29 aug 18 | Chicago Reader

The Chicago Architecture Foundation is now the Chicago Architecture Center

By Deanna Isaacs

The Chicago Architecture Foundation has a new name and new digs.

On Friday, the Chicago Architecture Center will officially open its new home at 111 E. Wacker. You never heard of the Chicago Architecture Center? Not to worry: it's our good old friend the Chicago Architecture Foundation, formerly housed in the Santa Fe Building at 224 S. Michigan. CAF has given itself a new name to go with the new digs.

This is a major makeover for the 52-year-old organization that was founded to save Glessner House and—through brilliant mining of the city's architectural treasure and equally brilliant use of the volunteer labor of thousands of rigorously trained docents—grew to be one of the city's most valuable assets.

Not incidentally, its current roster of 85 tours includes the justly famous CAF River Cruise.

That would now be the CAC River Cruise—more impressive than ever, given the new crop of towers along the banks of the Chicago River and Mayor Emanuel's Riverwalk, pretty as a good pedicure, nestled at their feet.

For an organization whose unofficial motto has been "the city is our museum," the new name signals a significant change. While CAF hosted programs and exhibits (along with its ticket counter and excellent shop) in its admittedly tight former space, there was nothing in its name or identity to suggest that its focus was internal. CAF was all about putting a spotlight on the living history outside its own walls.

A "center," on the other hand, announces a specific place—a destination and a hub, with its own demands for attention and resources.

And, a propos of the name change, CAC's offering a museum experience in its new home: two major exhibits and a smaller gallery for temporary shows, for which it's charging an admission fee of $12 for adults.

The good news is that the admission fee is included in the price for most CAC tours; the bad news is that tour prices have been raised across the board. According to CAC spokesman Dan O'Connell, "after many years of holding [walking and bus tour prices] flat," they've increased "around $5."

A quick perusal of CAC's website suggests that most walking tours are now $26, with some at $20. Also, most two-hour walks have been shortened to 90 minutes (And many tours had to be rerouted, since their starting point is now nearly a mile north of where it used to be.) You don't have to be a curmudgeon to conclude that's less tour for more money, but O'Connell says it's a case of less is more: feedback has indicated tour fatigue after the hour-and-a-half mark.

CAF's Chicago Model Experience of scale model 3-D-printed buildings and streets in the city center, which was viewable in the old space for free, has been expanded from 1,000 to 4,250 of the tiny dead-white plastic structures, and is now the centerpiece of one of the two major exhibit areas, the Chicago Gallery. The expansion pushed the boundaries of the layout to Oak Street on the north, 23rd Street on the South, and Morgan on the west, but the model —which you could circumvent in the old space —now backs up to a wall and a screen, which makes it difficult to get near enough to most of that west-side expansion to identify, say, your home.

The model's also been enhanced with a seven-minute film and a companion light show, and there are four modems at which visitors can activate a menu of mini light shows between film screenings. Neither the lights nor the film were operating when I got a look at the space ahead of deadline last week; I'm looking forward to seeing them in action on a return visit.

There are more 3-D-printed models in the other major exhibit, the Skyscraper Gallery, but on a grander scale: these are models of the world's tallest buildings, including a near-40-foot re-creation of the soon-to-be-completed Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, designed by Chicago's own Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the same firm that designed the interior of the CAC's new home.

Which brings us to the best thing about this move: its location. The former CAF home, the 1904 Santa Fe Building (also known as the Railway Exchange) is a gorgeous example of beaux arts design by the firm of legendary Chicago planner, Daniel Burnham. The new building is one of the last by legendary Chicago modernist Mies van der Rohe, who died a year before its completion (CAC attributes its design to "the office of Mies van der Rohe"). Its address when it opened was One Illinois Center, and the space occupied by CAC was originally—and until recently—one of Mies's most soul-suckingly vast, inhumanly scaled, mammoth and barren public plazas.

There's irony in this, but CAC can't take the credit—er, blame—for altering this Miesian design: another stalwart Chicago architectural firm, Goettsch Partners, enclosed Mies's "porch" at the direction of the building's owner, who was offering it for lease as a retail site before CAC came along.

Now CAC (which will also occupy office space elsewhere in the building) has a two-story, 20,000-square-foot public center with 40-foot-tall windows offering an unforgettable north-facing view of Chicago's most stunning architectural landscape: the river, the new Apple store, the Tribune Tower, the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the Wrigley Building, and the whole panorama beyond. It doesn't hurt that the bronze plaque reminding us that the site of Fort Dearborn (and the cradle of the city) is a few steps away—just across the street, next to the bright blue awning over the kiosk that marks the entrance to the CAC River Cruise.