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Chicago Architecture Center takes its place as ‘must-see’ cultural destination

Rahm Emanuel (left) and other officials at the Chicago Architecture Center

Mayor Rahm Emanuel (left) and other officials toured the new Chicago Architecture Center on Wednesday; the center officially opens to the public on Friday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Calling Chicago’s rich history of architecture the “family jewels,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut the ribbon Wednesday on a Chicago Architecture Center that may someday take its place among the city’s “must-see cultural destinations.”

The 200,000-square-foot center is, appropriately, at 111 E. Wacker, in a building designed by Mies van der Rohe, the pioneer of Mid-Century Modernism. It’s just off Michigan Avenue and above the dock for the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise.

It will open to the public Friday, which Emanuel proclaimed Chicago Architecture Day, kicking off a grand opening weekend that runs through Labor Day.

Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for students (with ID) and free for members and children under five. Admission to the center is included in the fee for walking and bus tours. Discounted admission is available with river cruise tickets.

“Chicago’s architecture is very much — I don’t know how else to say it — our family jewels. This is what we share with the world as they come to our city. We have `em look at our little treasures and they are incredible treasures,” Emanuel told the crowd of movers and shakers assembled for the ceremony.

“People from around the globe come here. They’re all taken with this spectacular man-made architecture against the background of God’s beauty: Lake Michigan. When you put those together, this is why Chicago is so special.”

Lynn Osmond, Rahm Emanuel and Gordon Gill

Among those at Wednesday’s event at the Chicago Architecture Center were: Lynn Osmond, the center’s president and CEO; Mayor Rahm Emanuel; and architect Gordon Gill. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the center is truly a celebration for Chicago’s world-renowned architecture.

The first floor includes a Chicago Gallery with an expanded Chicago Model — complete with 4,250 buildings instead of 1,300 — to tell the story of how this city became the “epicenter of modern architecture.

A film and interactive light show illuminates the model to show Chicago’s early growth, its rebirth after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, its first-ever skyscrapers and the buildings of steel and glass, along with Millennium Park, that have become what the foundation calls “modernist masterpieces.”

The gallery also showcases Chicago’s best-known architects and unique home designs. They include: worker cottages from 1830 to 1890; two-flats in the 1910’s; bungalows and courtyard buildings in the ’20’s and ’30’s and high-rises in the 1960’s.

The second floor has 40-foot tall windows overlooking the Chicago River and Michigan Avenue bridge. The “Building Tall” exhibit is filled with super-sized scale models of famous skyscrapers from Chicago and around the world. That includes a 36-foot tall model of the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia designed by Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

A rotating gallery challenges architects from Chicago to “talk about what the city of 2050 looks like.” A new design studio and lecture hall will “inspire students to discover why design matters.”

President and CEO Lynn Osmond said she “started dreaming about” a Chicago Architecture Center in 2000 when she saw the Red Box in Berlin and the Pavillion de l’Arsenal in Paris.

“I was intrigued with the expanding network of architecture centers and urban centers and began to envision … a new permanent home for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Through my travels, I saw wonderful city models in Sydney, London and Shanghai and knew we needed to have one,” Osmond said Wednesday.

Chicago Architecture Center exhibit

One of the displays at the Chicago Architecture Center. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Calling the building a “destination and a launch pad for exploration,” Osmond said, “This is a transformational time for architecture in the city. … The new Chicago Architecture Center is a place for our youth, our residents and our visitors to explore our architectural legacy and imagine our future.”

Emanuel argued that the outstanding architecture that put Chicago on the map is “more imperative than ever before.”

“We live at a time where — through technology, income and race — everybody is being pulled apart and architecture and design help us have a language and a discussion of how to bring people back together. How to take people from different walks of life and different backgrounds and have `em have a shared experience,” he said.

“To me, this is a beautiful building. It’s great about architecture. But it’s more important about the humanity in our soul as a city.”

Before stopping in the gift shop to buy t-shirts and other souvenirs for this three children, Emanuel listened as singer Kurt Elling, who’s in Chicago for Jazz Fest, sang a new version of “Chicago.”

After singing the famous chorus, “The Wrigley Building, Chicago is,” Elling added similar verses for the Willis Tower, Marina City and the Pritzker Pavilion.