Shaping The Windy City

How UI architects are making their mark on Chicago

Photo of artic expedition members
The Contemporaine, left, a condominium building in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, evinces the modernist flair of Ralph Johnson, a graduate of the University of Illinois School of Architecture.
Perkins + Will/James Steinkamp Photo

By Mary Timmins

Between egos small and big, designs stodgy to outrageous and dreams on a spectrum between comfort-zoned and insane, architects do, nonetheless, have more in common than their profession. First and foremost is the hope that their work will (a) stand up, (b) function well and (c) continue doing (a) and (b) indefinitely.

Architecture is, in other words, an exceptionally public job – and nowhere more than in the dazzling showcase of urban design that is the Windy City. Over the past century, graduates of the University of Illinois School of Architecture have shaped Chicago in manners grand and modest, participating in major building style movements of America’s 20th century and creating new paradigms and ideals for the 21st. What follow are stories of five of these alumni and the impact of their work on the ever-evolving space that is Chicago, present, past and future.

More than one historian credits the Keck brothers with bringing the Bauhaus, a German-fueled juggernaut of architectural modernism, to Chicago. The forward-thinking architects George Frederick ’20 ENG and William ’31 FAA, whose innovative residential designs incorporated passive solar heating, were friendly with leaders of the Bauhaus when it swept into Chicago, and there then arose among the classic jewels of the city’s architectural heyday the glass and steel boxes of the future designed by Mies van der Rohe. One such building is at 330 N. Wabash Ave., a tower where the offices of Perkins + Will float 36 stories above the winter-green drift of Lake Michigan. As the firm’s national design director, Ralph Johnson ’71 FAA holds a symbolic perch that is likewise on high. In September, Chicago Magazine published architects’ picks of the city’s top 10 buildings. Three of them – Skybridge, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and The Contemporaine – were designed by Johnson.

He is known as the architect sans ego, unprepossessing in round glasses, heavy gray mustache and warm sweater. Books have been devoted to his buildings, which in Chicago range from the massive presence of the Boeing Headquarters at 100 N. Riverside Plaza, a 1.1 million-square-foot structure on trusses that rates commentary on architectural cruises of the Chicago River; to the trim glass and concrete planes of the Notebaert Museum, angled low into the lakefront by Lincoln Park; to the glinting sweep and arc of the International Terminal at O’Hare International Airport. Whenever Johnson flies out of the city – as he is wont to quite a lot lately, having captured important commissions in London and China – he likes to give the once-over to the building, which he designed in 1989.
“I think it’s still working,” he said.

Big, public projects, including Temple Hoyne Buell Hall and the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory on the Urbana campus, embody Johnson’s commitment to the social mission of architecture, for which he credits the University and the times during which he was a student. “It’s about the social aspects, it’s about the technical aspects, it’s about the visual aspects,” Johnson said of architecture. “Balancing all those things – that’s part of the program there. It’s also part of the ’68 experience – the social consciousness which has really been formative for me.”

He also responded to the meticulous, thorough approach for which the UI School of Architecture has been known since its formal founding by Nathan Ricker, Class of 1873, the first graduate of a collegiate architecture program in the U.S. Having blossomed under the rigorous training in architectural history and studio art supplementing the school’s core courses in structure and design, Johnson studied for a summer in La Napoule, France, an experience he said was “a capstone” to his undergraduate work.

Lately Johnson has turned to housing, finding fresh ways to both elevate and humanize the phenomenon of urbanites boxed en residential masse. Described as an “urban village,” Skybridge is shaped from glass, concrete and air, rising 39 stories from the West Side junction of Halsted and Madison streets and availed of the open vista of urban views across the nearby Kennedy Expressway. The Contemporaine is an in-Loop condo-construct – smaller, lower, more frankly luxe and, for Johnson, “my favorite – it’s where my head is.”

“Those two housing projects were the first reintroduction of creative modernism into the current design of housing in Chicago,” Johnson noted, observing that when P+W got the commission for Skybridge eight years ago – after receiving the prestigious Architecture Firm of the Year Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1999 – developers had retracted from the Bauhaus style into more traditional architecture. “And now,” Johnson said, “a lot of other architects are doing interesting modern work in housing.”

“It goes back to the idea of well-balanced and meaningful architecture from all different aspects,” he said of his design philosophy, “as opposed to just bombastic forms.”

Of course, bombastic forms have things to be said for them. Take the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, this marvel dome of polished metal, reflecting hues of silver, gold and blue, is a thing so free-form and flowing as to provoke the query: “How in the world did they get it up?” The answer: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a huge and hugely respected worldwide design and construction firm with an office near Grant Park on the 10th floor of the historic Santa Fe Building. In the firm’s lobby, a scale model renders downtown Chicago in child-size blocks and shapes, with SOM buildings in gray and the rest in white.

There are a lot of gray buildings, among them such stupendous monuments to the city’s paradigm shift skyward as the Brunswick and Inland Steel buildings and the Sears and Hancock towers.

Like other architecture firms in the city, SOM has employed ranks of UI grads. Foremost among them is architectural engineer John Zils ’65 FAA, MS ’66 FAA. Zils’ authority is such that he wrote The World Book Encyclopedia’s entry on the Sears Tower, having helped it to a 1974 birth as the world’s then-tallest building. He was structural project engineer for the tower, his first major assignment for SOM, and, like Johnson, he got in the habit of checking in on his work. “I was living out west of the city,” Zils recalled, “and so I would come into Union Station, and on the way to the office, I’d walk right by Sears every day so I could keep a close eye on what was going on.”

Photo of artic expedition members
Dramatic curved forms in Chicago’s Millennium Park, including the serpentine BP Bridge, above, and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, left, were engineered by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The design and construction firm has employed ranks of graduates from the UI School of Architecture, the second oldest architectural studies program in the nation.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP/Peter Barreras Photos

But getting back to bombastic forms, the fearlessness SOM brings to all things – including the Burj Dubai, a giga-tower in the United Arab Emirates headed up to a record-breaking 141 stories – served Gehry and the Guggenheim well. Zils was part of a team that engineered the structural system for the museum, using computers to model the design’s curvilinear forms into ribbed steel frameworks, which were then constructed and clad in stone and stainless steel. The museum opened in 1997, not long after SOM garnered the Architecture Firm of the Year Award from the AIA.

“I believe very strongly – and this is something that was actually very stressed to me in my whole educational background at U of I – was that you shouldn’t separate architecture and structural engineering and mechanical/electrical engineering,” Zils said. “The best designs are always, I believe, a reflection of a team approach.” The Bilbao project, Zils added, “gave incentive to advance graphics and analysis tools just being developed at that time.” When Gehry produced Millennium Park designs for the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, at left, with its stage proscenium of enormous steel “ribbons”; the trellis sound system spanning the Great Lawn; and the BP Bridge, above, a silvery pedestrian overpass that snakes from the park to the lakefront, the work entailed “some of the same geometry issues,” Zils said.

Millennium Park, for which SOM created the master plan, has been acclaimed by and beloved of Chicagoans since its 2004 debut. “There’s no doubt that from Day One when it was opened, the city, the public, has just embraced this as something very special – which it is,” Zils said. “And not only special in Chicago – I think it’s unlike anything in the world.”

Wedged into the heart of Powell/Kleinschmidt, the firm’s conference room evinces a soothing subtlety. Walls, clad in putty-colored wool and matched panels of English brown oak, are topped by glass to admit natural light. The carpet is woven in a deeper tone of the hue on the walls, and a leather pocket door slides discreetly from the wall when privacy is required. “We did this all 21 years ago,” said interior architect Robert Kleinschmidt ’63 FAA during an interview there. “I don’t think it dates itself all that much.”

Like Zils, Kleinschmidt is a veteran of SOM who worked on the Sears Tower, albeit from within. In 1976, he went into business with colleague Donald David Powell. “One of the goals in our work is to create classic, timeless, lasting designs,” Kleinschmidt said. “We do no-nonsense designs that really take their roots from the base building architecture” – such as exterior materials and motifs.


The shape of things to come (opposite and above): An 82-story contribution by UI architect Jeanne Gang to the Chicago skyline, Aqua is expected to be complete in 2010.
Rendering by ImageFiction

Much of his work adorns privileged spaces behind the doors of offices and residences throughout the city, like the new headquarters of Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, a Chicago law firm, where the lively decor attracted an Interior Architecture Award from AIA Chicago in 2006. The Powell/Kleinschmidt touch is also upon such public areas as the glass cube lobby, above left, adorned with a massive bronze by Louise Nevelson and appended to an SOM skyscraper at 200 N. Madison St.; the alluring gift shop at The Art Institute of Chicago, top; and Sky Lobby, afloat over the city on the 44th floor of the John Hancock Center, which also houses Paul Stuart, above right. This apparel shop, in an elegant, two-story glass box with a spiral staircase, is “one of our most cherished projects,” according to Kleinschmidt, because of the challenge posed by a venue “where you need to have places to store and display men’s and women’s clothing when a space is entirely floor-to-ceiling glass.”

Kleinschmidt’s influence is also writ large on the Magnificent Mile, transformed by the pretty flower beds, handsome light posts and designer trash cans that arose during his long tenure as chairman of the beautification committee of the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association. The design standards he created have since been continued south on Michigan Avenue to Roosevelt Road.

This passion for the beautiful extends to the Krannert Art Museum on the UI campus, which Kleinschmidt is gifting, year by year, with items from his acclaimed art collection. Last April, the museum mounted a show of 141 of his objects – some already belonging to Krannert, others to come. He has also established the Robert D. Kleinschmidt Professorship in Interior Architecture at the UI School of Architecture and has donated 450 titles on contemporary art and architecture to the school’s Ricker Library of Architecture and Art.

“I’ve had really a beautiful life,” Kleinschmidt said, “and it’s enriched by art and architecture.”

Begun in 1893 with the World’s Columbian Exposition – an international fair of pride mounted by a city reborn out of a Great Fire – the glory days of Chicago architecture surged into the 20th century as did graduates of the UI architecture program. Walter Burley Griffin, Class of 1899, contributed a stunning array of residences – many of them still functioning homes – to the Prairie School, a movement more glamorously exemplified by Frank Lloyd Wright. Fundamental to the shaping of the downtown was the Chicago School, a movement that produced many of the city’s iconic turn-of-the-century buildings. Synonymous with this era are the names Holabird & Roche, which designed and built such tributes to the dawning technology century as Soldier Field and the University Club of Chicago, and the firm’s second-generation successor, Holabird & Root, which created the art deco temple that is the Chicago Board of Trade, topped with blank-faced Ceres, deco goddess of grain.

James Baird ’76 FAA, MARCH ’78, has been with Holabird & Root for 25 years, following postgraduation stints in the studios of celebrated architects Kevin Roche and Cesar Pelli, MS ’54 FAA; Pelli’s practice produced one of Chicago’s tallest buildings, a 50-story tower at 181 W. Madison St., and helped design the new College of Business building going up on the Urbana campus. Having headed Holabird since 2002, Baird is focusing on new projects, such as a 25-year master plan for Concordia University in Chicago, while also restoring and polishing gems from the first generation of practice, including Lake View Presbyterian Church, built by Holabird in 1888 (see p. 23). An American Institute of Architects Design Excellence award went to the firm in 2006 for its exterior restoration of the structure’s original, intricate pattern of cedar shingles. “It was a labor of love,” Baird said of the project. Now on the docket is reviving the Monroe Building, a gabled, gothic skyscraper Holabird erected in 1912.

Recently, the firm also shifted digs to the Marquette Building, which Holabird & Roche created in 1894 as one of the first steel-frame skyscrapers in the world. In the lobby, Tiffany glass and mother-of-pearl mosaics limn the feats of French explorer Père Marquette while upstairs, on the 10th floor, Baird and colleagues pursue the long-standing tradition of excellence in design that garnered the Illinois 2004 Distinguished Firm Award from the AIA.

“There’s a certain humility in coming to a place like this,” Baird said. “This place has been in existence for 125 years, and my job is to be the guardian of it until the next generation.”

Somewhere between the sleek, practical forms of modernism and the indulgences, both bombastic and retro, of postmodernism, lies architecture’s future, where buildings of idiosyncratic design evince sensitivity both to aesthetic and practical considerations. This architecture, which some critics are starting to call the Third School, is an approach of  vision, practicality and, above all, connectedness to a world whose inhabitants collaborate as well as compete. It is an architecture and a future of which Jeanne Gang ’86 FAA is very much a part.

“I always knew I wanted my own studio,” said Gang on a wintry afternoon at Studio Gang, which she established when she was just 33 and runs with her partner and spouse, Mark Schendel.

While an undergraduate, Gang participated in the School of Architecture’s internship program in Versailles, France. “It was incredible to travel abroad and be exposed to so much variety and great history,” she said. So enamored was Gang of the Old World that she later returned to Europe for a five-year sojourn, working with the legendary Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Such experiences have endowed her with a feeling for “old things and new things” and a sense of adventure. Her eclectic Chicago projects have ranged from creating an ecosystem for a moribund pond at Lincoln Park Zoo to a design for the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs proposing a visitor center with a purple wind sculpture of photovoltaic “sequins” rippling across the building’s facade, potentially producing 48,000 kilowatts of usable power.                       

“Design grows out of the project,” said the architect, who has the auburn hair, classic profile and neon eyes of a pre-Raphaelite painting. “Things that are seemingly banal can trigger unique solutions.”

Solstice on the Park, a 140-unit Studio Gang apartment house going up in Hyde Park, will offer tenants innovative self-shading features that hearken back to the ideas of Keck & Keck. “It’s really designed for our specific place on the planet, our latitude,” said Gang. “We optimized the angle of the sun so that it would allow the space to be shaded in summer and sunny in winter.”

And an even wilder level of innovation – not to mention sheer footage – awaits in Aqua (shown opposite and above). An 82-story residential tower arising as part of the 28-acre Lakeshore East development near Navy Pier, Aqua promises to amaze and allure, even amid the impressive coterie of designs that people the Chicago skyline. A sinuous expression of concrete and blue-green glass, the building is designed with a curving facade that affords deep terraces and maximized views. It is expected to be complete in 2010, and at press time, designer units on floors 53 through 56 were already sold out.

For a young architect, this career-making commission unfolded like a dream. Developer Jim Lowenberg invited Gang to a meeting where she showed him her portfolio – which included work with Koolhaas on large-scale buildings in Europe, as well as such signature projects as the Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theatre at Rock Valley College in Rockford, an open-air venue with a petaled roof that can close against the rain.

“Then,” Gang recalled, “he said, ‘Let’s get started.’”  

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