The Pui Tak Center in Chinatown is a prominent symbol of the neighborhood, with its pagoda-inspired towers and terra cotta decorative panels. But it was built by a pair of Norwegian architects: when the On Leong Merchants Association commissioned the building in the 1920s, there were no licensed architects of Chinese descent in Chicago. The Norwegian architects went on to design much of Chinatown over the next two decades, according to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.
When a gate marking the entrance to the stretch of Wentworth Avenue housing the Pui Tak Center was added in 1975, however, architect Peter Fung contributed the design, which is modeled after a gate in Beijing. Now Asian architects from Chicago and as far away as Japan have designed sites across Chicagoland, not just in Chinatown—and not only in styles derived from traditional architecture. Here are a few of them.
Just north of the Pui Tak Center is Chinatown’s striking library branch, designed by an SOM team that included Brian Lee. While eminently modern with its rounded, three-sided shape and bronze aluminum and glass exterior, it draws inspiration from the courtyard buildings of Beijing and its layout is informed by feng shui. (Lee is also behind the West Loop and Little Italy libraries.)
Lee is also responsible for one of the more eye-catching new buildings in the West Loop, 800 Fulton Market (pictured at the top of this article). It features stair-like setbacks topped with terraces landscaped with native plants, as well as dynamic steel braces that flex with the changing temperatures of Chicago’s climate.
Lee was named Chicagoan of the Year in Architecture by the Chicago Tribune in 2020 alongside fellow SOM architect Adam Semel, for their redesign of the old Cook County Hospital. Jackie Koo of KOO Architecture, whom we highlighted in last month’s feature about women architects, also contributed to that project.
Wrightwood 659 was once a 30-unit apartment building, but now the 1920s structure has been transformed into an art gallery. Only the original shell remains; the interior now contains a dramatic, soaring atrium, a concrete stairway, and galleries, thanks to architect Tadao Ando. A winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, Ando is one of Japan’s most prominent architects, known for his attention to light and space and use of ultra-smooth concrete.
Chicago plays an important role in Ando’s career: his first American project was the Ando Gallery in the Japanese Art section of the Art Institute of Chicago, while his first freestanding building in the United States was the Eychaner/Lee house next door to Wrightwood 659. (Philanthropist Fred Eychaner commissioned Ando to design Wrightwood 659.)
Another Japanese Pritzker Prize-winner designed the sharp-angled trapezoidal tower with a distinctive rectangular cut-out near its summit which originally housed the American Medical Association. 515 N. State Street was Kenzo Tange’s second completed project in the United States, although he was acclaimed world-wide by the time it was constructed in 1990. He is best known for Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
Kisho Kurokawa studied under Kenzo Tange, and, like his teacher, he designed a building for downtown Chicago in the late 1980s. His Illinois Center Sporting Club is tucked away amongst skyscrapers on Stetson Avenue, and cleverly nods towards the surrounding Miesian steel-and-glass buildings with an open superstructure of girders in a grid—a sort of outline of a building surrounding the actual enclosed structure.
North Shore Congregation Israel was designed by Minoru Yamasaki in the early 1960s. Located on the lakefront in Glencoe, the dramatic Reform synagogue consists of a series of seemingly weightless concrete arches rimmed with glass to allow daylight into the airy sanctuary. You can catch stunning views of the synagogue in the below video from Chicago from the Air, following the Baha’i House of Worship.
Whereas the synagogue looks heavenward from a low-lying edifice, Yamasaki’s Montgomery Ward headquarters reaches skyward but was built for earthly things. Part of the iconic catalog company’s complex along the North Branch of the Chicago River, the 26-story tower lacks corner offices with a view typical of office towers. Instead, all four corners are solid concrete, housing elevators and mechanicals to maximize the flexibility of office floors. It is now a residential building.
The prolific I.M. Pei designed the two residential buildings known as University Apartments (now condominiums) in Hyde Park with Araldo Cossutta relatively early in his long career. The concrete International Style buildings are located in the middle of 55th Street, which diverts around them. This rather unorthodox location allowed the developer to create a surprisingly long complex surrounding a small park. Built as part of an urban renewal project in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the project was unusual according to the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin in that it sought to integrate new homes—including townhouses by Chicago architect Harry Weese—into the existing urban area rather than simply demolishing everything for a brand-new plan.
Ernest C. Wong
For decades, Chinatown didn’t have a park. That changed when Chicago landscape architecture firm site transformed former railroad land along the river into Ping Tom Memorial Park. Now a gem in the community with a pagoda, boathouse, field house, and walking paths, the park’s site was originally less than ideal since it is surrounded by transportation infrastructure, as site design’s Ernie Wong told WTTW.
Palmisano Park in Bridgeport was also a difficult challenge for Wong’s firm: a former quarry and landfill for “clean” construction debris. Site scooped out the debris and piled it up to create a landscaped “mountain” and prairie wetland that descends into what looks like a limestone canyon with a lake at the bottom—another radical transformation. You can see more of Palmisano Park at the end of this clip about the Bridgeport neighborhood from Chicago by ‘L.’
Wong’s father, Y.C. Wong, was also an architect. He studied under the legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and designed several modernist homes in Chicago. A row of townhomes on 48th Street in Kenwood as well as the nearby Atrium Homes on Madison Park are modest and severe but also bring in the outdoors via open glass walls looking out onto courtyards.
Ben Honda studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology before eventually joining Bertrand Goldberg’s firm. There, he worked on most of Goldberg’s major Chicago commissions: Marina City, River City, the Raymond Hilliard Homes, Prentice Women’s Hospital, and others. He has another claim to fame for fans of WTTW: he is the father of a familiar face, WTTW pledge drive host Gene Honda!