The Chicago Architecture Center (formerly the Chicago Architecture Foundation) opens in its new location on the river this weekend. Credit: Deanna Isaacs

The exhibits weren’t fully installed when I dropped in to preview the new home of the Chicago Architecture Center (formerly the Chicago Architecture Foundation) last week, but on a return visit this week everything was up and running.

The center, now in a two-story space in a riverfront Mies van der Rohe building at 111 E. Wacker, opened to the public this weekend, offering a museum experience along with its roster of 85 tours.

There’s an entrance fee of $12 for adults, $8 for students, but if you take one of CAC’s walking or bus tours, admission to the center’s exhibits will be included.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll find there:

CAC’s new home boasts a jaw-dropping view of Chicago architecture.Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Spectacular views outside, especially from the second-story Skyscraper Gallery, reached via a grand wooden staircase (or an elevator ride).  The center, a few steps east of Michigan Avenue on Wacker, looks north across the river, toward Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. And the entrance to CAC’s most famous tour, its River Cruise, is just across the street, where the First Lady docks. 

CAC’s Skyscraper Gallery includes a scale model of Beijing’s CCTV.Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Inside, the Skyscraper Gallery offers large, white scale models of the world’s tallest buildings, including Willis Tower, the still-under-construction Jeddah Tower (by the Chicago firm of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, which also designed this interior space for CAC), and  Beijing’s otherworldly CCTV Headquarters. Smaller, intricately detailed architects’ models of other buildings—like Studio Gang’s Vista Tower and Goettsch Partners’s 150 W. Riverside—are displayed behind glass, along with explanatory wall text. 

The Chicago Model in the foreground; the city’s history on film, behindCredit: Deanna Isaacs

CAC’s expanded Chicago Model—a small-scale version of every building in the city’s center—is the focal point of the other main exhibit area, the Chicago Gallery. The model now sits in front of a large screen and, thanks to a computerized light show, is more or less integrated into a seven-minute film about the city’s growth. When the film (which starts its historical account with a brief mention of the treaties that forced Native Americans to move west) gets to the Great Chicago Fire, for example, orange-and-red lights play over the skyscrapers that now stand on the portion of the city that burned. 

The Great Chicago Fire strikes again.Credit: Deanna Isaacs

In the breaks between film showings, visitors can light up parts of the city model themselves by using one of four touch screens that offer a menu of architectural topics to explore.

I was glad to see that the film—which is informative, necessarily concise, and unsurprisingly promotional (but would benefit from a more sophisticated score)—includes the James R. Thompson Center; maybe that’ll help save this threatened postmodern masterpiece. 

CAC’s Chicago architecture film includes the endangered Thompson Center.Credit: Deanna Isaacs

You don’t have to buy a ticket to see the tallest of the Skyscraper Gallery models—you can see it from the street through CAC’s massive front windows.  And you can still get to the interesting gift shop without purchasing a ticket.

But a membership (they start at $80) will get you free entry to the exhibits, discounts on lectures and parking, and free tickets to what’s still the best of what CAC has to offer—65 walking tours of the actual city.