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Enjoying Chicago’s River Architectural Tour

Posted August 14th, 2021 by Julie Blazek

It’s often the case that the best views of a place are from the water.  And for as many years as I lived in and visited Chicago, I had never seen it from the water.  On a recent family trip to visit my former boss and her husband (also an architect), we booked an afternoon Architectural River Tour.

None of the current river parks and improvements were there when I lived here, and there was a long-running joke that for those courageous enough to get on the river, the canoe paddles were really for keeping the river rats at bay.  But in the time since I left town, the amount and quality of improvements in and around the Chicago River are astounding.  Taking an industrially focused water way and turning it into a tourist attraction is not easy, but Chicago has succeeded.

On our tour up and down the north and south branches of the river, and out to Lake Michigan and back, we saw sides of buildings that I had always only seen from the street, saw projects I knew about only in publications, and of course, saw new buildings that have been built in the past few years.  The proverbial architectural Who’s Who can be seen on this 90 minute ride – McKim, Mead and White, Bertrand Goldberg, SOM, Kohn Pederson Fox, Perkins and Will, Jeanne Gang, Historical masterpieces sit immediately adjacent to newly glistening high-rises with beauty and grace.

My long-time favorites held their rankings; the Tribune Tower, Wrigley Building, Merchandise Mart, and Marina Towers.  Most impressive of the new work were the river walk urban renewal projects that have brought the pedestrian to the river’s edge for the first time in this city’s industrialized history.  There’s a new energy, another twenty feet below the hustle and bustle of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue, which has brought a vibrant and unique experience for tourists as well as those who call this city home.