The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Chicago’s Architectural Safari Boat Tour


  1317Thousands of people take the architectural boat tour in Chicago every day during the warmer months.

UNLIKE MOST CITIES WITH LOTS of tall buildings, Chicago has a wide watery crack right through the middle of it, providing enough space between the buildings to actually see them. This could be part of why the city attracted so many innovative designers of the modern era–they knew that if they built next to the water, their building would not be occluded by the next big thing to come down the road.

Or not. But whatever the cause, the effect is that there is a veritable frenzy of architectural tourism on the water, like nowhere else outside Venice, probably. More than a dozen boats with a capacity of 120 or more people pace endlessly, back and forth, passing each other over and over throughout the day as they conduct 90-minute architectural tours. And they seem to be full to the brim most of the time, selling out hours or days ahead of time, and loaded with people on the top deck, exposed to the sky, looking up as directed by the amplified voice of the building interpreter.

Strangely, though, the buildings when viewed this way are stark monoliths. The scale is huge, and there are few references of a human occupation, except the repeating motifs of fenestration that imply a stratigraphy of stacked humanity. There are no visible people, nor much of anything else besides masses of mass along the shoreline, except an occasional kayaker, or someone anomalously on a balcony. The buildings, when viewed from Chicago’s rivers, look like they were made not for people, but for architecture.

Which is at least partially true. This is not a complaint, it’s an observation. The experience of an architectural boat tour is one of the great things to have done in Chicago, to be sure. It is an anachronistic futuristic history lesson, an oldschool modernist activity that should be done over and over and over, at least once.

1322The 96 story Trump Tower, completed in 2009, and the 330 North Wabash, AKA the IBM building, the last major building in Chicago to be designed by Mies van der Rohe.

1323The twin Marina City towers, built between 1959 and 1964 by Bertrand Goldberg Associates.

1324The 4.25 million square foot Merchandise Mart, a storage building made for Marshall Field in 1930, is still one of the largest buildings in the world.

1325The Chicago Sun Times headquarters with a Holiday Inn on top.

1326Erie on the Park, urban condos built by Lucien Lagrange Architects in 2002.

1327Perkins and Will's 235 Van Buren, more urban condos, starting at $199,999.

1328311 South Wacker Drive, made in 1990, and the Sears Tower, from 1974, for 24 years the tallest building in the world, now the 7th tallest, and called the Willis Tower. Still the tallest in the USA though.

1329Boeing world headquarters, designed by Perkins and Will, in 1990.

1330The Lasalle Wacker Building from 1930, next to the unbuilt Waterview Tower. This was supposed to be a 90 story building built by the Shangri La Hotel company, but financing fell through in 2008 and construction stopped at 27 stories. The project was sold in 2011, and the current plan is for a 65 story luxury apartment building.

1331The triangular Swisshotel, from 1989, and a couple of modernist boxes from 1979-80 (the Columbus Plaza building and Three Illinois Center), and  the Aqua Building behind, with its undulating balconies, dressing up the glass box (by Lowenberg Architects and Jeanne Gang Architects, 2010).

1332Lake Point Tower, on the lake at the mouth of the river, is one of the more remarkable modernist buildings on the tour. It was designed by Schipporeit-Heinrich Associates, students of Mies van der Rohe, and is very Miesian, except for the fact that it is not a rectangle, but is an undulating sort of rounded triangle in plan.

1333The most remarkable thing about the way it looks though is the chaotic cluttered effect of the varying interior window treatment, something that was probably not anticipated by the architects. The effect breaks the usual monolithic uniformity of modernist towers, and creates an expressive, random pattern, formed arbitrarily by the individual apartment tenants, reminding us that indeed, people live in these things. 

Getting on Board: The Various Tourboat Options

1318Chicago History Museum’s River Tour is conducted on board Chicago Line tour boats, the Ft. Dearborn, Innisfree and Marquette. This tour integrates a cultural and historical perspective to the city and its architecture. Chicago Line is commissioning a 400 passenger boat, under construction in Wisconsin at the moment, that will be twice as large as any other tour boat on the river. It will be made of steel from the nearby Burns Harbor plant, and be electric-powered by 80 tons of batteries.

1319Chicago Architecture Foundation’s River Cruise is generally considered the most informed architecture tour, led by unpaid volunteer “docents” as opposed to “tour guides" like the others. They use the boats belonging to Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, which has three yachts with 120 to 200 passenger capacity.

1320Shoreline Sightseeing’s Architecture Cruise draws from the company’s large fleet of nine touring boats, including the Voyageur, Star of Chicago, and Bright Star.

1321For those in a hurry, or if you like speed, the Seadog Speedboat architectural tour takes 75 minutes instead of the usual 90, and even includes a fast ride out on the lake.