Chicago is known in the world of architecture as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper. The motivating force behind much of this vertical way of thinking was one of the most destructive events in the history of the United States as a whole – the Great Chicago Fire. In rebuilding itself from the cinders of the inferno, the city began reaching ever higher. Architects like Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan dreamed up ever taller edifices, financed by railroad and steel money pouring into the reborn city’s affluent upper crust. Before long, the city was home to artificial canyons, the sunlight at ground level dictated by the heights of the soaring buildings lining the streets. By the time the 1990s came to an end, Chicago was host to not only the tallest building in the world (at the time, the Sears Tower), but an entire skyline full of towering monoliths of glass, steel, and concrete.
Click on any photo in this post to view it large on black.
My experience with rooftopping began in Toronto back in 2009, giving rise to my current habit of getting on the tops of buildings in pursuit of photographs. Late winter 2011 saw an opportunity to visit Chicago – fertile ground for seeking heights. With only a few days to spend in the Windy City, plans to this end needed to be made carefully. Tops on the list for this trip was a 40-odd story skyscraper conveniently located on Michigan Avenue, the ‘Magnificent Mile’. This glittering strip of pavement is one of the most expensive streets in the world for real estate; a mere square foot of room on this high-rolling boulevard will cost you a cool $127/mo in rent. Let me put that into context: this absurd going rate means that a tiny 250ft² shoebox of an apartment would cost you more than $30000 every month. Well-heeled is a nice way of describing the residents of this street; however, despite all the massive piles of cash money all over Michigan Avenue, the best views here cannot be purchased; they must be attained.
I headed to the building in question (which I will refer to as the H) to see what the upper reaches of the stairwells held in store. It was late afternoon, the lobby packed with travelers and patrons for the establishment’s swanky first-floor bar. Thankfully, the herd of people made it easy to dodge the prying eyes of the concierge and head for the lifts. The ride up the elevator to the top floor (a base camp, so to speak) is one of the best parts of rooftopping – nothing but anticipation and butterflies in one’s stomach as the numbers tick upwards.
The door opened at my floor with an insistent *ding*, and out I went. The corridor seemed to be vacant, save for a housekeeper’s cart propping open a door on the far end. Unfortunately, this next part gets a bit fuzzy (funny how that works), but the next thing I can remember, the roof door was opening and I was face-to-face with Chicago’s Near North side. Paydirt.
The next day, I hopped an ‘L’ train and headed into the city to revisit the H after dark. However, the central Loop neighborhood was my first destination as the sun began to drop behind the artificial horizon of Chicago’s skyline. So named for the layout of the elevated railway encircling it, the Loop is the center of Chicago, and home to many of its tallest buildings. However, sometimes in the quest for ever greater heights, it’s easy to forget the shorter buildings that offer cityscapes that are just as appealing. Blue hour was fast approaching, so I made for some strategically located rooftops near the elevated.
After dark, I met up with Katherine of Chicago and headed for the H’s now neon infused rooftop. The mob that had been in the lobby the previous day was still present albeit in smaller size, allowing us to once again take the lifts all the way up. A few minutes later, out into the frigid night we went, the world suddenly shrinking as the door opened to the seemingly endless cityscape. This was a scene I was not prepared for; the jaw-dropping, brightly lit vistas on the skyscrapers to our north and south and the great, tangled blanket of streetlights in the neighborhoods and suburbs to the west.
While some fellow rooftoppers have used the fisheye lens to great effect, as of late I’ve been a fan of the multi-shot panorama. The idea here is to pivot the camera around on the tripod through a given arc, taking overlapping images all the way across. These images are then combined (after a lot of thinking by my computer) into a single image.
Chicago is not a city known for its mild winters, and tonight, the arctic blast coming off of Lake Michigan was amplified threefold by the heights. After our fingers were good and numb, we descended back to the street below, the clueless concierge politely holding the doors open for us as we exited.
Michigan Avenue at ground level is something altogether different, our peaceful rooftop sanctuary replaced by honking taxis and hapless tourists stumbling all over the sidewalks. Ah, well…there’s always tomorrow night!