Sight and Sound

SIGHT AND SOUND: Forming the centerpiece of Chicago's newly refurbished Millennium Park is Frank Gehry's band shell. The park's whimsical art and architecture includes Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, a massive video installation. (Charles Cherney / Chicago Tribune)

By 8:50 a.m., they temporarily had to close the women's restroom at the Chicago ArchiCenter.

"There were so many people here already, they had to restock all the toilet paper," said Elaine Rosen, a retired biology teacher from the Streeterville area of the city. Rosen, who said she's "60-plus," was one of the 1,800 people who came to the ArchiCenter on a rainy Saturday morning in late spring to take advantage of free tours. Once a year, the Chicago Architecture Foundation gives away tickets for all its walking tours on a first-come, first-served basis.

That means you have to get there early. By 5:45 a.m., more than a dozen people were already queued up in the unseasonably cold, clammy weather, waiting for the doors to open. "Architecture has become everybody's hobby," Rosen said. Chicago is the Katharine Hepburn of cities: It has beautiful bones. Nearly everywhere you turn, there's a gorgeous building. People at the foundation call it "the first city of American architecture," and it's easy to see why. Chicago is practically a museum of modern architecture. It was home to the first steel-framed skyscraper (the 10-story Home Insurance Building built in 1884 and demolished in the 1920s) and claims the country's tallest building (the 110-story Sears Tower). It has the skyscraper-studded Magnificent Mile and Lake Shore Drive, perhaps the most sweeping entryway for any American city.

One reason for this beauty is the Great Fire of 1871. While the culprit might be debatable — "the cow has been exonerated," said foundation docent Dennis Costello, who said a drunk may have tipped over Mrs. O'Leary's lantern — its effect is not. It allowed city planners to start with a blank slate. Out of the rubble, the Chicago School of Architecture developed, emphasizing verticality, large windows and the steel framing that gave designers new freedom. Other architectural styles evolved: Art Deco, Art Deco Streamlined, International, Minimalist, Postmodern.

And when all the fire debris was pushed out into Lake Michigan, it helped expand the shoreline. Built on the infill are much of Lake Shore Drive and Grant Park, an enormous strip of public green between the lake and the wall of city high-rises along Michigan Avenue.

To visit Chicago without taking at least one architectural tour would be like visiting Los Angeles and missing Grauman's Chinese Theatre or the Hollywood sign. Besides, the Chicago Architecture Foundation makes it easy. It has lunchtime tours, happy-hour tours, bus tours, tours to see churches, neighborhoods, cemeteries and centers of finance. "The city is our museum," is the foundation's motto.

The tours go on all year, with 106 departures a week in the June-to-September high season. Neither my wife, Jody Jaffe, nor I was especially familiar with the city, so we decided to let architecture be our guide and signed up for three tours.

Seems like Cirque du Soleil

Our first tour took us to Millennium Park, a newly refurbished area on the northwest corner of Grant Park. A storm was threatening when we showed up at the ArchiCenter downtown that morning. But we were told tours went on in any weather. "We're like the post office," said foundation marketing chief Bastiaan Bouma.

With rain dancing off the sidewalks, our docent, Priscilla Mims, ducked into the nearby Chicago Cultural Center and gave us our first look at the park through the center's second-story windows.

If Cirque du Soleil made parks, this is what it would build. Millennium Park is a blend of architectural splendor and whimsy, including a huge video installation and a bandstand that looks like giant ribbons of stainless steel taffy. Making it even more amazing is its foundation — steel, plastic foam and 4 feet of dirt. Millennium Park, basically a giant roof garden, was built over a cavern of train and bus lines.

The park's centerpiece is Frank Gehry's fantastical band shell and its metal walkways. Nearby are a 110-ton, 66-foot stainless steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa's work, the Crown Fountain, which combines video technology and glass to create a Jumbotron effect like that in a football stadium. Hundreds of faces of Chicagoans are displayed on 50-foot towers as water splashes down, occasionally spurting from the mouths of those depicted on the screen.

Our second tour began at 3 that afternoon aboard the boat Chicago's Little Lady. Boat tours on the Chicago River are the architecture foundation's most popular. For the entire 90-minute ride, docent Joy Hebert kept a steady stream of information flowing, pointing out dozens of skyscrapers and important historic buildings.

From Hebert, we learned that the Wrigley Building was the city's tallest in 1924 and that the monstrous Merchandise Mart, built in 1931, has seven miles of hallways and 5,000 windows. We also learned that developers began to embrace the river after its 1980s cleanup and now have lined it with $1-million townhouses.

But the best part of the boat trip was the views. The river is Y shaped, and the Little Lady took us briefly up both arms and back. From the boat's top deck, the panorama of the City of the Big Shoulders is unimpeded and needs no commentary to inspire awe.

Boat passenger Roger DuToit was clearly inspired. "Chicago is a city that's proud of its architecture," he said. DuToit is a South African architect living in Toronto. He said his favorite Chicago building is the soaring Sears Tower. "It's very graceful, very elegant."

Our final tour was a 3½-hour bus trip that began the next morning at the ArchiCenter and took us to the southern neighborhood of Hyde Park and back. Once again, the sky was gray and full of threat.

Our first stop was downtown at the 1888 Rookery Building, built on the onetime site of Chicago's City Hall. Docent Costello had a theory about the building's name: "Everybody who went there said, 'Surely, I'm going to get rooked.' "

The Rookery, a transitional structure in the history of modern tall buildings, has both a masonry and an iron skeletal frame. Its beautiful sky-lighted lobby was redesigned in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright to dubious effect. He had its beautifully decorated iron pillars gilded and slabbed over with white marble.