Chicago is justly famed as a center of public art. Some of the city’s best work is on its streets, and it’s not just sculpture. Since the early 20th century—with the work of Louis Sullivan, credited as one of the inventors of the skyscraper—Chicago has proved a pioneering home for great architecture. This itinerary will bring visitors through buildings and parks, and past individual works by Picasso, Alexander Calder, and many others

The Acqua Tower is a wavy, weird, and unmissable addition to the famous Chicago skyline. A mostly residential skyscraper standing at eighty-two stories, the Acqua holds the distinction of being the largest American architecture project ever designed by a woman. Pushing for as much eco-friendliness as is possible in a skyscraper, Jeanne Gang and her team sought to make sustainability a major priority by utilizing unusual terrace extensions for solar shading, installing rainwater collection systems, and making the green roof on top of the tower base the largest in Chicago. To get a really close look visitors can book a room at the Radisson Blue Acqua, a four-and-a-half star hotel with a glamorous outdoor pool.

Wood Pavilion at Lincoln Park Zoo

Another Studio Gang project, the Wood Pavilion in Lincoln Park Zoo is a marvel of engineering intersecting with natural beauty. Consisting of a latticed wooden arch with a fiberglass-domed roof, the Pavilion harmoniously co-exists with its bucolic environment, “transforming a picturesque urban pond from the 19th century into an ecological habitat buzzing with life,” as Dezeen put it. The sheltered spot serves as a meeting place for open-air classes like yoga or ecological lessons for kids, and is a gorgeous and popular attraction to visitors of Lincoln Park. It is especially worth visiting at night, when the structure is softly illuminated from within.

Alexandre Calder’s whimsically named Flamingo sculpture is a bright respite in the somewhat harsh urban environment of Federal Plaza. Painted with an organic vermillion, set off against the somber modernism of Mies van der Rohe’s nearby Kluczynski Building, the Flamingo has been greeting downtown office workers and visitors since 1974. Calder might be considered a fairly popular choice for public art nowadays, but few installations have the longevity, scale, and satisfying contrast that Flamingo offers. Next time you’re at Federal Plaza, stroll under its enormous arches, and contemplate what this dynamic sculpture brings to its surroundings.

What list of outdoor art in Chicago would be complete without mention of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate? Affectionately nicknamed “The Bean” (for obvious, bean-shaped reasons), this sculpture remains awe-inspiring even after the first couple times you see it. With a liquid mirror-like surface that reflects and distorts the city skyline, one wonders how its construction was ever possible. And indeed, Cloud Gate’s fabrication process was plagued with problems and was deemed by many experts to be impossible. Eventually a method was found, and today Chicago is unimaginable without it. “I hope what I have done is make a serious work,” Kapoor has mused. “You can capture the popular imagination and hold other points of interest, but that is not what I set out to do, although there is inevitably a certain spectacular in an object like this.” As an object, “The Bean” could not be more spectacular.


Among the many marvelous installations in Millennium Park, Crown Fountain ranks among the best. It consists of a black granite reflecting pool and two opposing 50-foot-tall towers fronted by LED screens, displaying digital videos of different Chicago residents’ faces. Weather permitting, these faces pucker and a fountain of water intermittently spouts out of their giant lips. A playful piece of contemporary art that is a favorite of children, the Crown Fountain is especially enjoyable on a hot summer day when many visitors frolic in the pool and happily get doused by the surreal spitting faces.

Legend has it that an architect working on the Daley Center wrote Picasso an earnest poem to invite him to contribute a sculpture to the plaza. Refusing payment, Picasso generously complied and offered his untitled sculpture of a head as a gift to the city of Chicago in 1967. Of course, not everyone appreciated the gift, since up until that point public sculpture in the city consisted of conservative (and usually fairly boring) historical figures. This Picasso was anything but. There was an immediate outcry to have it removed and over the years it has been unfavorably compared to a baboon, an aardvark, and a slumlord. But the city stuck to its guns and thus the Picasso kicked off Chicago’s rich history of daring public sculpture.