Last summer, I authored a column on the most inspiring cities abroad I’ve visited: Istanbul, Prague, Budapest, Athens and Barcelona. I shared some of the architectural wonders of each and favorite spots to visit, whether you find yourself there on business or for pleasure. The best part was hearing everyone’s feedback afterward. The calls and emails came in and people would stop me in my tracks to tell me about their own trips to those cities and what they enjoyed, from a design perspective. I also started hearing a request: Would you mind sharing your thoughts on some of the most architecturally moving U.S. cities?
A few years ago, I visited a number of universities looking for the one with the right architecture program for my son (who plans to follow in the family footsteps) and what I discovered is that, oftentimes, a college’s architecture program pulls from its local environment. The dynamic between the city and the college serves as a point of recruitment and retention for those would-be freshmen. For me, I fell in love with several U.S. cities during those trips, all of which I’ll share here:
Chicago: If you are an architecture and design geek, the Windy City is an absolute must. Grant Park serves as the city’s “front yard,” the Chicago River as its centerpiece and the lake brings a unique landscape that ties it all together.
Not only is it the birthplace of the skyscraper, and where the Bauhaus movement began, it’s where Frank Lloyd Wright first began designing modern homes. Chicago has a more suburban feel than New York City, but arguably nearly as many noteworthy buildings, parks and sculptures. Among them is the Cloud Gate Sculpture, the eye-catching piece of metallic art in the midst of Millennium Park that is better known as simply “the bean” because of its unusual shape. Some other places I recommend are: Jeanne Gang’s Aqua undulating tower; the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry; and Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing, a stellar addition to the Art Institute.
San Francisco: Next up was Berkeley, and I quickly remembered why San Francisco has always been one of my favorites. Part of this city’s charm is the fact that it doesn’t feel overly urban and that its typography is unlike any other metropolis. From an architectural standpoint, there’s no single particular style sensibility—but that makes it all the more fun to explore. Each neighborhood has its own distinct look and iconic buildings to go along with it. I recommend visiting SFMOMA, designed by Mario Botta in 1995, the Palace of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Aspen: If you enjoy natural beauty, then a trip to Aspen will not disappoint. The city’s hotels, residential homes and retail stores all keep with a design that is indigenous to the area and respectful of its natural beauty. Among my must-sees are the homes on Red Mountain and the recent renovation of the Jerome Hotel.
Austin: I was delighted when I found out we won the bid to work on a project for a technology firm in Austin. Regular trips, following my previous ones to see the University of Texas with my son, were now a requirement! The city, outside of Austin proper, has a pure suburban style of architecture and the strata and geology within Texas poses its own unique design challenges. To work within the parameters, one must design structures that mesh with the natural landscape.
Washington, D.C.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention D.C. in my roundup of most architecturally significant cities. After all, it is full of inspiration and change. D.C. boasts an airier, less congested vibe than many other cities, thanks in part to laws restricting building height and a strong push toward conservation of green spaces for more than a century and counting.
The boom in tech firms, stellar college programs and increase in contemporary architecture to keep up with the demand has given way to an increasingly lively environment. Graduates from city universities are opting to stay in the city—and with so much great design everywhere you look, they have good reason!
Scott E. Spector is a principal at Spector Group.