I love getting to know a new city on foot. Every corner is a new mystery – a discovery waiting to happen. Though I can’t be accused of not doing my pre-departure research, I always leave a little to the gods of freestyling. This is because I like to take a location as I find it, wandering with a curious spirit and letting patterns appear—rather than arriving with expectations. This allows magic to happen. It gives my brain the space it needs to work creatively, making unique connections and forming my own impression of a town, particularly from a visual perspective.
I have travelled to many U.S. cities in the last two years, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast regions. On my exploration of these modern metropolises, I have noticed that each has its own distinct personality. Though there are similarities, there are also unique visual signatures that distinguish each urban environment.
New York has streets filled with yellow cabs and a diverse skyline unified by the silhouettes of aged water tanks.
Washington D.C. possesses the grandeur its architects and designers intended, but also has a somewhat contrived level of cleanliness and order.
Philadelphia combines historic charm with urban grit.
Pittsburgh, wedged into the confluence of two mighty rivers, is unforgettably the City of Bridges.
Detroit exhibits Rust Belt decay and abandonment, with rebellious moments of trendy renewal.
That brings us to my latest destination, Chicago. No one can travel to the Windy City without knowing it is renowned for its great architecture, but again I didn’t explore too many specifics pre-trip. I turned up with a fresh pair of eyes and waited for Chicago to tell me its story. After a day of walking the city streets with camera around my neck, I started to see what makes Chicago, visually Chicago.
Bridges and riparian motifs
Similar to Pittsburgh, Chicago has more than your average number of bridges, and they showcase varying architectural styles. The bridgehouse designs are particularly distinctive in their lovely beaux arts, art deco, and modernist forms.
The waterside locale is reflected in the details of city architecture. Swirling wave motifs don bridge houses and public seating. Even some of the bridges themselves pass over the River in a rolling swell of metal, such as the curvaceous chords of the Clark and La Salle Street Bridges.
Unlike Pittsburgh, the Chicago River has a very tamed, canal-like feel. This is no wonder when you begin to understand the history of the River. Specifically, in the late 1800’s it was engineered to flow backwards, preventing its heavily polluted waters from contaminating the Lake Michigan fresh water supply. While its cleanliness is much improved, it isn’t recommended to go swimming.
Chicago’s lower CBD, known as The Loop, can be distinguished from other urban streetscapes by the raised train tracks that form cavernous roadways below. The dark passages with trains clattering by overhead create a unique and somewhat noisy street-level experience.
A plethora of beautiful timepieces decorate street corners; are set into towers; and mark city squares. The majority are analog clocks that fall in with the historic building on which they rest. However, in the last moments before returning to the airport, I did find one digital clock. On the corner of the Lasalle-Wacker Building hangs a timepiece styled to compliment the building’s art deco design, but notably with a digital display.
The blue-tinted windows of modern skyscrapers create a city of mirrors. Looking up, glassy facades almost disappear as they reflect the moody Midwest sky that surrounds. If buildings could talk, I wonder what the older structures would say about finding themselves reflected in the distorting mirrors of a giant architectural funhouse.
Chicago in colour
The green-blue of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River are the most vibrant components of the landscape. Whether by sediment, algal bloom or remnants of the yearly St Patrick’s day tradition of dying the Chicago River green, the turquoise hue seems to shine through, even with clouds overhead. I also found this green-blue in the patined aged surfaces of historic details, such as street lamps and the bronze Lion statues outside the Chicago Institute of Art.
What makes your home/travel destination visually unique? Share your City Signatures in the comments below.
Peace, love and travel,