The Backstory on bKL – The Young Chicago Firm Leading the Pack on Wolf Point

(Left to right) Carl Moskus, Thomas Kerwin, and Michael Karlovitz

(Left to right) Carl Moskus, Thomas Kerwin, and Michael Karlovitz

In Chicago’s lexicon of TLA’s (three-letter acronyms), it’s not as commonly spoken as LSD, UIC, or ORD. But in architecture circles it may soon be as well-known as SOM, or SCB.  It’s bKL, the shiny new architecture firm with shiny new offices, a shiny new staff, and a couple of shiny new buildings that are going to help put it on the map.

Wolf Point west tower, model in front, drawing behind

Wolf Point west tower, model in front, drawing behind

The big commission is none other than the west tower of Wolf Point (316 North Orleans Street), the billion-dollar development on the Chicago River’s most prominent spit of land.  While local NIMBY’s continue to foam at the mouth about the destruction of a surface parking lot (and their views), the developers are pushing ahead.  And the first of the three towers to be built was designed by bKL.

Recently we sat down with the heads of bKL, Thomas Kerwin, Michael Karlovitz, and Carl Moskus, to find out more about the firm and where it’s going.

Editor: What does “B.K.L.” stand for?

Thomas Kerwin, Principal: The “B” stands for “build.” I’m the “K,” and Jim Loewenberg [co-CEO of Magellan Development], who set us up in business is the “L.”

Editor: So the “B” is lower-case because it’s not a person.

Kerwin: Right. The “B” means “build” because we both built a lot of work all over the world. BKL is a new entity, but we felt it important to emphasize the fact that we’ve built many many projects. So, we’re a new firm, but we have a lot of experience.

bKL logoEditor: How long has bKL been around?

Kerwin: We started in January of 2010.

Editor: Isn’t the middle of a recession a risky time to start a brand new practice?

Kerwin: It’s a great time, because there’s incredible people and talent available.

Editor: Because they’ve been laid off?

Kerwin: Or they’re looking for a different way of life, and a different mantra. I think a lot of people’s priorities have changed through this recession, and I think we’re building a great team of people who were from creative firms. People followed me from SOM. People followed Carl from DeStefano+Parters. Some of the top people in the city. And Michael, as well.

Editor: I see a lot of very young faces in the bullpen. Is that part of your project? Are you nurturing these people into the next generation of great architects?

Kerwin: We’ve hired some incredible young people. There’s talent available across the board. But for kids out of school — it’s very difficult for them to find a job, and some of the top talent coming out of the schools, we’ve been able to attract to our firm.

Editor: Are they from local schools, or all over?

Kerwin: All over. Penn, from SCI-Arc in L.A. We’ve gotten some really top people from the Art Institute of Chicago. IIT.

Editor: Do you find they’re coming in with a different viewpoint than you’re used to from working at a legacy firm like SOM and some of the more established firms?

bKL - Chicago, Illinois - February, 2013 - 006aKerwin: Young people always bring fresh ideas and fresh thinking. We try to create a collaborative environment where everybody participates. It’s not about one person, it’s about a team collaborating in the practice.

Editor: We have a number of readers who are architecture students. What things can they do now to improve their chances of landing a job when they get out of school?

Kerwin: They have to focus on their work in school — their portfolio and what they produce in school. How thoughtful it is, not necessarily the jazzy computer graphics — the thought behind it.

Editor: As we’ve done more and more of these firm profiles, I’ve noticed that many architects, old and young, still prefer to draw their ideas rather than work with a computer initially.

Kerwin: We do a lot of sketching, that’s for sure. But the computer is an incredible tool. I was among the first people to use a computer in the studio at SOM. We work back-and-forth between hand drawing and the computer. The computer is obviously a very powerful tool, it allows us to look at things so many different ways, but we do both. And models are a third component that is really critical.

Editor: What makes a good studio?

Kerwin: Number one — Smart, talented people. Number two is people who work well in a team environment, who are very collaborative and share ideas. I think the third part of it is the physical environment, which allows the previous two things to flourish.

Editor: You’ve done quite a lot of international work for such a young company. How did you get that global recognition?

Kerwin: Most of the work came from relationships I had from when I was a partner at SOM. I worked internationally for much of my career, so a lot of the relationships came from traveling.

China Central Newsreel & Documentary Film Animation Cultural City, Beijing, China

China Central Newsreel & Documentary Film Animation Cultural City, Beijing, China

Editor: What’s it like going to China as an architect from Chicago?

Kerwin: China is a very exciting place because it allows us to push the envelope. The art of building is more than just about the economics. It’s about placemaking, and about upgrading the quality of life, and so they’re willing to take more risks. For them it’s about creating cities and icons in many instances. For us, the economics are very difficult [for projects in America] and the margins are tight. So working in China is somewhat liberating.

Editor: So as an American architectural firm it’s important to have Chinese projects to help with the bottom line.

Kerwin: Well, it’s really important to be diverse. If you have all of your eggs in one basket and the bottom falls out of that basket, then it’s hard to sustain the firm. You need to be diverse on the building types you do — housing,  educational, hotels — You also need to be diverse with where you’re working. Because any certain sector, whether it’s geographic or functional, can be up or down.

Editor: What’s the building that you’ve done in your career that you’re the most proud of?

Kerwin: For Carl, Michael, and me, I’ll speak for all of us in saying it’s The Coast (345 East Wacker Drive). Because it’s the first one we built as bKL. There are several others that are under construction, but as a new firm, as a collaborative effort, I would have to say The Coast.

Editor: And what’s your favorite building that’s not a bKL building?

Kerwin: I love Marina City. I love its sculptural quality, and the fact that’s it’s beautifully articulated, and the concrete. It’s sculptural. It looks very modern. It’s very elegant and the proportions are nice. The balconies are some of the nicest balconies in the city of Chicago. Not only because of the views — obviously the views are spectacular — but the way they integrate into the plan. This combination of being somewhat encapsulated, while parts of it are cantilevered out. So you have both experiences.

Michael Karlovitz, Director: The John Hancock Center. Because it’s such an elegant form. Beautifully proportioned. I love the tapering.

Carl Moskus, Director: Lake Point Tower. Just the shape.

Karlovitz: You know, that building is 50-years-old and it still looks fresh to me.

Editor: Which city skyline do you like the best?

Kerwin: I would have to say Shanghai. Just sitting on The Bund in Shanghai and looking at the skyline across Pudong is pretty phenomenal.

Karlovitz: I vote for Chicago.

Moskus: I pick Chicago.

Editor: You’ve moved into a new office, you have a lot of work on your hands. Where do you see bKL going from here?

Kerwin: We only want to work on the highest quality projects, and always strive to be innovating in everything we do to contribute positively to the places where we build.

Editor: Is cherry-picking high-quality projects a sustainable business model in this economy?

Kerwin: I think it’s about attracting the right kind of clients who come to us who are interested in doing good things. I think it is sustainable because design is becoming evermore appreciated, and people see it as a way to distinguish themselves — whether it’s in the marketing of the building, or making a name for themselves, or enhancing the city. The key is finding those clients.

Editor: What about the other kind of “sustainability?” Is that still going strong, or are developers starting to tire of being green? Have green roofs and rainwater recycling become cliché?

Moskus: It’s less of an option now, it’s almost a given. I think it’s good. I think it’s also getting more strict, especially on the energy side. The green roof is one thing, but energy conservation, as far as LEED is concerned, hasn’t always been as strict. Especially since January 1st [2013], we’re finding that out.

Editor: So, what happened January 1st?

Moskus: There’s a state-wide energy code that’s been mandated, making things a little tougher.

Editor: We keep seeing “zero energy” houses popping up. Is that a gimmick?

Kerwin: There’s a lot of people out there marketing that concept. The point is we’re always striving to build the most energy-efficient buildings possible. Buildings contribute a huge amount of carbon to our environment. The biggest percentage of carbon doesn’t come from automobiles or coal-fired plants, it comes from buildings. I think it’s all an effort to strive to reduce energy use as much as possible.

If the building can produce energy during non-peak loads and you can sell that energy back to the grid, net-zero energy use is achievable. It takes an investment to do that, but it’s possible.

Editor: Is that scalable to the size of a skyscraper?

Kerwin: Yes. I don’t know that it’s been done yet, but it’ll be done eventually.


Thanks to everyone at bKL for taking the time to talk with us.  Next week, we bring you part two in this series, where we take a closer look at the design of the western tower of Wolf Point, and how it became what is proposed today.

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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