Never Trust a Building Without Art

180 North Michigan Avenue

Living in Chicago is like living in some vast visual scavenger hunt.  Because of sensibilities past, there are thousands of works of art secreted in places hardly anyone goes, and thus they are hardly ever seen.  Think of it as a personal art gallery for the adventurous.

The easiest way to participate in this private exhibition is to look up.  In some areas, the majority of buildings have intricate carved and cast stone artworks all over them.  Often they get more ornate and interesting as they are placed higher on a building’s facade.

It’s the kind of attention to detail that today would be mocked by developers as not being cost effective.  But in decades past, they were essential marketing tools.  Given a choice, you wouldn’t live in an ugly home, so why would you work in an ugly building?  And if the developer of a building cut back on decorative flourishes and other humanistic elements, when what else has he cut back on?  Never trust a building without art.

For example, the building above is 180 North Michigan Avenue.  Each day tens of thousands of people hustle by its ground floor retail on their way to and from whatever is important in their lives.  Virtually none of them have ever seen the details of the building.  The arches that cap the vertical shafts of windows, the decorative panels below the windows the office drones look out of every day, the capstones, scrollwork, and medallions that decorate the skin of the building.  Even the mechanical penthouse was worthy of embellishment in the eyes of its builder.

If built today, that same penthouse wouldn’t be decorated and celebrated, it would be hidden behind a glass or metal screen. Shunned and isolated in the cheapest way possible, instead of designed in the best way possible.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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