It's hip to live modern in Chicago, judging from the designs of many new condominium towers proposed or under construction in the city. It wasn't always this way. Chicago earned its reputation as the birthplace of modern architecture more for large-scale commercial projects than for the occasional residential standout such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 860-880 Lake Shore Drive and Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City. Most postwar apartment buildings in Chicago are banal and uninspired exercises in modernism, with little to distinguish them from the city's notorious public housing projects. Such was the state of affairs until the current residential building boom started to transform the skyline. When the office market tanked in the early 1990s and it became obvious that a business-only downtown would never become a 24/7 activity zone, the city's planning department encouraged residential building in the Loop and the area immediately to the north. The earliest residential high-rises completed under this strategy were hefty and undistinguished. Generally constructed with exposed concrete frames, these new features on the skyline caused considerable consternation within the local design community.

That frustration eventually echoed through city hall. In February 2002, Mayor Richard M. Daley proclaimed (via a banner headline in the daily Sun-Times), “No More Ugly Buildings.” Fortunately, developers took the hint, and some architecture firms raised their aspirations to meet the new design-based demand.

Another fortuitous development has been the city's rigorous new energy code and the availability of a new green building technology: innovative thermal glazing that makes glass-sheathed high-rises more energy efficient than their concrete-clad predecessors.

Not every new residential building in Chicago meets the high standards demonstrated by this portfolio, and the uncertain housing market may affect the trend toward design quality. Crain's Chicago Business reports that local investor-buyers are exhibiting the same skittishness as in other big-city markets. While the average price of a Chicago condo rose by 7 percent in the second quarter of 2006, overall sales were down 21 percent as compared with second quarter 2005. If reports continue to predict the end of the housing boom, at least the Chicago market is experiencing an upswing, aesthetically speaking.