Getting the Wolf Point: How the West Tower was Born

Wolf Point west tower, model in front, drawing behind

Wolf Point west tower, model in front, drawing behind

Last month in a much larger article about the fracas over Wolf Point, we published the following paragraph:

The architect for the now-approved west tower is bKL. You can see a model of the west tower through the window of their office on the ground floor of the Aqua building in The Loop. Then you can turn to your left and notice… it’s pretty much The Coast that they built a few dozen feet away with a couple of minor tweaks. Considering this is easily Chicago’s first or second-most prominent downtown location, it is certainly deserving of something better than yet-another blue-glass block.

That raised the hackles of the pups who doggedly kibbled together the design for Wolf Point’s west tower.  I was in the doghouse when I fetched my e-mail a few days later. They collared me on the spot, and suggested I was off my leash.  So I threw them a bone, and accepted an invitation to sniff around their kennel to dig up what makes this building tick.

I sat down with  Thomas Kerwin, the principal of bKL Architecture and directors Michael Karlovitz and Carl Moskus.  First and foremost, they wanted me to understand, and to let everyone else know, Wolf Point West is nothing like The Coast (345 East Wacker Drive).

Thomas Kerwin, Principal: Coast is a very simple idea. It is a rectangle, purely extruded. The good thing about both Coast and Wolf Point is that there is no parking podium; the parking is all buried. So we have the fortunate circumstance on The Coast where there’s a multi-level roadway, and then on Wolf Point we have a similar condition where the access road is elevated, so we can get the parking below that road and then we consciously stepped the parking back so we could berm that landscape facing the water.

It’s a much different building [than The Coast]. It’s not a pure, extruded rectangle. It’s a series of planes that break down the mass. We were constricted in the width based on the master plan, and had to respond to the water’s edge and the property line on the west side.

Wolf Point west towerEditor: I think it’s the indented balconies that give Wolf Point west a lot of its similarity to The Coast.

Kerwin: It’s understandable why you think that. We’ve not found a good rendering tool to convey the idea behind this building. You really have to move around it. It’s hard to get a descent view of the three planes, so I can understand why you would think it’s a simple box. But it’s a layered approach, and we’ve worked very heard on the proportions.

Editor: Is the green color of the model more accurate, or the blue color of the drawings?

Kerwin: The blue is more accurate. This model is a massing model that was done before we picked the glass.

The balconies are carved in because we didn’t want them to be just tacked on. In fact, we worked very hard on The Coast to encapsulate them so it felt like a glass tube. We did the same thing here. We carved the balconies in so that the big idea is the reading of these three planes that break down the mass and we think it’s a pretty slender profile facing the city to the south and the water.

Michael Karlovitz, Director: For me, it’s all about getting the proportions right. We work with developers on residential high-rises and one of the big challenges for us is the budget. It doesn’t leave a lot of opportunities to do much beyond the bounds.

Editor: Because you have to maximize the envelope.

Karlovitz: Right. It’s just getting the proportions right with the necessary elements that go into a high-rise. A residential building doesn’t have a budget like an office building does, for example. So the exterior walls are always at a lower price point.

Editor: So this was pretty much as far as you could go.

Karlovitz: Yes.

Carl Moskus, Director: The width was fixed at 70 feet.

Drawing of The Coast

The Coast

Kerwin: We were allowed to sculpt it. The 70 feet was a driving factor, obviously. And the river is obviously a constraint. We were able to take that form and sculpt the building.

Editor: And you couldn’t taper at the top or make a curved facade because then you’re losing valuable floor space.

Kerwin: We had earlier schemes that fully fit out the envelope. It was basically a rectangle that was chamfered at the water’s edge and purely extruded. But it really didn’t have any life to it. So we had the flexibility of creating the planes and reentrant corners. So Michael is calling it right. We had limited flexibility, but we were able to make some moves. And that’s how we came up with this form.

Moskus: We hear a lot from developers that the tenants are a little bit nervous about cantilevered balconies anyway. They don’t like the whole diving-board thing, and prefer to have three sides, and tend to use it more if it’s enclosed.


Thanks to the entire bKL team for taking time out of their schedule to explain their vision and constraints to our readers.  For more information about bKL, read the profile we published last week.

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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