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Upon arriving in Chicago, one thing that struck my attention was that Gravity and light are perceived oddly in Chicago. This study is a personal observation, and an attempt to illustrate these observations about the unusual qualities of light and gravity in Chicago. Usually one can perceive the weight of a building being pulled to the ground by gravity and rays of light directionally hitting a surface. However this is not the case in Chicago, gravity is perceived as weightless and light as multidirectional.



The prairie, an indigenous landscape of Chicago, is a unique environment.
The grasses are as tall as a person, and so dense that one cannot see the ground. Tall stalks of hundreds of mixed specimens lift up off the ground with a force. Nothing feels weighted down, so much so that gravity is not perceived nor is it of importance. The prairie is massive but weightless. Brilliant light scatters across millions of surfaces of intricately shaped flowers, leaves, and stalks. As a result of these infinite reflections, light is ever-present and everywhere. We experience the same sensations of gravity and light when walking through the prairie as we do walking though the Chicago Loop.


We have observed that, in comparison to the Mediterranean, we do not feel gravity as much in Chicago. Buildings in Chicago sit on the ground in an uneventful way. Sometimes it seems that the weight of the building turns into nothing within the last few feet before the ground.

When architecture in Chicago adopts a heavy base for a building, this has a different effect than it would in the Mediterranean, a birthplace of western architecture.
Maybe that is why Chicago is the birthplace of skyscrapers and horizontal architecture.

Chicago skyscrapers are a product of a weightless, and therefore fearless, perception of gravity.
Chicago masters’ early work that appropriates a heavy base.

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Building
Famous for its weighty brick walls, this building appears anchored to the ground and soars upward, rather than crashing down upon its wider base.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Heller House and Charnley House
Although the building is constructed on classical tectonic principles and sits on a stone base, perception of its weight is lost the moment before it meets the ground.

    Mies van der Rohe’s buildings illustrate the oddity of perception of gravity in Chicago in comparison with New York.  

Mies van der Rohe, 860-880 Lakeshore Drive
Mies van der Rohe in Chicago: the weight of the building is held up at its base, but disappears in the last couple of feet before it reaches the ground.

Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building
Mies van der Rohe in New York: this tower comes down with its full weight upon the ground.

  Chicago architects’ understanding and appropriation of weightlessness.  


A. Epstein and Sons, Crain Communications Building
The crown of the tower looks like a cut stalk, as if would grow higher if it were not truncated.

C.F. Murphy Asso., Chase Tower
The base of tower looks like it is anchored to the ground so that it does not fly away.

  Visiting artist and architect and their appropriation of weightlessness in Chicago.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate
Looks like a cloud on the ground.

Frank Gehry, Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Looks like a tumbleweed.


We have observed the differences between light in the Mediterranean area and light in Chicago. We understand Chicago light and these differences in the following ways:

Chicago light is much less substantial, while Mediterranean light feelslike matter. Chicago light feels like nothing in particular.

Chicago light does not have a vector or direction, while Mediterranean light feels like it is coming down upon us and hits the ground. Chicago llight often feels multidirectional.

Chicago light is whiter and more brilliant than Mediterranean light.

We found that the best buildings in Chicago worked with these characteristics and turned them into architecture that would not be possible in the Mediterranean.


Louis Sullivan, The Sullivan Center
Shadow is a part of the ornament, instead of only bearing witness to depth.

Keck & Keck, Apartment Building
In Chicago shapes are often perceived in their shadows; we see the tree almost as well in its shadow than in its form.

OMA, IIT Student Center
Brilliant white light is the best light to accept color.

OMA, IIT Student Center
Light that shines in all directions is the right kind of light to perceive space with lots of form.

OMA, IIT Student Center
Light is reflected from every blade of grass.

View of the Chicago Loop
Dazzling light reflects on far away surfaces.

Bertrand Goldberg, Marina City
These towers suck the light into their balconies, while the Mies’ tower to the right holds light on its skin.



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photos of Chicago: Shu Lai
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