The Chicago skyline is an iconic symbol of the city. It’s filled with glass and steel, grey and blue; but one building stands out from all the others.
Called “Big Red” by some, or CNA Center in reference to its former owners, the uniquely crimson skyscraper is easy to spot. That’s why Claudia from Rockford asks: Why is the CNA Center the only red skyscraper in Chicago’s skyline?
Architecture critic and photographer Lee Bey said the color of the building at 333 South Wabash Avenue is technically a vermilion, and was inspired by Alexander Calder’s Flamingo in Federal Plaza and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Bey credits the CNA Vice President in charge of building red structure as being, “the only one with the courage to choose this color.”
“Its neighbor to the north on the same block is the original Continental Insurance building, and really is a high point of modern architecture,” Bey said. “They built this building as an expansion, and the idea was to make the building distinctive.”
Chicago is the home of International Style modernist buildings, Bey said, making the CNA Center one among many. These “structural, expressive” buildings made of steel and glass don’t hide their supports beneath ornaments, but rather push them out to their facades.
Bey said the choice to paint the high-rise red was “certainly” controversial.
“By 1973, when this building is complete, we’ve had 20 years of black to dark gray modernist buildings, so this really, really upset things,” Bey said.
Modernism had been around for so long by then, Bey said, that soon architects would start to consider the style passé.
Still, the strategy clearly worked, as the building is now easy to tell apart from the other skyscrapers in the city, let alone other modernist buildings.
“The red gave a distinction right from the jump, which if you’re a business, that’s what you want,” Bey said.
But even with its unique coloring, Big Red is not really considered an icon.
“I think that if it were black it will be just part of a family of modern International Style buildings in Chicago, one of many,” Bey said. “Architecture tours don’t come here, it’s not landmark.”
Had it been built when the modernist style was still being defined in the late 1940s, there could have been a hundred red buildings like it, Bey said. Instead, most are darker greys and blues.
Still, Bey said he thinks Big Red’s popularity could grow as time goes on.
“The next generation, the generation after me increasingly find buildings like this interesting,” Bey said. “All old buildings at some point become fashionable.”