What’s Going Up at Goettsch Partners


Goettsch Partners logo

Recently the people at Chicago architecture firm Goettsch Partners invited us into their Michigan Avenue offices to give us an update on what they’re working on.  We were impressed.

Outside of the architecture industry, the name Goettsch Partners doesn’t ring too many bells.  Perhaps it is best known for the expansion of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois building (300 East Randolph Street), adding 24 stories to the top of the formerly 33-story building facing Grant Park.  Internally, it appears the firm is most proud of producing 111 South Wacker, the 53-story edifice near the Willis Tower that appears to hang in the air, suspended over a light-filled glass lobby.

There are other reasons, however, for knowing this firm.  Though the name is new, the heritage is not.  This is the architecture firm of  legendary local starchitect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  As Matthew Larson, director of business development, pointed out to me, “The firm [evolved from] Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to The Office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to Fujikawa Conterato Lohan Associates to FCL Associates to Lohan Associates to Lohan Caprile Goettsch Architects to Goettsch Partners.”

Goettsch Partners occupies what is probably one of the most prestigious spaces in the architecture world — the top floor of the Santa Fe Building (224 South Michigan Avenue).  The building was recently renovated, capping its light well with a glass pyramid, creating an open-air atrium that runs the entire height of the building.  Employees have found that being able to see their co-workers across the expanse has increased synergy, collaboration, and other HR-friendly buzzwords.  The atrium design that Goettsch workers enjoy often finds its way into the buildings they design for other companies, on those occasions that the client allows it.

As a hometown Chicago firm, it’s natural to look for familiar landmarks while walking around the office.  Unfortunately, the realities of economics dictate that there aren’t many.  In fact, for the most part the space is divided up into an Asian projects team and a Middle Eastern projects team.

But the tour did at least start with a familiar sight — a model of the now 57-story Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois tower.  Goettsch principal Paul De Santis picks up the tour from there…

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois modelPaul De Santis: The real slick thing about this particular job is that the north cells, or those north atriums, they have all of the elevators that stream up and down the building. That was key to how the building was phased to grow in the future… You have monumental space, exterior natural light, and then you’re participating with the vertical circulation.

And with the south view, obviously they have a commitment with the city to help choreograph large scale messaging, whether it’s for politics or sports or whatever.

Editor: There’s a gap left over on the east and west sides of the building. Is that because it’s the old roof, or a wind baffle, or something?

Paul: This was originally where the cooling towers were. The cooling towers were then repurposed on top of the building. This then became found space, which we’ve turned into banquet facilities, and then this becomes an outdoor type of experiential space that can be green roofs and the like.

Editor: So there’s actually a balcony space out there?

Paul: We don’t promote going out onto it, but it’s an amenity that you can look out and see that vertical relief that really tells the story of the history of the building, that this is where it was, and this is where it is today. It’s a nice gesture.

Matthew Larson: If you go up in this space, it’s a grand space. It’s this double-height space where you can see the columns. We actually had our holiday party up there. And to think this is where the equipment used to be is incredible.

(Looking at another model of the Blue Cross building)

Paul: You can get a feel when you’re thinking about Aon, that this was kind of an underwhelming elevation, and now that they’ve actually completed it, it really feels like it’s continuing the urban wall, which is what’s so valuable about it. And then, obviously, that broad southern exposure that gives it all that great office space — the views as well as the natural light that we really like.

(Looking at a group of models of buildings in China)

Matthew Larson (left) and Paul De Santis (right)

Matthew Larson (left) and Paul De Santis (right)

Paul: In China we do a variety of different types of projects. These are some of the smaller scale projects. This happens to be a Marriott hotel in Hangzhou. And these, are some built-to-suit headquarters buildings in Suzhou, so they’re mainly for financial institutions. But you’ll start to see with these types of buildings, you’re able to then introduce a mixture of interior and outdoor space for the buildings, because it’s really a build-to-suit situation. A lot of these projects have large interior atria that are skylit, so they have a more unique proportion to them. But then, they’re getting to open themselves up and they’re having that inter-floor interaction that we like so much.

Editor: Do you do a lot of these cutouts in the design based on climate?

Paul: This is the south facade on this building, so the cut-outs are actually outdoor terraces that are then helping to shield those areas.

(Looking at a model of SIP Hengyu International Center in Suzhou, China)

Paul: In this particular situation, [the lower part] is actually the office component of the building, and [the upper part] is actually the hotel component. So as the office core drops out, the large void is really the absence of that core. And then that actually becomes an outdoor terrace that the hotel can use.

Editor: So it’s a also visual selling point.

Paul: That’s right. It’s a functional situation, and then on the opposite side of it, that’s more of a decorative element to recall what’s going on on the other side of the building.

(Looking at a model of SIP Hengyu Phase 2)

Paul: These guys are a little bit different. These become two-story corner atria for this office portion of the building. And then what we like to do is, if we can’t create large atria where you’re interacting, we like to [provide] informal social spaces vertically up through the tower so that you can go and have a meeting, or go and have your lunch, without having to go all the way down and out into the city.

(Looking at a model of the Grand Hyatt in Dalian, China)

Paul: We do work in taller buildings, as well. This is in Dalian, it’s a Grand Hyatt, and sits on the water. This building is shaped so that all of the rooms take advantage of the sea. And then, it’s a windy climate with high humidity, so what we proposed was wind turbines on the corners of the building. You get just about 400 linear meters of space, and depending on which turbine you use (there are three local turbine manufacturers), you can have payback periods anywhere from ten years to 22 years, depending on which manufacturer you went with. Obviously, we were looking at a nautilus shape, because it’s a coastline and we were trying to carry that theme into the building. But it’s always a balance between the up-front costs versus the operational costs of a building.

(Looking at a model of a Grand Hyatt in China)

Grand Hyatt Dailan modelPaul: This is kind of emblematic of the kind of work we do over there, with our high rise work. You’re basically looking at four zones of office, and then you get to a five-star hotel on the top. In this case, it’s a Grand Hyatt. This transparent belt is where all of the hotel’s amenities are. Above that are the rooms, which are sitting up high, and then we try to continue to have a uniform shape to the building. So from the south side, it subtly slopes itself. You have spandrels with photo-voltaic cells, and at the top a light well to bring natural light down into the lobby space. So when you get to the lobby, you step off the elevators, and you can see all the way through to a skylit top.

Editor: There are solar cells on the the windows?

Paul: There are. So, here on the south facade of the building, they actually [extend from] the top so the natural light hits down on them, and they act as shades. An then as it transitions to the north facade, it all goes taut, because you’re not really getting the value of the sun. So you’re looking at half of the east and west, and all of the south, getting the sun [on the cells] and then it tapers so it can receive more natural light.

Editor: Do you find your Asian clients have a preference for hotels on top of their skyscrapers, instead of residential space?

Paul: It really depends on what their marketing strategy is. If they’re looking to hold on to the building as an investment for a longer period of time, they’re going to want a hotel. If they’re looking to turn that project over and sell it as quickly as possible, then residential. Because the residential is really a one-time transaction, where the hotel can be a long-term investment that will pay for itself over a period of time.

Editor: And since it’s China, you can never legally own the land anyway.

Paul: It is a lease situation, just like with a lot of our European and Middle Eastern friends. Their government is only 70 years old, and they’re on 99-year leases, so it’ll be interesting to see how the next generation handles that.

(Looking at a model of Chicony Plaza in Chengdu, China)

Chicony Plaza modelPaul: This is a project in Chengdu. It has an opaque white glass, and one of the reasons we did this type of glass is because it’s very bright and it’s very clean. The air can be a little dirty in Chengdu, and so you can basically squeegee the facade. So from a maintenance standpoint, it’s very simple to handle. And we also like the idea of celebrating the individual cellular nature of a hotel, and then obviously giving it a little character by playing with the lighting pattern of it. It becomes a series of architectural plains and how they come together to form the functionality of the building.

Editor: There’s a lot of roof space adjacent to it. Is that a mall?

Paul: This is a Japanese-style department store — about nine stories. And then two food courts that are controlled by the hotel that sit on top, and then a whole series of outdoor terraces for the hotel, itself, with ballrooms and three-meal restaurants and bars and things like that. They really like to use the roof space as much as possible, which is not a bad idea.

(Looking at a model of the Park Hyatt in Guangzhou, China)

Park Hyatt Guangzhou modelPaul: This is a project that’s under construction in Guangzhou. It’s our tallest building, just about 300 meters tall, or 80 stories. Their hope is to get to the top of structure in the next 12 months.

This has gone through a number of different iterations. It did originally have residential at the top of the building, so they were going to sell it. They had a hotel in the middle of the building, offices below, retail here, and it sits on top of two subway lines. What they ended up deciding to do is to maintain ownership of the project. Instead, the owner sold the project to the south. So they converted all of this space to office, and put the hotel at the top of the building.

Originally the idea was that the carves in in the corners related to the programmatic stacking that was going on, so you kept a very simple form, kind of a knotted type of form. And then the exterior language starts to compress at the bottom, celebrating the gravity forces of it. But it also helps to disguise the retail, because the retail doesn’t want the transparency, whereas if you’re up here in an office you want the transparency. This was an architectural technique to try to solve that problem.

Editor: So the chamfers aren’t functional, they were intended to mark the building’s different zones.

Paul: It’s a way to communicate something about the building and then give it a kind of knotting that’s very similar to a bamboo stalk, which represents growth and represents a lot of prosperity. They want their buildings to have a symbolic quality, at the same time as having a striking architectural clarity.

(We transition to the other side of the office)

Paul: This is a shapshot of some of our Middle Eastern work. You can see that it starts to take on a different character.

(Looking at a model of Sowwah Square in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates)

Sowwah Square, Abu Dhabi modelPaul: Our largest project to date, and our most significant project is in Abu Dhabi. This is under construction right now, and about to be complete within the next three or four months. It will actually house our Abu Dhabi office. These are four speculative office towers, and then the stock exchange for Abu Dhabi, itself. It sits out on the water.

This is a really interesting case study in how to do glass facade technology in the Middle East, in the desert. We brought an international standard for floor-to-ceiling glass, column-free corners, customizable wall conditions for the Abu Dhabi environment.

You’re looking at operable glass shading that’s on the outside. It’s both active and its passive. And then we have a pretty innovative double-wall skin system here that is actually using the heat exchange from the cooling towers to buffer the heat of the external environment. So you’re taking warm air, but that warm air is actually cooler than the exterior air. So we’re actually using that in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Editor: You’re pumping used warm air down the sides of the building?

Paul: You got it. With fans. So it’s a very interesting approach. We’re all very excited to see how it works out, and what it’s actually able to do for the building.

Editor: So the core is wrapped in a skin of glass, but it’s not see-through glass.

Paul: It is transparent.

Editor: So you have fans between two layers of glass blowing hot air down from the roof.

Paul: And we have shading devices in there, as well, and they can move with the sun. The nice thing about that is that you don’t have any of the sand and particulate matter getting into the mechanics of the shading devices.

Editor: Do you have abrasion concerns when you’re doing a glass-clad building in the desert?

Paul: Glass is going to be the best material for that. We are pretty confident that you’re looking at a 35 to 40-year facade here… Glass is even better than stone.

All of the buildings come down and touch very lightly on the ground, creating massive shading elements. The whole exchange has been lifted up. Obviously, there’s a pool of water down there to help with the ambient air temperature. But all of the buildings are lifted, so there’s large shading opportunities as you come in and out of the buildings and you’re trying to protect yourself from all that solar radiation.

Editor: Are you expecting a lot of pedestrian flow there, or is it all underground?

Paul: You’ve got a network of retail that is all below ground, that kind of connects around, and you’ve got two levels of concourses that are flowing through the area. This is all under construction, so I can’t tell you what that population is going to be. And this whole island is under construction at the same time. It’s one of those “if you build it, they will come” kind of models. But this is a generator — the stock exchange itself. People will be there. This is an economic hub. It’s not an attraction.

Editor: Businesses are going to have to move there, whether they like it or not.

Paul: You got it.

(Looking at a model of the new school of music at Northwestern University in Evanston.  We were not permitted to photograph this model.)

Paul: About three years ago, we won a competition for the music school up at Northwestern. The nice thing about this is that the recital hall actually has a double-glass skin behind it, so that as you’re sitting in the recital hall watching someone performing you’re seeing the skyline of Chicago behind them.

Matthew: This is at the southeast tip of campus, so looking down you actually can get a view [of the Chicago skyline] on a clear day.

Paul: I think Northwestern is trying to cement its relationship with Chicago as a global destination, so obviously small moves that we can do architecturally to help cement that idea are greatly supported by them.

Matthew: This is Northwestern’s first “statement building” in a long time. I think they’re looking at what the University of Chicago is doing, and IIT to some extent, and realizing that they’re missing something architecturally.

Editor: A lot of the Northwestern buildings are old and stodgy, and then all of a sudden in the last couple of years they suddenly care about architecture.

Paul: It’s an awkward collection, and it’s a poorly put together master plan. The campus does not really have an identity in my opinion. It has a great lakefront exposure, and Sheridan Road kind of creates this divide that separates the university academia from its housing and other features. But it’s poorly done, and you’ve got a library that’s in one language, and a laboratory that’s in another, and Kellogg [Business School] in another. They’re just kind of poorly put together. And hopefully the campus, through its architecture, through its common use of materials, [will come together.]

Now they’re actually starting to use certain materials, like the limestone, to give the campus a little character to it that’s cohesive. You can still be creative and have a identity to your own building, but just the common material palette really helps.

Matthew: What this particular project does is help create this “arts circle” they’re looking for [around a central] green. There’s this parking deck they want to cut back. The parking deck probably has the nicest views of downtown, and there’s no reason for it. This new building adds to their existing facility, where the music programs were on two sides of the campus. It’s been 35-years or something like that since they were together. But then this is a concert hall, they’ve got some art facilities over here, so it creates a grouping of buildings that makes more sense.

Editor: You don’t feel like your building is turning its back on the lake? It’s one of Northwestern’s grand assets.

Matthew: This glass atrium looks through the whole building. You can have, from the front door, a view of the lake.

Paul: And what you have are the executive offices for the college, [they are also]in the wing that faces the lake. And the recital halls for the university look out on the garden. It’s embracing the existing building and trying to grow naturally.

(Looking at a number of models of 111 South Wacker in Chicago)

111 South Wacker modelsPaul: Here is a series of models for the 111 project. Obviously, 9/11 had a big impact on this particular building. But the desire for the building was always to have an openness — a transparency at the street. Not to be oppressive, not to be defensive, always trying to let the vision in, as well as the materiality out.

(Continuing the tour of the office)

Paul: Our office is set up with a whole bunch of small interactive spaces so you can do informal team things. It also turns into photo cells at night for the models and the like. The informal spaces and the large-scale vegetation are all things that we propose in our projects. And we really propose it because we live it, and we understand it. We understand that we want direct and indirect lighting. We want as much natural light as possible. We don’t want a hermetically-sealed building. These are things that we propose in our corporate commercial projects, and it’s the kind of the way we live ourselves.

Editor: And it’s the way the developers want it these days, as well?

Paul: In certain parts of the world.

Editor: Are there parts that are still old school?

Paul: There are parts that are still very much old school, and I’d say that that is a reflection of the tenants that are going into their buildings. A lot of the tenants today have a desire for highly-controlled, highly-secure, manicured environments. Whereas more people are going towards environmentally-aggressive buildings that have natural light, that respond to the exterior climate, that have variable amounts of user comfort within them. There’s two schools of thought.

Most of the time in the supertall buildings, and the extremely high-end class-A buildings, they’re not going to let you open a window. They’re not going to let you create a space that is irregular in nature or doesn’t fit a partner’s office just perfectly. Those are going to be different types of buildings than other buildings where maybe they’re going to listen to some other environmental activities differently.

We have one large conference room, obviously we can get our entire staff in there for large meetings. It’s important to us that we have at least one base where we can all get together and we can address the state of the union within the office. We’re a global practice, so it means a lot of people are on the move a lot. So when we have the opportunity to get together as a staff we want it to be in one space.

Usually people would want to break that down into meeting rooms, or a series of offices. And that’s why it’s really important to kind of keep it that way.

Goettsch Partners logoEditor: Do you still have the traditional bosses’ corner offices?

Paul: You always will have a boss’ corner office.

Matthew: No, we actually don’t. Our corners aren’t used as bosses’ offices.

Paul: Oh no, not the corners. You can see this would be a bosses’ office. It’s all glass. But in all honesty, all of the partners keep desks out in the studio, that’s why [the corner office] looks dark. But you have to have private conversations. You need that sense of privacy when you’re interacting with financial issues.

Editor: Do you have fabrication staff for the models? Do you do that here, or somewhere else?

Paul: We have a model shop.

Matthew: I’d say 90% or more of what you’re seeing here we do in-house.

Editor: Do you have staff for that, or do you do it yourself?

Paul: We have one guy who’s been in our model shop for about four and a half years. But everyone on the projects has to build their own models and work on models. It’s part of our culture as an office. But we do have one guy who’s knowledgeable on the laser cutter, he’s knowledgeable on the printing, he’s knowledgeable on how you do the foam. So in essence, he becomes the grasshopper of sorts.

It takes time. There’s a lot of craft associated with that, to be able to make a decision off of a model. So you need to have time in order to do the models. That’s why a lot of the younger guys are doing most of the models.

Editor: Do you end up shipping them when you’re working overseas?

Paul: I travel with them. And then I build models over in China, as well. But a lot of the models that I do for the owners over in Asia, they tend to stay there.


Thanks so much to Paul De Santis, Matthew Larson, and the entire staff at Goettsch Partners for the tour.  Next week, we’ll continue our tour with a discussion about the history of Goettsch, its ties to Chicago’s most famous architects, and whether the first tool that should be used to build a skyscraper is a computer or a pencil.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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