Public Architecture Around The Great Lakes

Public Architecture Around The Great Lakes

In between a glimmering inland sea and blocks of steel, concrete, and glass, Lake Shore Drive in Chicago endures as a reward for harnessing one of the Great Lakes. Throughout American history, Lake Michigan has powered the national economy by connecting resources from the hinterland with foreign markets and labor. To accommodate this growth, a group of leading architects under the Chicago School moniker designed innovative steel-frame commercial buildings that would go on to dictate international style. By midcentury, a growing modernist aesthetic driven by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe led to the popularity of a Second Chicago School, leaving a lasting impact throughout the Lake Michigan basin.

Following the winds off of the Great Plains, I set out from Chicago to circumnavigate Lake Michigan, exploring public architecture—with a focus on modernism—along the Lake Michigan Circle Tour. I traveled along the designated scenic road system counterclockwise through Indiana’s brief northern shore, western Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, eastern Wisconsin, and back to Chicago.

Sprawling past state boundaries and time zones, there are few constraints on Chicagoland’s insatiable need for space—other than Lake Michigan’s shores. Indiana’s coastal counties pile with legacy-heavy industry as evidenced by the cooling tower looming over the confusingly-named Michigan City, Indiana. In the center of town is Michigan City Public Library, a square-shaped building assembled from a series of neatly arranged sawtooths. The sawtooth’s striking form permits long clearstory windows to run the length of the building and allows natural light into the reading spaces. Designed by Helmut Jahn in 1974, Michigan City Public Library was intended as an urban renewal scheme but was maligned by the public for disconnecting Franklin Street (Michigan City’s main street) from the lake front. Jahn is considered the eight member of the Chicago Seven, a group of architects who vocally responded to the over-popularization of van der Rohe and instead sought to challenge strict adherence to rectilinear structures.

Soon after leaving Michigan City, I found myself across state lines in Michigan where I made a quick stop in Holland to see the spring tulips and Big Red (the Holland Harbor Light) before following the Gerald R. Ford Freeway to Grand Rapids. A trading post turning manufacturing metropolis, Grand Rapids grew to fame as the “furniture city” at the turn of the last century until shifting economic fortunes saw factories relocate. Large parts of downtown were condemned and demolished to make way for new developments like the International-style Grand Rapids City Hall and Kent County Administration Building. The dark steel structures, clad in brown Canadian granite and bronze, are ten stories (City Hall) and three stories (Administration Building) tall and are joined by an Alexander Calder sculpture “La Grand Vitesse” on a windswept plaza. The complex was designed by Skidmore, Owens & Merrill and is instantly recognizable as a variation of van der Rohe’s famed Loop Station US Post Office in downtown Chicago.

Further north and a few lighthouses later, I found myself at the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. Historically an important trade route and barrier between the resource-rich Upper Peninsula and railroad connections in the Lower Peninsula, the Straits have been tamed by the Mackinac Bridge, or Mighty Mac. Elegantly hovering over a hydrological convergence, the 26,372 ft long suspension bridge was designed by the engineer David B. Steinman and completed in 1957 after many years of planning and failed funding. Perhaps it was the bald eagle I saw earlier in the day, but Mighty Mac felt like a stately piece of infrastructure representative of America as it connects two shores. With limited built landmarks in the Upper Peninsula, I veered off my initial course to view Lake Superior from the Painted Rocks National Lakeshore.

Passing into Wisconsin and back to Central Time Zone, I continued to trace the Lake Michigan coast down around Green Bay, up the Door Peninsula, and on to Milwaukee. East of downtown, the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum lands on the lakefront and has become an emblem of the city. Designed in 2001, the Pavilion features the skeletal characteristics of architect Santiago Calatrava. More spectacle than program, the entrance atrium is undeniably stunning, but the long connection to the galleries was a puzzling experience.

The long hallway links to the older parts of the museum including its original lakeside home, the Milwaukee County War Memorial. Designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1957, the War Memorial’s cantilevered blocky structure contrasts Calatrava’s corporeal spine. The War Memorial is dedicated to county residents lost in World War II and the Korean War offers access to a large promontory over the galleries with views of the lake and city.

My 900 mile circuit had taken me through the crossroads of America, a pair of Michigan peninsulas, and America’s dairyland, yet I chose to extend my drive by taking local roads back to Chicago to thoroughly observe the only Great Lake entirely within the United States. With Lake Michigan an enduring presence on my side, I wondered what role it would play in propelling the next century of development.

Read more about my other Public Architecture tour here.