Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
In the decade since the last AIA Convention in Chicago, established designers have reasserted themselves and new voices have joined the fray
By Laurie Petersen
When the AIA National Convention was held in Chicago a decade ago, the city was just emerging from an economic and creative slump into an era of renewed vigor. A new generation of local architects that included Jeanne Gang, FAIA, and John Ronan, FAIA, was coming to prominence for innovative work, and the old guard—1980s newsmakers such as Helmut Jahn, FAIA—was roaring back with fresh new designs.
Attendees of AIA Convention 2014 will see the results of this renaissance all over Chicago, not only in the central city but throughout the neighborhoods—those that have gentrified as well as those that continue to struggle. The past decade has probably brought more design excellence into underserved communities than any time in the city’s history.
No one in the recent crop of architects has risen to prominence more dramatically than Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, a keynote speaker at this year’s convention. A decade ago, her Chicago work consisted of one small building in Chinatown. Her local portfolio now ranges from an open-air pavilion in Lincoln Park to the 82-story Aqua Tower. On the city’s northwest side, she designed a Chicago River boathouse with a jagged roof profile inspired by the motion of rowing. And tucked away in a part of the city that suffers from intense economic hardship is the SOS Children’s Villages Lavezzorio Community Center, whose façades get graphic punch from the layering of donated batches of concrete.
Another architect who has developed an impressive body of work in the last decade is John Ronan. As with Gang, his work extends to the city’s rough-edged precincts. He came to national attention with the design of the Gary Comer Youth Center, deep in the city’s South Side, whose bright, multihued fiber-cement panels convey a sense of optimism while providing protection from street violence. The perforated metal screen wall of the youth center’s parking lot now extends to wrap the façade of a charter high school, forming a tight-knit campus in an enclave that is seeing philanthropic investment after decades of hardship.
Ronan also employed his industrial-strength palette of materials to create a sense of calm amidst urban bustle in his design for the Poetry Foundation in the River North neighborhood. Here, the perforated metal walls form an ethereal veil that sequesters courtyard from street. With each step, the visitor’s mindset becomes more receptive to poetry and contemplation.
A rising talent also gaining renown for designing schools in challenging neighborhoods is Juan G. Moreno, AIA. While with Ghafari Associates, he designed the UNO Soccer Academy, a K–8 charter school whose sleekly curving façades feature ribbon windows that orient students’ gazes toward the aspirational towers of the Loop. The same team also transformed a tired industrial building into a high school, the Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy, by facing it with panels whose iridescent coating seems to change colors in different lights.
This crop of innovative school buildings is not solely the province of new talent. The venerable firm of Perkins + Will, renowned school designers since the 1940s, has continued its tradition with Jones College Prep and Perspectives Charter, both in Chicago’s South Loop. Design Director Ralph Johnson, FAIA, has also reinvigorated two building types often plagued by cost-constrained dullness: residential high rises and hospital buildings. His curvaceous tower for Rush University Medical Center became an instant landmark for commuters on the freeway leading west from downtown. The Skybridge high-rise condominium building, completed in 2004, was followed by the equally sculptural Contemporaine and the kinetic 235 Van Buren, whose semaphore-like pattern of balconies makes a virtue of what is generally the bane of the residential building type.
Johnson is not the only familiar Chicago name to receive kudos in recent years. Helmut Jahn was shunned for a decade by cautious local clients, but his global success finally led to a slew of new commissions at home. The University of Chicago (whose campus has many exciting new buildings) boasts a strong trio: two glass-walled utility plants and the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, whose transparent dome hovers over a reading room and a vast system of underground book storage. The luxury condominium tower 600 North Fairbanks proves that balconies and a parking podium can be elegantly integrated into a sleek design. At the other end of the residential spectrum are long, low buildings that seamlessly wrap roof and walls with corrugated metal to house students at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the formerly homeless on the North Side.
Other respected veterans have also contributed to this recent dynamism. Krueck & Sexton Architects resolved technological and structural challenges to give form to artist Jaume Plensa’s popular Crown Fountain in Millennium Park; and their Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership broke through the masonry street wall of Michigan Avenue with a faceted crystalline façade. SOM’s Adrian Smith, FAIA, (who now heads his own firm with Gordon Gill, FAIA) designed Trump International Hotel & Tower, dethroning the John Hancock Center as Chicago’s second-tallest building.
Meanwhile, the smaller-scale projects of Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, have given hard-edged elegance to the public realm, from the Chicago Transit Authority’s Morgan “L” station to the riverwalk, enlivening the banks of the Chicago River downtown. And developers and families have commissioned strikingly modern apartment buildings and houses from firms that include Brininstool + Lynch, Wheeler Kearns Architects, Miller/Hull Partnership, Studio Dwell, and Valerio Dewalt Train.
Standing in Millennium Park downtown and looking at the 270-degree panorama of new construction would be enough to convince anyone of the city’s architectural renaissance. Venturing into Chicago’s struggling neighborhoods, as well as the affluent ones, provides ample confirmation.
Laurie Petersen is the editor of the third edition of the AIA Guide to Chicago, to be published in June by the University of Illinois Press.
Studio Gang’s Aqua Tower. Image courtesy of Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing.
Gary Comer College Prep by John Ronan Architects. Image courtesy of Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing.
Perkins + Will’s Perspectives Charter School. Image courtesy of James Steinkamp.
Jahn’s Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago. Image courtesy of Rainer Viertlboeck.
Spertus Institute by Krueck & Sexton. Image courtesy of William Zbaren.
SOM’s Trump International Hotel & Tower. Image courtesy of SOM | © Tom Rossiter Photography.