Gaines Group Architects
Chicago Architecture

Little Architectural Details That Make a Place a Home

The little architectural details that exist in a community, neighborhood, or town are what make a place a home. They are the difference between living somewhere and loving somewhere. The creation of place relies on many different aspects. It is more than just an address. Place is something that pulls at your heart, evokes an emotion, and gives you comfort. Place makes a community more than just buildings and people, it brings vitality and emotion.

On my recent visit to Chicago, I did the normal walking and looking up at huge skyscrapers. They are beautiful and amazing feats of engineering. There are details even in these huge building that are delicate and captivating. You could spend years walking and looking and still find new special things including in these massive buildings.

After hours of walking and looking up, I felt compelled to explore something a little lower. Just outside of the massive structures is a small Cabbage Patch of meaningful and well designed details. Old Town Chicago was developed from swampland by German immigrants in the 19th Century. It became a place for artists in the 1930’s and by 1948 the buildings had fallen into disrepair. In the 1960’s the neighborhood became a place for a hippie culture to thrive (whatever that means). It was at times a center for the folk music scene, Puerto Rican Community, and even a place of racial divide at times.

It seems today, to this outsider to be a place of community. There are layers of history telling a story. The details on the buildings create a fabric allowing for a vibrant community that has experienced good and bad along the way to exist. There are old buildings, new businesses, inventive storefronts, beautiful artwork, and rich architectural details.

There is passion and playfulness.

There is old and new side by side in a well proportioned attempts to coexist.

These layers of history are not always evident in a community. We tend to hide our scars even though they may be beautiful. We sometimes push for things to be “fixed” when they could just as well exist and be beautiful as they are now.

We may even cover them up with new layers of history or literally paint over them.

However, the details all seem to come together to tell a personal story to the one viewing. It is my interpretation of the story. These are my memories of the details and my interpretation of the history. I find beauty in buildings, signs, gates, flowers, and even windows. They exist all over the city not just in Old Town and not just in Chicago.


It is important, in my opinion for all communities to empower all those in it to think of themselves as designers. Your simple changes tie into the whole. You are a designer. You are creating a place. Your actions matter. Your changes impact the story for someone else. You voice is important, not just the politicians, architects, engineers, city planners – your voice matters, design matters.

The creation of place is important for your soul and mine.

I just wish I had found this place earlier in my trip. Next time, I am going to find out all about this chicken, burger, italian beef, gyros joint!

And then I am going to follow the advice I once got from a building and go this way.

7. The Aqua Tower in Chicago #105architecturalinspiration

This 82 story tall Chicago mixed-use residential building  has a fluid contour facade creating unique balconies for every apartment. The Aqua Tower includes floor-to-ceiling windows, clean lines, and Chicago’s largest outdoor recreation deck. 


The structure was designed by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects with James Loewenberg & Associates as the Architect of Record.

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The form of the concrete slabs is incredible with each level of the building taking a different shape, almost like the ripples across a pond. The project had high sustainability goals including rainwater harvesting, energy-efficiency, and Chicago’s largest green roof.

Aqua Tower in Chicago

The design of the building does bring into question the struggle between form and function. While the beauty of the design is unmistakable, the building science creates issues that remain unanswered. Thermal bridging of the concrete in the cold winter months and the large amount of glass are in contradiction with the climate of Chicago. The balconies do have an insulating paint to help prevent energy issues, however, based on the thermal images posted on Building Science Corporation’s website, this solution is not adequate. I love the form, a truly brilliant architectural creation, despite the lack of attention to building science, this still makes my list of architectural inspirations.

Aqua Tower in Chicago

#105architecturalinspirations is a collection of architectural details, buildings, and spaces that inspire me. I am taking on the challenge of finding two projects to spotlight each week in 2015. Hopefully I will be able to keep up and this process of discovery will push me to create better design solutions for my clients as I research and learn more about those projects I enjoy most. I challenge you to add your comments below about this project and to post your own inspirations for all to enjoy. 

Full List of previous #105architecturalinspiration posts

1. Jefferson’s Academical Village

2. Charleston, South Carolina

3. Solar Decathlon

4. National Museum of the American Indian

5. Lighthouses

6. Hatch Show Prints