefront, which was protected as open space for public use based on concepts conceived of by Daniel Burnham, Edward Bennett and Aaron Montgomery Ward. One has only to travel just 90 miles north to Milwaukee, where an elevated waterfront freeway runs parallel to Lake Michigan, to get an idea how different Chicago might look had the green space and expansive open views along the lakefront not been preserved.   

Chicago and architecture go hand in hand, and it's a terrific place to learn about and photograph a broad array of noteworthy and interesting buildings. 

Though I'm primarily a nature and landscape photographer, I've always liked to switch things up and capture city scenes, especially in Chicago. The creative output of architects and sculptors can be great subject matter and I like the occasional change of pace. Another bonus is the fact that I'm never on assignment when I do this kind of work, meaning I have complete artistic freedom. 

Because I no longer live anywhere near a large city with a thriving architectural scene (sorry, Salt Lake City, but no...), opportunities to do this are less frequent than I'd like.  

Back in Chicago a few weeks ago, I laced up my hiking shoes and hit the streets. I had a short list of locations in mind, but was open to anything that caught my eye along the way. Because I usually focus on smaller details rather than including entire structures in the frame, I never know what kinds of compositions I might see. Buildings I've looked at a hundred times can still surprise me.

Actually, that's what makes it interesting: noticing things, shifting my perspective, seeing familiar things in a new way. Of course, this is exactly the same type of creative challenge nature photographers are faced with when working in often-visited places. 

Unlike nature photography, though, the conditions aren't nearly as much of a factor, especially when you're looking more closely at the subject. You can work in just about any type of weather, or light, or at any time of day. 

Following are a few abstracts that came out of that visit (bonus points if you can identify the subjects!):

ANGLESANGLESPritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park

Frank Gehry, designer

Chicago, Illinois


GRIDGRIDAlong the South Branch of the Chicago River at Madison Street

Chicago, Illinois

OPEN BOOKOPEN BOOKMarina Towers Abstract

Marina City | Bertrand Goldberg Associates, architect

Chicago, Illinois



Santiago Calatrava, sculptor

Chicago, Illinois
I'll switch gears and leave you with two representational photographs I made while in town. The first is the Father Time clock which is mounted on the Jeweler's Building. I've always been fond of it, even though it could perhaps be construed as a bit foreboding. Father Time is carrying a scythe and hourglass, after all. 

The bronze base weighs a whopping eight tons and the figure stands five feet tall. At night each of the four dials along with the red lights surrounding them are softly illuminated.

Not just a timepiece, it's a showpiece. 

By the way, the Jeweler's Building, which overlooks the Chicago River at Wacker Drive, was at one time the tallest building west of New York City and is listed on the National Historic Register. Completed in 1927, this classical revival-style beauty featured a car lift that served the first 23 floors. Think about that: a vehicle elevator in a skyscraper dating back to the time when Ford's Model A was just hitting the market. 

Next, the building I consider to be one of the most beautiful in Chicago - Trump Tower, a relative newcomer to the scene (2009). The architect was Adrian Smith (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill). Ironically, it replaced one of the least attractive structures in the heart of the city: the old Sun-Times Building, designed by Naess & Murphy. Again, that's my opinion, but I think a lot of people would agree. Let's just say I was never a fan.

I liked the way the Tower was peeking through, framed by structures on either side of Wabash Street whose styles and darker tones juxtaposed nicely to accentuate its clear glass, light palette, shiny façade, and curves. It was a bland, white-sky kind of a day, but as you can see that didn't matter. Processed in black and white, the sky is an asset in that it further emphasizes the contrast between light and dark. 


Adrian Smith, architect (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)

Chicago, Illinois
Chicago was built beautifully.

And like the song says, each time I leave it's tuggin' at my sleeve. 


The problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.
~Louis Sullivan

God is in the details.
~Ludwig Mies van der Rohe



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