Chicago’s Contextual Art

A Sunday cruise on the Chicago River aboard the First Lady introduced me to a fascinating concept in architecture: contextual design. Downtown Chicago has long been a mecca for creative and influential urban architecture. Most everyone knows of the Wrigley Building and the Chicago Tribune Tower, the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) and the long standing Water Tower that survived the Chicago Fire. But some of the newer skyscrapers feature designs that reflect their context — by echoing features of the river or the adjacent buildings.

This skyscraper was my favorite example, because the green color of its glass echoes the green Chicago River; its curves echo the river’s curve; its glass mirrors the buildings surrounding it, and (one step further) the pinched glass makes the reflections look like ripples on the water’s surface.

Contextual design: curve of the wall, green colored glass, mirroring effect of windows and ripple effect created by pinched edges.
Contextual design: curve of the wall, green colored glass, mirroring effect of windows and ripple effect created by pinched edges.

There were other examples: the older Art Deco Chicago Board of Trade is next to a newer art deco behemoth, the Chicago Opera House; both of them look like a giant armchair from a bird’s eye view.

Two recent buildings feature marine themes: On 2010’s Aqua curves overtake the rectilinear emphasis of most other buildings.

Aqua (2010) at right features undulating balconies.
Aqua (2010) at right features undulating balconies.

Bertrand Goldberg designed the scalloped edge Marina Towers in 1960s, followed up with this shopping/residential development on the river that avoids the right angle and has a distinctive marine look.

Marina Towers: scalloped edges break the custom of rectangular buildings, 1960.
Marina Towers: scalloped edges break the custom of rectangular buildings, 1960.
This architect avoids right angles in this riverfront development to create harmony with the river.
This architect avoids right angles in this riverfront development to create harmony with the river.

Other contextual designs were less subtle: Here is a river and street map on the facade on this building with a red block showing “you are here.”

Map of the Chicago River and major roads relate this building to its surroundings.
Map of the Chicago River and major roads relate this building to its surroundings.

As this “contextual” design was echoing in my mind that afternoon, I came upon the Cloud Gate (2007) by Anish Kapoor, commonly called the “Bean” sculpture in Millennium Park, which I had previously seen only in photos. (It’s the ultimate destination for Facebook fans who love to take selfies.) The Bean takes contextual design to a new level: its silver mirrored curved surface reflects both pedestrians and the skyline. Standing before it, you are one with the city. It’s fun!

Pedestrians around Cloud Gate see themselves and the skyline in one amazing view.
Pedestrians around Cloud Gate see themselves and the skyline in one amazing view.

The late afternoon sky — darker overhead — and sun’s position — peaking between the buildings made for an interesting photograph. I only had my Canon G12 with me; next time I’ll bring the Nikon DSLR and stay longer to play.

At 4pm on November 9, the sun drops behind the skyline.
At 4pm on November 9, the sun drops behind the skyline.

Author: cathykellyphotography

Independent photographer based in Pittsburgh PA and Naples FL. Nature, landscape and portrait photography. Portfolio includes international work in USA, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Email cathykellyphotography@gmail.com to review work in your area of interest. Nature portfolio includes flowers and wildlife. Prints and digital files for sale. See website: www.cathykellyphotography.com.