Inside Goettch Partners, Part 2

Last week, we took you on a tour of Goettsch Partners office at the top of the Santa Fe Building on Michigan Avenue to get a look at the firm’s latest projects in Chicago and around the world.  Today we sit down with Goettsch principal Paul De Santis and director of business development, Matthew Larson to learn more about the firm, and how it works.

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

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

Editor: So tell me about the history of the firm. It’s a big firm, you’ve got offices around the world, but it’s not well known to the average person.

Matthew Larson: Our history does trace back to Mies van der Rohe coming to Chicago in 1938. And with his passing, the firm carried on to his grandson, Dirk Lohan. The firm, unlike others like SOM that have kept its name despite changes in leadership, we’ve changed our name each time there’s been changes in management or changes in leadership. The firm evolved from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to The Office of  Mies van der Rohe to Fujikawa Conterato Lohan Associates to FCL Associates to Lohan Associates to Lohan Caprile Goettsch Architects to Goettsch Partners. The Goettsch Partners name has been in place since 2005. So, it feels like a newer name that people aren’t as familiar with, but the history is very long.

We don’t claim to be “that Mies firm” in what we do today.

Goettsch Partners logoPaul De Santis: The portfolio that we really celebrate is within the past 15 years. You’re not going to see the I.B.M. Building, or the Seagrams Building, or the Gleacher Center. We’re focused on the work we’ve been doing in the past 15 years, and we’re focused on doing the best projects we can today. And I think the projects on the boards today are the most exciting projects that the office has done.

Editor: Architecture fans sometimes think that architecture firms start to have a certain “look” to them after a while. For example, a tourist pointing out a Mies van der Rohe building, or a Burnham and Root Building. Do you see that happening with your firm?

Matthew: Certain firms, generally the larger ones, say they don’t subscribe to any one aesthetic, the design is going to be determined by the needs of the particular client. But you see in our work, there is a relative consistency, especially in the new buildings. It’s setting up a level of expectation for clients, rather than saying you don’t know what you’re going to get.

Goettsch Partners officeEditor: So you’re OK with creating a style so that 20 years from now someone can say, “Oh, that’s a Goettsch building!”

Paul: We’re not trying to seek a decorative signature. The philosophy of the firm is urban buildings that are vertical, and that are a reflection of the functions that are contained within them, that have an environmental response. So, my hope is that if you saw a Goettsch building in Chicago and you saw a Goettsch building in Miami, they wouldn’t look the same. Because they need to respond to their environments. Just like a Goettsch building in northern China should look different than a building in southern China. That’s my personal philosophy, and I think the work shows that.

Additionally, when we do some of the build-to-suit projects, it’s not just the architect, it’s the owner who has an identity as well. So if you’re doing a headquarters building, it needs to embody the energy of that user. It’s not like a speculative office building that anyone can go into. So with the build-to-suit projects, it’s going to be a challenge to say there’s a decorative motif.

The clarity of the project, the organization of the project, and the materiality of the project are going to be consistent. But they have to look different.

Editor: Now what 80, 90, and 100-story buildings are becoming more common, is it your observation that the form is being defined more and more by simply physical limitations, rather than the creativity of the architect?

Park Hyatt Guangzhou modelPaul: It certainly is a factor. The 100-story buildings right now are really located in specific portions of the world. Those portions of the world are really using concrete primarily for the vertical structures that they’re doing. And the realities of concrete construction in high rise buildings in seismic conditions determines a lot. It’s just the reality of it. You can have an airport that can handle seismic conditions differently when you’re two to three-stories tall. But when you’re getting up into 350, 400-meter-tall buildings, there are some realities.

Then you’ll start to see some projects, the ones we don’t embrace, where they’re driven by a sculptural form, and then you’re fitting the function into it to make it happen. We don’t subscribe to that formula.

Matthew: And that works against us to some point. When the boom was happening in Dubai, they were really looking for those fantastical shapes.

Paul: We were not contacted.

Matthew: Or if we were, we were providing [designs] based on functions, and they weren’t “different enough.”

Paul: But an interesting point is that very few of those buildings were done by people who architects consider stars. They were done by pretty amateur people who have very amateur thought. But the general community out there might see them as stars. Because you can draw anything, but building is a lot more serious.

In my opinion, the golden age of the high rise is yet to come. But it is not going to come from men who are twisting shells in their hands. They’re going to be solving urban problems. They’re going to be solving density problems. They’re going to be solving issues of 35 million people living in a 10-mile radius. It’s a serious problem, and serious individuals need to be tackling it. And you can work on an opera house. You can work on a cultural destination. Don’t work on the projects that affect millions of people.

Editor: You mentioned drawing, and I’ve heard lately that some architects feel that drawing is becoming a lost art since everything is becoming computerized. Is there still value in hand-drawing?

Paul: I draw every day. And I’m considered a young guy.

Editor: It just seems like the drawings presented before a building is constructed, and the finished product, rarely look anything alike.

Paul: I think what you’re going to see is more BIM — Building Information Modeling. What’s going to happen is you’re going to have a digital model of your building at all times. And you’re going to then be able to identify issues, conflicts, different opportunities based on that digital model. That will then ultimately transition to the documentation that they use to build or fabricate the buildings. And then ultimately, you’ll start to be able to monitor the health of that building in the software in real time. That’s in our lifetime. That is a reality. And that’s starting to happen today.

What happens today is that you produce a set of drawings that describe a building, but those drawings do not represent the method of building. In days gone by, those drawings would be almost like a set of instructions for how you would build. Builders have gotten pretty crafty, and owners are constantly trying to evaluate through the construction process how to make changes. So that drawings have a certain life. And those drawings stop being drawn before the building is actually constructed. But a lot of changes are made through that construction process, so that’s what leads to situations where you have a drawing and you have a building but they may not really have the same relationship as you might expect. Our desire as architects is to minimize that.

Editor: Isn’t there value in using a computer, so urban planners and zoning officials can have a better idea of what it’s really going to be?

Paul: I would love to say that all owners and all people who sponsor buildings in this world are out for the greater good. But a lot of them are building buildings as economic engines, and they’re building buildings not because of what they’re contributing to society at large, but because they’re trying to make money off of that investment.

But we try to work with people who have good ethics.

Editor: So when someone comes to you and asks for a new building and you put a team together, does it start with a computer, or with a pencil?

Paul: Typically, for me it starts with a pencil. Then it quickly goes to three-dimensional form, in some kind of model. For my design process, the first thing I need to do is understand the site, its context, and environment.

Editor: Does that mean you travel to all of your building sites?

Paul: I do. Because part of the interview process is to physically be there. You’ve got to understand where you’re working. The complications of cities are vast. Where are people coming from? Where are they dropping people off? Where is the subway system? Does the site get natural light at noon? You’ve got to understand these things. Is there a river in the distance? A mountain range?

Editor: So you open up a folding chair and you just sit there for a day and take in the world?

Paul: I wish I had that kind of time. But you have to be on-site, and you have to use every tool at your disposal. There’s no mystery why the architectural profession thinks that Google Earth is the greatest things since sliced bread. It helps you get context and information, and you can start building massing models, and understand the relationship with buildings three blocks away. You can then start to simulate what lighting conditions are.

When you’re standing on a site and you’re looking at building and saying, “Oh my gosh, that’s an ugly building, I don’t want anyone in my building to have to look at that thing!” you can understand some of those issues. You can understand the pulse of a place, and where people should be dropped off, or shouldn’t be dropped off.

111 South Wacker modelsSo for us, it goes from a sketch to a massing model, to understand how the building interacts with the buildings around it. A lot of times with the Asian work, we have multiple programs going on in the building (office, hotel, residential, retail), so you’re manipulating those elements, trying to find the most desirable solution. And then you’re getting into the computer primarily to study its impact at eye-level. Because from a model, you can’t understand that. But from a computer, you can get down and you can understand what a human is going to see. You can understand and test what the solar conditions are going to do with this particular object. Am I casting shadows on another building? Am I not? You can start to understand the wind patterns and the turbulence that you have on other buildings. You can simulate that kind of thing before you go to wind tunnel tests once the building has already been designed.

Editor: What was your favorite building to work on?

Paul: My next one.

Editor: Can you be a little more vague?

Paul: I’m very excited about a lot of our buildings that we’ve done. Domestically, the 111 South Wacker building captures the spirit and soul of GP very well. I would have to say that in the Middle East, the Sowwah Square stock exchange is a project that really magnifies the clarity of our architecture. I’m very excited to see it finished. And in China, the Chengdu project is one of the projects that best captures those programmatic differences in a mixed-use project. How do you marry a hotel with a retail destination? How do you take advantage of a super-large roof surface that you’re going to be able to inhabit in multiple ways, and bring an architectural character to it?

Thanks to both Paul and Matthew for their hospitality and candor.


Author: Editor

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

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