Building Tall—G&A at the Chicago Architecture Center

Read Time: 5.5 minutes

Gallagher & Associates (Washington) worked closely with the Chicago Architecture Center to develop thought-provoking exhibitions that help the public discover Chicago’s unique cityscape and international architectural legacy.

The name Chicago is bound to conjure several things in the mind of someone who has never visited the United States, among which tall buildings are most certainly included (alongside deep-dish pizza, windy weather and the Bears). People often associate the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the John Hancock Center and perhaps titans of architecture like Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright with the city. It’s unequivocally a “big city” with many signature skyscrapers: the perfect setting for the Chicago Architecture Center (formerly the Chicago Architecture Foundation), a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to inspire people to discover why design matters.”

In late August 2018, the new CAC opened at 111 E. Wacker Drive—a Mies van der Rohe building—with 7,000-square-feet of exhibition space in addition to a lecture hall, educational retail and welcome spaces. The center opened to much acclaim: the Chicago Tribune wrote, “It’s the latest jewel in Chicago’s architectural crown.” But, the process to reach that polished point wasn’t as smooth as one might imagine.

CAC invited Gallagher & Associates to design the exhibitions for two galleries, lobby and stairwell areas, but there was a catch: they only had nine months to complete the work. Not to back away from a challenge, the core G&A team was swiftly assembled with Creative Director Cybelle Jones, a writer, exhibit and graphic designers, a project manager and project coordinator in addition to a content team in the New York office. They also brought in fabrication gurus Ravenswood and a British interactive design firm Four Zero One early on to streamline the process.

They knew there would be two main galleries for exhibitions, a Chicago architecture-focused gallery and one centered on skyscraper design in a more international context; however, the first matter for the team to settle was a thesis. “Our job was to find the connective tissue between all of CAC’s spaces,” explains Christian Cabrera, senior graphic designer at Gallagher & Associates. “The central message needed to resonate with and be relevant for everyone, from those with a casual interest to those in architecture school.”

But how do you make skyscrapers—that aren’t even in every city—relevant to someone from a small town? That would pose an additional challenge. To tell the story of skyscrapers, the team decided on “live, work, build, imagine” as the theme that created a framework for establishing relevancy. Additionally, they determined that the two galleries would provide a view of Chicago architecture from the inside out and outside in.

From the beginning, creating a neutral visual framework and sense of scale were vitally important to cultivate visual harmony in the minimalist space with sweeping views of the river and city skyline. The team chose sans serif typefaces—Titling Gothic, a relative of Railroad Gothic, which spoke more to the Chicago story and the more modern, Atlas, that hinted toward the more international nature of skyscrapers in the “Building Tall” exhibit.

Bold, simple graphics with a minimal color palette based on the iconic CAC red carry the exhibition throughout and can be seen from blocks away through the enormous two-story windows that so perfectly showcase the jaw-dropping, snow-white, 32-foot-high at 1/100th scale model of the forthcoming Jeddah Tower (currently under construction).

A host of other large models of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers were expertly arranged within view of the windows, adding visual interest from across the street. From inside the center, their scale is awe-inspiring for guests: “Being able to compare the first skyscraper at a little more than one foot, to the future tallest at more than 36 feet, evokes a visceral reaction that we couldn’t achieve otherwise,” notes Cabrera.

To illustrate the impact of these tall buildings on society and culture, the G&A team arranged the exhibits programmatically into four modular islands that can easily move to make space for events or changing content. The islands—appropriately live, work, build and imagine—balance physical foam core and acrylic models with interpretive graphics, to tell the story of how building design that reaches for the sky has transformed the way we live today.

Downstairs,” in the more intimate space of the Chicago Gallery, visitors can explore how architecture has shaped Chicago specifically—through important historical figures and their impact, events, movements and innovations. In addition to discussing important architects and their key works, several of Chicago’s many neighborhoods and their ever-changing zoning and communities are featured in the context of urban issues faced nationwide. Another section delves into housing, deeply examining the why, how and when of Chicago’s residences from worker’s housing to Frank Lloyd Wright structures. The gallery also highlights recently completed or proposed local architecture projects in Chicago.

The star of the show is the Chicago City Model and a large-format eight-minute-long film produced by G&A that introduces patrons to the city, key buildings and events such as the Chicago Fire of 1871—further illustrated by a 3-D printed model that sits in front of the screen. The film is synched with a Four Zero One-designed program projection-mapped onto the model, that between showings can be controlled using interactive kiosks to highlight landmarks, transportation systems or traffic circulation patterns.

Behind the interactive is a data visualization that uses four color-coded time periods to illustrate how the city is ever-evolving and growing. The G&A team used Mapbox to manipulate the data quickly and accurately—a strategy they also used for the floor map in the lobby space. The floor map was designed to bookend the experience by orienting visitors to their immediate surroundings with “you are here,” in the context of facts about CAC and Chicago that orient you to the organization and its mission before and after journeying through the exhibits.

There are so many ways that Chicago architecture has shaped the lives of people throughout the world; and through the new center, the G&A team is proud to have helped focus the lens through which people understand how Chicago became the “City of Architecture.” Principal & Executive Director, Cybelle Jones, remarks, “The experience we designed illustrates how architecture becomes the urban canvas for daily life, providing a new lens for audiences to explore the city and its unique architectural fabric.” And the design team is seeing the city in a new light as well. Cabrera says he’s gained a greater appreciation for Chicago over the course of the project: “I still see New York as the exemplar of the American city, but I think Chicago is more beautiful in a lot of ways because of its focus on architecture and its influence on architecture around the world.”



Project Name: Chicago Architecture Center
Client: Chicago Architecture Center
Location: Chicago
Open Date: August 31, 2018
Project Area: 7,000 sq ft
Architect: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Exhibition Design: Gallagher & Associates
Fabrication & Digital Integration: Ravenswood Studio, Inc.; Creative Technology
Collaborators: Model Options (models), Columbian Model & Exhibit Works (models), Four Zero One (interactive experience), Studio Blue (wayfinding and signage)
Photography: Anna Munzesheimer, Peter Steinkamp