Chicago is a great city to visit if you are at all interested in architecture. Not only are there some amazing buildings to see, but the people of Chicago are really proud of their city and its architecture.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation runs some fantastic tours – including a river cruise which we took, up and down the Chicago River. A really interesting tour in an open-topped boat with a heavy focus on architecture and urban design, but also on the history of the river. 

Fun fact: they actually reversed the direction the river flowed! It used to flow into Lake Michigan, but after several years of collecting industrial waste, human waste, not to mention the carcasses that were chucked in there from the abattoirs they realised the lake was getting a bit stinky – a particular problem when it was also the source of their drinking water!! 

Another CAF tour a few days later took us by bus this time to see the Farnsworth house – designed by Mies van der Rohe – the architect accredited with the saying “less is more”. As is usual with these types of tours, we first arrived at the visitor’s centre – fortunately, just as we arrived, the rain (which had been falling all morning) cleared. Another guide then took us on a short walk down a winding forest path where glimpses of white against the forest green gave away the location of this extraordinary home beside the Fox River.

Designed as a summer getaway for nephrologist Edith Farnsworth, the house appears to be of a very simple and modern design – essentially a glass box that hovers above the ground level (although not above the flood level on three occasions). But it is the complexity of its architectural details that allows its elegant appearance. Constructed of glass, steel, concrete and travertine, the house has a central utility core – accommodating the kitchen, bathrooms and other services – surrounded by space for the living, dining and bedroom.

However by the end of the project, the Client-Architect relationship had soured. Edith Farnsworth didn’t appreciate the cost over-runs of the construction and blamed Mies (even though the price of steel had risen dramatically in the six years between when the house was designed and built).

Sadly, their working relationship ended acrimoniously with Mies suing her for payment of his fees and Edith counter-suing him because she decided that she didn’t like the end design and said he wasn’t a good architect. There is some merit in her argument given the impracticalities of the design, however she hated the house so much, she summered there for 25 years!

Stay tuned – more great architecture sites and stories from the USA to follow…