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The Architectural Masterpieces Of Chicago

The Sears tower has yet another legend attached to it; and this one’s perfectly true.

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Several architectural societies rate Chicago as architecturally the most significant city in America. This is because of the number of innovative buildings it possesses; great names in the field of design, structural engineering and architecture are represented in this city through their iconic works. A good place to start if you’re interested in innovative art and architecture is the 24 acre Millennium Park, in the heart of Chicago’s downtown area, which features an eclectic collection of architectural and artistic elements unlike any other place in the world.

As I strolled into the park, I first noticed a gigantic steel arch in one corner of the park. This is Anish Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’ sculpture, a highly polished, massive steel structure that beautifully reflects the adjoining buildings, the passers-by in the park and the clouds in the sky above. Anish Kapoor, as his name suggests, was born in India but subsequently settled in the UK. The ‘Cloud Gate’ is one of his most well known public works- the 110-ton elliptical masterpiece was forged using a series of seamless steel plates, with the 12-foot-high arch providing a "gate" to the concave chamber beneath the sculpture, inviting visitors to touch its mirror-like surface and view their image reflected back from a variety of angles. 

Said to be inspired by a drop of liquid mercury, the shape of the sculpture has resulted in Chicago residents fondly referring to it as ‘the bean’. Well, it certainly cost a lot of beans to make-over 20 million dollars! 

Not far from the ‘bean’ stands the Crown Fountain. Built to showcase Chicago’s ethnic diversity in a tasteful and appealing manner, Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa designed the fountain to include two 50-foot glass towers that feature constantly changing video images and lights at either end of a shallow reflecting pool. The video images represent a collection of faces, Plensa's tribute to Chicagoans, and were taken from a cross-section of 1,000 residents.

As you make your way towards these towers, beware! From nowhere, whoosh! The mouths of the images of people featured on either tower are apertures from which pours forth a stream of water completely drenching you! The stream continues for a few seconds; then slowly diminishes in speed and volume, as if a bit reluctant to stop. The images begin to repeat and just when they draw the unsuspecting visitor towards themselves, the water is released again. Several children were having a whale of a time near the fountain trying to predict and outwit the flow of water! 

The shallow pool also fulfils a role-it reflects the huge buildings near the park and at night-time, a thousand stars glitter in the pool-lights reflected from the skyscrapers. The effect is as though a laser show were occurring in the pool before your eyes. Plensa had once said “A fountain is the memory of nature, this marvelous sound of a little river in the mountains translated to the city” As I look into the pool and see the skyscrapers reflected therein, I realize how the sculptor had made his concept come alive!

A little distance from the fountain is yet another fascinating structure- the Jay Pritzker auditorium designed by the renowned architect, Frank Gehry. I felt blessed if you are fortunate enough to witness a concert in full flow I visited. The experience of sitting on the cool green grass and listening to the strains of an orchestra through the $500,000 sound system that the auditorium boasts of is quite something. In fact, the ‘acoustical canopy’ of the auditorium has resulted in the pavilion being regarded as one of the most technologically advanced outdoor concert venues in the world. 

The structure of the auditorium itself defies description! Gehry seemed to have taken Goethe's description of architecture as "frozen music" to heart. The auditorium has a billowing headdress of stainless steel ribbons that frame the stage opening and connect to an overhead trellis of crisscrossing steel pipes. The trellis supports the sound system, which spans the 4,000 fixed seats and the lawn in front which can accommodate an additional 7,000 people.

When you are through with the park and wish to check out some of the city’s enormously tall buildings, make your way to the nearby Sears Tower. This building, that immortalized Fazlur Rehman Khan, opened to tenants in 1973. With a height of 1,450 feet, the structure has 110 floors and remained the world's tallest building until 1996, when it was surpassed by the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A possibly apocryphal, but interesting story is often recounted in Chicago. You are often told (with a bit of a smile) that the residents of the highest floors in the city’s skyscrapers have to often phone their downstairs neighbours or the doorman when they wish to go out in order to check the weather outside. This is because the top floors are actually above the low-lying clouds common in Chicago, and hence the people residing in them do not know whether it is raining or snowing outside, since they are above the clouds and hence oblivious of weather conditions! 

The Sears tower has yet another legend attached to it; and this one’s perfectly true. Incredible as it may sound, without prior intimation, the French “human-spiderman”, Alain Robert, scaled the Towers in 1999 using only his bare hands and feet and without any safety devices whatsoever! His effort was made even more dangerous by the thick fog that settled in near the end of his climb, making the glass and steel exterior of the top 20 floors quite slippery. You only have to look up the vertical lines of the tower from the ground level to realise what a feat this was.

You are not through with the city’s architectural attractions yet-pay a visit to see the huge 50 feet high Picasso sculpture at the Daley Centre Plaza. What the figure represents is not known; it could be a bird, a horse, a woman or a totally abstract shape. The work was a gift to the city from the artist himself; even he realized that Chicago was the correct place to showcase innovative sculptures or designs.

Chicago had proved a fascinating city. Its many innovative buildings, as designers, engineers and architects competed with each other to get noticed, provided ample opportunity for a visitor interested in art and architecture to appreciate human ingenuity. The city’s buildings illustrate the fact that the human mind is limited only by its own imagination.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Sidharth Balakrishna

The author has worked with and advised many of the world known companies including Shell, Accenture, KPMG, Vedanta and the Essel (Zee) Group. He is also an author of 5 books and an international speaker, having presented on the usage of technology and other topics in more than 10 countries across the world.

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