Inside Solomon Cordwell Buenz
Another Chicago architecture firm has invited us into its offices to give us a look behind the minds that shape our city.
Solomon Cordwell Buenz is among the city’s more prolific firms. If you’ve been to downtown Chicago, you’ve seen an SCB building. They’re everywhere. From slender skyscrapers like 50 East Chestnut Street to shorter, but no less prominent, buildings like the Crate and Barrel flagship store (646 North Michigan Avenue).
In this first part of our series, we talk with Solomon Cordwell Buenz C.E.O. John Lahey about the history of his firm, and its more recent creations.
Editor: Since our readers are mostly non-architects, give us a little background on Solomon Cordwell Buenz.
C.E.O. John Lahey: The company is over 80 years old. It was started by a guy named Lou Solomon, who died in 1971. Lou was a precursor of today — he was a design / build / architect / developer. He had a brother, Irving, who was involved in construction, and then a brother-in-law who managed buildings.
The firm really started really as an architecture firm, but also a firm that bought land and then developed it. Most of those buildings on Lake Shore Drive — the apartment buildings — he started doing that. Along the way the projects got bigger.
Lou was a great planner. He wasn’t a great architect. But in every firm there is a little kernel of what started it that stays with it. And for us, it was “design it from the inside out” — almost a preoccupation with the way buildings function and their plans. These guys who did it like that, they were really concerned with the floor plans of the residences and how the building would work and how it would be constructed.
We’ve done a million things since then and that era is long gone, but I would say it was passed on to John Buenz. John hired me, and made sure I was imbued with that.
After [Lou Solomon] died in 1971, then it became an architecture firm. Prior to his death, John Cordwell joined, and John was [City of Chicago] Commissioner of Planning. With that there was a competition that the firm won for Sandburg Village, and that was a big game changer.
[All the other entries] had towers with parking lots. [Ours] was the only one that had underground parking and a variety of scales, which really did a lot of good things for saving Chicago in the 60′s.
Editor: These days every big project in Chicago is designed that way — with a tower on top of a podium.
Lahey: It’s much nicer, and fits into the neighborhood better than those blocky buildings.
So after that, John Cordwell and John Buenz ran the firm, and then John Cordwell retired. John Buenz and I worked together for years. I’ve been here since 1982, so that’s 30 years. John [Cordwell] retired about 10 years ago.
We became an architecture firm and part of what we’ve done is diversified. We do a lot of different things, but I think we’re balanced, too. We believe we do very good design, and we do buildings that work very well and are practical.
Editor: You say “diversified,” but SCB is known mostly for its towers.
Lahey: Well, that’s true. But you can go for long periods of time when nobody builds towers anywhere. We have a lot of different things we do, and most people don’t know it. People kind of look at what you’ve done historically and they get an image. But the firm has three components. There’s architecture, there’s an interior design group, and there’s a planning group.
Admittedly, architecture is the largest of the three groups, but interior design does work in buildings that we have nothing to do with; they do interiors of offices and academic buildings, and all sorts of stuff. They’re doing some of the hospitality clubs at Heathrow [airport], and they’re doing some law firms right now, and some corporate headquarters. And that group’s been going for 15 or 20 years.
Editor: Are you doing the new Sara Lee headquarters in the West Loop?
Lahey: No, we did Sara Lee the first time when they moved to [Downers Grove]. But that’s indicative of the scale and quality of the work.
Now the planning group, they do a lot locally. They’ve done streetscape things in Naperville and Oak Park, but also a lot of stuff in the Middle East. We did the master plan for a large portion of the capital city Abu Dhabi, and we’ve done work in Saudi Arabia, and other parts of the Emirates.
Then there’s architecture. And when we talk about diversity and architecture, we do work for the commercial world, which is the towers. And for us, it’s pretty much urban work. We really like sustainability. You know — the new urbanism. Not “The New Urbanism,” but the new interest in living in an urban environment has really been right up our alley. And we really are very good at doing buildings in a high density urban area which have mixed uses, and those can be residential, hotels, office, and retail with parking. But those kinds of mixed use buildings are what we’re doing now in Philadelphia, and Memphis, Texas and Hawaii, and San Francisco. We have a pretty significant office in San Francisco.
Editor: You’re pretty much conquered Streeterville.
Lahey: We haven’t really conquered it, but I think we’ve done a really good job with The Streeter (345 East Ohio Street). When you look at that, it really created a space where there really wasn’t something before. It [transformed] what was becoming a very very hard-edged place. Between the park at ParkView (505 North McClurg Court), which is half complete, and then The Streeter, [we've] given a much more personal humanistic [feel to] the area around there, with the Yolk restaurant and the Irish pub. I think that’s been a nice thing.
We do that, but for commercial, we also do a lot more. We have a role in the new Burberry store (645 North Michigan Avenue), and we’re doing a variety of other things. We’re doing a bunch of grocery stores for Mariano’s on the retail side. As for hotels, we’re doing the hotel that’s part of the DRW development. We were doing the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (215 North Michigan Avenue) until it went… well, that was kind of sad, but these things happen. It was a real shame, and it was going to be a really wonderful building. Martin Wolf worked on that.
There is that commercial side, but then there’s another side that does institutional work. We do a lot of “quality of life” buildings, which are student residences, and athletic buildings, student unions, and things like that. And then part of that institutional work are things like science buildings. We do labs. We’re doing a translational research building for Loyola University Medical School right now, and have been involved in the labs at Children’s Memorial, and we’re involved at the U. of I. campus.
When you look at those different components, that diversification is the reason [we are where we are today.] The good thing about diversification is that you’ll make it through. The bad thing is that if you’re diversified, you can be sure that when there’s a downturn you’re going to get hurt somewhere.
When I started 30 years ago we pretty much just did work for developers. Our first project for a university was the housing at the corner of Harrison and Halsted for U.I.C. in the mid-80′s. I was trying real hard and we were going after the job, and I thought that with all my materials I put together that we got the job. I found out later that John Cordwell knew people on the board, and that may have had more of an influence on the decision-making process than my stellar presentation.
But it was a funny thing — we got hired to do housing at U.I.C. because they thought we’re high-rise guys, and they needed a high-rise residential architect to do housing because it’s an urban campus. So we get the job, and the first thing we do is tell them you really shouldn’t do a high rise here. And so all of the buildings are four and five stories. We stared that trend of lower building right there on the corner.
That was the first building for a university we did. And since then, we’ve done them the all over the place. From North Dakota to Ball State to Northwestern, U. of C., downstate Illinois, Springfield, Indiana — all different campuses. Loyola University we do a ton of work for. Dominican. And our California office is working at U.C. Riverside, U.C. Davis and some stuff at Oregon State.
Editor: So, you’re not as Chicago-focused as it seems. Because with the exception of One Rincon in San Francisco and a couple of things in the U.A.E., it seems like you’re very Chicago-focused.
Lahey: Not so much. We have five projects going in downtown San Francisco right now. And in Hawaii, we’ve got three projects going right now in Honolulu. Texas we’ve got a couple going. Philadelphia. And then the west coast has a lot of smaller projects. Arizona has a number of things going. We’re doing a hotel — the rebuilding of the Morris Inn for Notre Dame, which is exciting.
Usually when I go through a list of buildings that are much larger, everybody’s kind of sleeping. Then when I say “Morris Inn” everybody wakes up.
Editor: And not just architects — regular people in Chicago will care.
Lahey: In Chicago you’ve got so many people who are so interested in Chicago. Whenever [Chicago Tribune architecture critic] Blair Kamin writes an article, I run into people who aren’t into architecture at all who have read it and want to know what I think of it. And whether I agree with them, or disagree with them, I think it’s just indicative that Chicago cares about this stuff. You may not always get the answers that you’d like, but I think the answers are less important than the interest.
And if you look at Chicago, it really is better than the other cities architecturally. Sure, there’s some very traditional buildings like the Ritz-Carlton Residences over here (664 North Michigan Avenue), but it’s still a solid piece of composition. There’s a certain competency to the buildings in Chicago, even when the style is one thing or another. There’s a high level of quality, and I think it comes from the city’s architectural heritage.
Editor: And from the public, too. You get hundreds of people who show up at these public meetings trying to influence the design of the city’s buildings.
Lahey: But they do that in other cities, too. People do recognize higher quality buildings, and they talk with their pocketbooks. They do support them in some ways. Those are the buildings that people want to be in.
For example, San Francisco — there’s an awful lot of public input, but it doesn’t always translate into something good. Sometimes it makes it worse! I don’t mean to pick on them, because in a lot of the suburban communities here you get too many cooks in the kitchen.
Editor: Looking around your office, I see a lot of models of familiar buildings. There’s 215 West, there’s One Rincon Hill in San Francisco over there…
Lahey: We’re just starting on phase two of Rincon.
Editor: How do you build a building that tall, on top of a hill, in one of the worse seismic zones in the world? That’s got to be crazy underneath.
Lahey: It is. We invest heavily in technical services and expertise. One of the principals, Mark Frisch, makes it his business to research consultants and find people who are at the top of their game. So when we’re doing one of these buildings, we’ve got people who are not just treating their job like a commodity, but as something better.
San Francisco has its own codes that say, “This is how you do it.” Or you can design one of your own and get it approved through a jury of experts. It’s a different process, but that’s what we did there.
And what we did is come up with a structural system that is not normally used that’s got a column coming up the center and it has outriggers — kind of like ski poles. So we were able to do a structure that didn’t have to have the big beams at every floor, but it allowed floor-to-ceiling glass by keeping the structure in the middle.
But it moves! The water that’s for the sprinklers also acts as a dampener to keep the movement down in the building.
We could do buildings taller than that in that zone, if we were allowed to.
That building in Chicago would not seem tall at all. It seems like this landmark icon in San Francisco, but in Chicago it would just blend in. It wouldn’t pierce the 40-story waterline of high rises.
Editor: Blair Kamin wouldn’t even notice it.
Lahey: He might not, but [San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic] John King certainly noticed it!
We started the office in California because it’s far away, but also because it’s culturally different. I’m out there every three weeks or so and work with the guys for a few days.
We like to work with people on a team. These buildings don’t get the way they are just by one person pulling a curtain back and saying this is it. It really is a team effort. There’s a lot of interaction within the firm.
I think that’s part of the balance I talked about in our firm — we have a lot of experienced people. There’s a lot of people who really know how buildings work so well that we can work together.
Editor: As an architect, which building are you most proud of?
Lahey: Ha ha! I was reading your blog, and I saw another architect say it’s like children — you can’t really have a favorite.
There’s The Legacy (21 South Wabash), and there’s some of the buildings at Loyola. We’ve been working with them for about 20 years, and the first building we did for them was the Simpson Center, you see it on Sheridan Road. 20 years has passed so the building is almost historic. But a building like that, which represents a moment where things started to change — those are more special to me. We worked on the Loyola campus and transformed it from something that didn’t really have a campus feel into something that if you go up there now, that is a really really nice college campus with spaces and all these other things. We’ve probably done eight or ten buildings up there.
Rincon — Certainly the landmark status of that makes you want to like it.
And then there’s a lot of buildings that I can’t mention because people would think I’m nuts. You work on a building that doesn’t really have much potential, but then you work on it and work on it and you really get something out of it, where it’s a good part of the city.
The Streeter, for having those spaces is nice.
And the Oak Brook Shopping Center — We had this idea that rather than this straight thing, it would be this wavy thing going through it. I thought that was very exciting to work on.
By the end of this they’ll all be my favorite.
Editor: Are there buildings you see going up and think to yourself, “I wish I’d thought of that!”
Lahey: I think there’s some very good buildings going up now. There’s some pretty high quality stuff. Some of the office buildings downtown. Some of the institutional buildings are very nice.
It’s an interesting time in architecture. I’m a little more of a rationalist than some. So buildings like Aqua (225 North Columbus Drive) wouldn’t be of as much interest to me as the Art Institute expansion (111 South Michigan Avenue), which has a little more rigor, and is more layered in its design. There’s a high level of workmanship there.
As I get older, I find more and more appreciation for buildings that are simpler, and more refined buildings.
I like The Legacy, which is more of a simple building.
Editor: The Legacy has that great trick on the Wabash Avenue side where it turns around, so that everybody gets a view of the lake.
Lahey: That was a building that had that inside-out planning that I was talking about. That building started out diagramatically as “How can we do that inversion?” How can we get more people that view, and how can we do it while simultaneously leaving the appropriate statement on Grant Park.
So you’re simultaneously designing from the inside out and the outside in, and looking at what are the urban factors that shape the building. And what’s the opportunity to contribute to this great city we have.
But how do you do it not at the expense of the people inside, but instead doing it in a way that makes everything better for everyone, too. So for that building, it was the narrow face and the flaring out on the back. And the flaring out on the back, if you look, lines up with the adjacent buildings and kind of melds in. But then the front is very very thin.
For me, it’s great because my kids got me and my wife to go with them to Lollapalooza a few years ago. It’s great — I’m having a beer at a rock concert, and there’s my building high above the park!
You ask me what I really like, and what I like is the work that our firm has done along the park, which started with the Heritage which was the riskiest of all of them. Because that one nobody really knew what Millennium Park was going to be, much less know if it was going to be any sort of transformative thing. It turns out to be more than anybody expected. But when we were doing the Heritage, the question was, “Why would anyone want to live on Garland Court?”
Editor: But that alley turned into a great passage thanks to the Heritage.
Lahey: That’s part of it. You ask what my favorite building is, and my favorite buildings are the ones like that. Where we take something and we create this street behind it and it becomes a quiet backwater amid the cacophony of the L and everything else.
And then, I liked keeping the facades. I know not everyone was OK with it, but when you go down Wabash now, it’s great. My first job was with C.F. Murphy Associates in 1976, so I used to walk that. And I tell you, it is really nice that those buildings are still there. They’re the same as when I would walk down Wabash and it was really cooking.
But to save them, and have other parts, and link into the Pedway, and have this building above that’s a great place to live in is great for me. One of the guys in the office lives in there, and it’s great to hear him talk about it.
Editor: He doesn’t come in and say, “Here’s what you did wrong!”
Lahey: No, no. He says what’s really great is there’s one unit that has a little breakfast room on the south end that pops up and when you’re in that breakfast room you can see both east and west. You can hardly see that thing when you’re looking at it [from the street], but it’s little things like that — That’s 20 or 30 families whose lives are a little bit better. I get a charge out of that.
As an architect, you inevitably look at the outside of buildings, but to me the inside of the building is just as exciting as the outside.
Editor: When you look at The Legacy, and 215 West, and 200 Squared, they all kind of look the same, don’t they?
Lahey: Some people say that. But to me, 215 and the Legacy are very different. One’s got this grid and punched openings and this cantilever hanging over. That one was very much a function of melding those two components, but the building is relatively simple. That whole thing with the cantilever, I thought it was neat that you could look down on that and see it. And then when you’re at the Daley Center, you can look down the street and wonder how this building is being held up.
To me, each has their own individual characteristics. Some are curved, some are rectangular. But they all evolve in a way that comes from problem solving. They’re not just capricious or arbitrary. For each of them, almost everything that was done was done with some sort of double reason.
We are a little bit a victim of our own success, but I think the buildings have been good buildings and the people come to us because we’ve had successful buildings that are part of the city, but also people who are taking great risks building these buildings.
Editor: Do you see your buildings as conservative?
Lahey: Not really conservative. I don’t see them as being idiosyncratic statements in an irrational way. They’re certainly not that. But they do raise the level of quality. I think they’re crisp, well composed buildings.
A lot of people talk about Vancouver as being this great place [for architecture]. I went to Vancouver, and the buildings are broken into parts. But they’re so much broken into parts that when you stand back, you almost can’t tell where one building starts and the other one ends. They’re all similar, and they don’t have an identity. I’d say all three of those buildings that you named are distinct, identifiable pieces of a city in a type of scale that really is about place making.
Editor: Do you think Chicago needs more statement buildings?
Lahey: I think so. I think Legacy is a statement building, because of its proportion and its simplicity. Especially when you look at the skyline. I think 340 on the Park is a statement building in its own way. I don’t think it’s conservative. I think it’s done in an artful way. Is the Art Institute expansion conservative? In a way it is, but to me there’s a level of appropriateness, and that’s a good thing.
Editor: Probably the least conservative building in Chicago recently is one you mentioned earlier — Aqua. And now that the hype is dying down, we’re finding out that it’s a lot more flash than substance.
Lahey: That one has certainly captured people’s imagination, and I have to say it was a clever thing putting those balconies on what is essentially a slab building. And I think you can’t deny its cleverness, and it’s certainly gotten people to notice it and like it.
As far as it being sustainable and all that, I’m not as sold on that. We used to do a lot of work with exposed concrete, pre-Energy Code. Whenever you have balconies going out like that, it’s like a radiator. It just conducts the temperature in or out. It’s not so bad in the summer because it doesn’t get that hot here. But in the winter, it does bring cold into the building in a big way.
When you look at buildings like The Streeter, which is a clad building, those are more energy conscious.
Thanks so much to John Lahey for his time and insights. In our next installment, we’ll show you pictures inside SCB and its project models.