The proud history of architecture in Illinois

For the bicentennial, recognizing 200 great places


Illinois could use a reminder of what we are capable of as well as something to look forward to. The bicentennial taking place in 2018 is the perfect occasion to find perspective and purpose. From an architectural point of view, there’s a lot to be proud of, because some of the world’s greatest projects and the people who designed them are rooted here.

Architecture practice as we know it today was first written into law by the state legislature in 1897. Illinois is where world-renowned architects Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, Mies van der Rohe and Buckminster Fuller lived and produced their best work. Chicago firms like Holabird and 

Root, Perkins and Will, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill grew from a handful of founding partners to have a global presence.

From past to present, there’s an incredible Illinois legacy of impact on the built world. Abraham Lincoln said, “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” As we head into the bicentennial celebration, we will be taking stock of projects we are most proud of and the people whose work makes their communities proud of them.

For 200 years of statehood, AIA Illinois will identify 200 great places. And we will ask residents for their favorites, with a People’s Choice list of the best of the best. The point isn’t to simply remember where we’ve been but to shape where we want to go.

According to the president of the American Institute of Architects, Carl Elefante, “You can’t imagine the modern American city without the influence of Chicago. What started with the Columbian Exposition showcasing the vision of architects for the 20th century turned into the city beautiful movement. We are living in a moment when the challenges of a new century require an even bigger movement and a more comprehensive vision. Putting the well-being of people first, our cities must be more than beautiful; they must also be sustainable, resilient, equitable, affordable and accessible.”

The architecture profession in Illinois today is broad, diverse and strong. Today’s projects are every bit as innovative and exciting as their predecessors. Over 5,600 architects work in 1,000 firms of all sizes. They are currently designing 45 million square feet of space with a value exceeding $14 billion. And their work is influenced by what we ask of them.

According to Thomas Vonier, president of the International Union of Architects, “The way we build reflects our values as a culture. If we invest for the long term, and for durability, that is reflected in the cities and towns around us. They show our faith in the future.”

In every town from the top of the state to the bottom, AIA is asking, “What will be our blueprint for better?What makes our communities vibrant and attainable?” That’s the agenda for the 21st century and we hope you will ask those questions too.

When you find buildings that elevate the community, thank the architect, engineer, builder and developer who brought them to life along with the maintenance and custodial staff who keep them vibrant. If you can’t find examples then let’s encourage mayors, planners, realtors and investors to raise the standard. That’s the only way to keep building places worthy of remembering at the next centennial. 

Mike Waldinger is executive vice president of AIA Illinois, the state office of the American Institute of Architects. Contact him at [email protected] or stop by 201 East Adams Street.

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