Swept Away

Is the hype surrounding Chicago's skyscrapers all hot air? No, says Jackie Hunter, who explored the Windy City by boat, train and on foot ÿ everything you've heard about its astonishing architectural heritage is true

One of the first things you'll hear from a native of Chicago is that its nickname, the Windy City, originates not from the weather but from the hot air and spin generated by local politicians. It's a lie. When the wind blows in Chicago, powerful gusts hurtle across Lake Michigan's vast surface and through the sprawling grid of broad, flat streets, throwing up whirlwinds at the feet of some of the world's tallest buildings.

One of the first things you'll hear from a native of Chicago is that its nickname, the Windy City, originates not from the weather but from the hot air and spin generated by local politicians. It's a lie. When the wind blows in Chicago, powerful gusts hurtle across Lake Michigan's vast surface and through the sprawling grid of broad, flat streets, throwing up whirlwinds at the feet of some of the world's tallest buildings.

Only a wimp would let the prospect of a howling gale put them off, however, because tall buildings are what you come here to see. Among all America's big cities, Chicago towers above the rest not only for its verticality but for its astonishing architectural heritage. Nowhere else will you see such richness, innovation, grandiosity and diversity of style: it is truly stunning.

In October 1871 Chicago was destroyed by fire and it was from this devastated state that the modern city evolved. For architects, here was a rare opportunity to rebuild a city from scratch. What could be more exciting? The most powerful legacy of this rebirth was the world's first skyscraper. William Le Baron Jenney's Home Insurance Building was completed in 1885 and has since been demolished, but as the first ever steel-framed high-rise building it inspired an architectural revolution whose influence is ongoing.

Thanks to the pro-active Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), there are several ways in which you can enjoy guided tours of the city's high-rise marvels – on foot, by bus or even by bicycle. Arguably the most comfortable option, with some of the best views, is an hour-long river boat trip, which runs up to six times daily between May and November, with informed commentary from an on-board CAF volunteer. It's not a bad idea to devote your first morning to this relaxed but stimulating trip, familiarising yourself with the city's landmarks.

Starting beneath the bridge at Michigan Avenue – the city's main north-south drag, also known as Magnificent Mile – we head west along the Chicago River, a working urban waterway which runs out of Lake Michigan. The boat chugs along parallel to Wacker Drive, along which many of the most impressive edifices are situated.

A personal favourite is the curvilinear 333 West Wacker, built by Kohn Pedersen Fox in 1983. Its black glass frontage echoes a bend in the river and acts as a mirror to the buildings on the opposite bank. But it is hard not to be impressed by almost everything: the amusing corncob design of Bertram Goldberg's 1960s Marina City apartment development; the cash-register profile of the Citibank building's roof; the elegant, white terracotta Wrigley Building, and the darkly phallic John Hancock tower (the third highest in the city, offering the best lake and city views from its skydeck).

Most famous of all is the black aluminium-and-tinted-glass Sears Tower, built in 1974 at 223 South Wacker: at 443m it is the tallest building in the United States. (Until 1996 it was the tallest in the world, but was usurped by the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.) Staring up at its 110 storeys from this level makes you feel as though you are standing in the depths of the Grand Canyon. Devices that city workers all over the world use daily were invented for Chicago's huge office blocks: the revolving door and elevator are but two.

An architect whose name is synonymous with high-rise Chicago is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who arrived here in the late 1930s and introduced the European-based International Style to America. Its cubic steel-and-glass shapes, ribbon windows and minimalism worked well alongside the existing simplistic Chicago School style. In 1938, the Armour Institute of Technology, a technical training school on Chicago's near South Side, hired Mies to take over its architectural programme. When he later set up an independent practice, his first client was the school itself, which in 1940 merged into the Illinois Institute of Technology. Mies helped to develop a comprehensive plan for the campus and designed nearly 20 individual buildings, the largest and most significant collection of Mies buildings anywhere. Over 35 years he created some of Chicago's finest sights, including the Lake Shore Drive apartments and the Federal Center buildings on South Dearborn Street. After his death in 1969, his style was carried on. Visit Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, near Mies's former home, and you will find yourself on a street named in his honour. If the architecture bug bites you as hard as it did me, set aside a day to explore Oak Park. This is the peaceful suburb that gave birth to Frank Lloyd Wright's innovative Prairie School, and undoubtedly one of the most architecturally significant places in America.

From the Loop, Chicago's financial district, it's west on the overground Green Line train (destination Harlem/Lake). After 20 minutes spent rattling through an industrial landscape of water towers and factories, the train enters lush woodlands just before Oak Park. Outside the station, it is hard to believe the city is so close: this is more like small-town America, with its gingerbread house-fronts, white picket fences and perfect lawns. I can't think why the sight of this silent, empty residential street chills me so. Then it hits me: I could be on the set of The Stepford Wives or any David Lynch film. Creepy...

I head for Lake Street, Oak Park's more cheerful main thoroughfare. Passing Fannie May's Chocolate Shop, Madly Pop'n Gourmet Popcorn and Barley Twist Antiques, I stop at the tourist information office, whose staff direct me towards the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio on North Forest Avenue. A 45-minute guided tour of the house, built in 1889, is $9 well spent: the volunteer guides are clearly passionate about their subject, and succeed in evoking Wright's complex character and turbulent family life while showing you around his beautifully restored former home and studio. All tours can be booked at, and start from, the Gingko Tree Bookshop, integral to the museum and named after the ancient gingko tree in Wright's front yard.

Wright was a visionary genius, control freak and maverick designer whose Prairie School style turned tall, narrow Victorian architecture on its side to introduce the concept of "horizontal" living. His raw talent was spotted in the early 1880s by his first employer and mentor, Louis Sullivan, one of the great architects of Chicago's regeneration. Wright was "a good pencil in the master's hands", quickly promoted to chief draughtsman while still in his mid twenties.

After Wright met and married his first wife, Kitty Tobin, he persuaded Sullivan to give him a five-year contract and a $5,000 dollar "loan" (probably never repaid) to build the house of his dreams here on North Forest Avenue, which at the time was still mostly prairie land.

With the couple settled, six Wright children were hurled into the world in rapid succession. For a man who never fully embraced parenthood, Wright showed a remarkable devotion to designing child-friendly rooms: the barn-like playroom is flooded with sunlight from above, with a wall-mounted baby grand piano, low-level seating and plentiful storage for toys. All the rooms are open-plan, flowing one into another, an effect aided by continuous "pathways" of Chinese carpet throughout. Light-hued quarter-sawn oak is a major feature of the interior: Wright used it for staircases, wall panelling and built-in bench seats beneath the horizontal windows.

When Sullivan sacked him for building bootleg houses under another name, Wright decided to go it alone and added a studio on to his home. For years he worked relentlessly to develop and teach Prairie School style, the hallmarks of which were horizontal expansions, broad, low windows, screen partitions, coloured glass, lowered ceilings and rooms within rooms. A nature lover, he evoked the colours of the harvest indoors: inside Wright's houses was a soft, autumnal glow, and the warm heart of each was its open fireplace. Between 1900 and 1909, Wright designed 135 Prairie-style homes, mostly in the well-to-do Chicago suburbs. The finest example is the Robie House in Hyde Park, on Chicago's South Side. After the tour, walk back along North Forest Avenue and photograph the other amazing houses Wright built (they are privately owned, so you can't go inside). This street really is a breathtaking sight.

On Lake Street you can also see Unity Temple, the Unitarian church Wright built after a fire destroyed its predecessor in 1905. Its frontage is revolutionary: flat, windowless, almost prison-like, and it was the first cast-concrete building in the US. But inside, the architect's familiar contemplative tones and geometric portioning apply. The congregation enters at the back, and must turn to enter an auditorium with double-level balconies on three sides and depressed cloisters in which late-comers and fidgeting children can sit unseen. Light enters through a grid of 25 square skylights, and the acoustics are perfect. Wright called this building his jewel. I reckon the $9 entrance fee is steep, however, as you probably won't spend more than 20 minutes inside. A better idea is to attend a Sunday service for free (apart from your donation to the collection plate), and see the church come to life, complete with congregation.

Two more buildings of note on Lake Street are the magnificent Art Deco post office, whose interior is a marble and granite shrine to the efficiency of the US postal service, and the Cozy Corner Café, where you will find vinyl booths and a bouffant-haired waitress straight out of Happy Days, and can fill up on a bowl of tasty chicken-and-rice soup.

Outside are signs pointing to an Ernest Hemingway Museum and the house where the writer was born. I stroll down North Oak Park Avenue to number 339 and gaze at the traditional Victorian clapboard house with its horseshoe porch.

Crossing over toward the museum, I consider going in but frankly, I can't be bothered. I suspect it won't reveal anything more interesting than what I already know about him, and it's a fair bet that life properly began for Hemingway only after he left the area, aged 20. That the writer hated his childhood home is no secret, and it's not hard to see why. With its quiet streets, lace curtains and buttoned-up image, Oak Park looks like the last place a hell-raiser in embryo would cut his teeth.

In the small park that corners North Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, I pass a huddle of teenagers in black hoodies and pendulous jeans. They are playing an Eminem CD on a ghetto-blaster and aping the white-trash rapper's sullen dem-eanour. But while they listen to him whining on about his feckless mother and squalid childhood, there is no ignoring the prosperity and greenness they themselves live in, devoid of litter or graffiti, and the cute, fat squirrels bouncing around at their feet. It is not easy being a teenage rebel in the 'burbs, as Hemingway would no doubt have told them.

In a couple of years they will gravitate towards Wicker Park, a grittier but trendy suburb north-west of the city, not dissimilar to New York's East Village. You can get there on the subway's Blue Line from the city, disembarking at Damen. Chic boutiques, independent bookshops, laid-back bars, restaurants and cafés signify the kind of gentrification driven by twenty-somethings chasing low rents and industrial spaces to convert. However, since Wicker Park was a location for both John Cusack's film adaptation of High Fidelity and MTV's Real Life reality show, it can only be a matter of time until the neighbourhood gets well and truly Starbucked. See it before it loses its shabby charm; it is a good place to take your hangover for Sunday brunch.

Architecture aside, there are of course many more facets to this city. For any visitor, the Art Institute of Chicago on South Michigan Avenue is a must, covering 4,000 years of art from cultures worldwide. Most appealing is a huge collection of paintings by the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists (at least two dozen Monets, plus many works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and more). Of more significance to Americans are Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and Grant Wood's American Gothic in the Contemporary collection. The crowds here are noticeably less dense than at the Louvre, New York's Met or London's Tate Modern; entrance costs $10 and you can easily while away half a day.

If you want to shop, all the big designer names are found in the Near North district, on North Michigan Avenue. Continue south and you can pick up more prosaic styles at Gap, Banana Republic and Nordstrom.

Rush Street has a high density of restaurants and bars, but be prepared to drink beer and eat beef in abundance. For more refined drinking and dining, aim for hotel bars. Top of the range are the Drake, the epitome of old-fashioned chic, and NoMI at the Park Hyatt, sleek, sexy and modern with an award-winning wine cellar.The actress Daryl Hannah, a bit of a skyscraper herself at 6ft, was drinking in the Park Hyatt's stylish bar at the same time as us, but we were too busy checking out a Johnny Vegas lookalike to notice her, until she stood up to leave. One thing I've learnt about Chicago: you should always keep your eyes turned upwards.

The Facts

Getting there

Jackie Hunter travelled from London to Chicago with British Airways (0845 773 3377; www.ba.com), which offers two direct flights a day to Chicago. Fares start at £314.60 for a return ticket in World Traveller, for travel from November to mid-December including a Saturday night stay. A return ticket in Club World is £1,784.60; this is a 42-day advance purchase and also requires a Saturday night stay.

Being there

Chicago Tourist Information: 78 East Washington Boulevard at North Michigan Avenue (001 312 744 2400; www.877chicago.com), open 10am-5pm Mon-Fri; noon-5pm Sat and Sun.

Chicago Architecture Center is based at 224 South Michigan Avenue (001 312 922 8687; www.architecture.org), open 9am-7pm Mon-Sat; 9.30am-6pm Sun. CitySpace is a recent addition to the Center, showcasing interactive CD-ROMs and video installations, permanent and rotating exhibitions and tour information, and a new studio/workshop for educational purposes. Entry is free.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 951 West Chicago Avenue at Forest Avenue, Oak Park (001 708 848 1976); tours between 11am and 3pm daily.

Further information For a tailor-made walking tour of your chosen area of Chicago, contact Chicago Greeter Tours (Chicago Cultural Center, 77 East Randolph Street at North Michigan Avenue; 001 312 744 8000; www.chicagogreeter.com). Local volunteers offer free individual and group tours, contributing their personal knowledge of the area's history and culture. They do not accept tips for their services, but should you wish to buy them lunch or a cup of coffee by way of thanks at the end of the tour, they will often gladly accept, time allowing. It is advisable to book up to a week in advance.

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