The economic collapse and rise of the “new economy” has changed the way the world lives and works. It’s also spawned a number of new businesses from food trucks to independent media outlets to architecture firms.
One of those new firms goes by the name of SMDP (written “smdp” in company logos, but presented as “SMDP” here for readability). It’s headed by four veterans of the architecture and design game who are striking out on their own.
We met with them in their offices high in the NBC Tower in Streeterville. While most architecture offices look like plain old offices from any industry, SMDP’s digs look like what the average person imagines an architecture firm looks like. It’s an expanse of shiny white marble floors. Long tables of showcase models. And rows of tastefully framed work examples on the wall. It’s more like an art gallery than an office, and pleasingly so.
In the middle of this art school fantasy I sat down with SMDP principals Dae-Hong Minn, Scott Sarver, and David Valaskovic; and senior associate Masha Safina.
Editor: Most people don’t know SMDP by name. You list The Fairbanks (280 East Illinois Street) and Burnham Pointe (720 South Clark Street) on your web site as a couple of the projects you’ve worked on. What else have you done that someone in Chicago would recognize?
Scott Sarver – When Quaker/Gatorade/Pepsi moved over to the West Loop with Steve Fifield, I did that when I was with S.O.M. And at DeStefano, we did the USG Building (125 South Franklin Street) when they moved to their new building and the annex to AT&T [Corporate Center] (227 West Monroe Street). Left Bank [at K Station] (300 North Canal Street), over there with Steve as well.
Editor: How old is SMDP?
Sarver: We were formed in the fall of 2011.
Editor: The middle of a recession is not a great time to start a new firm, is it?
Sarver: It actually is because the recession required a reformulation of the business in order to move forward in a more effective way.
David Valaskovic: Also, the industry is finding ways to work more efficiently; finding ways to squeeze the back-end down to minimal amounts. So we formed a strategic partnership with Ratio Architects, so you’ll see their name on the door, as well. There’s two firms in this space. They’re totally separate companies, but we utilize their HR, and accounting and everything, so we’re architects. We don’t [have to] deal with that kind of work. So we have leverage in that we don’t have a lot of overhead.
Also the two firms are very different in their typology of work. So what we can do is partner together when there’s a need for specific staff either on their end or on our end. So if one firm is a little bit short on people, they can look to the other for manpower. It gives us a lot of flexibility that a traditional firm wouldn’t have to help with efficiency.
Also as a new company, when we went looking for space, we ended up repurposing an existing space. So, this space, while it looks very finished and like it cost a lot of money, it really didn’t because of the way we went looking for something that was already built out. And there’s also a green-tech angle to that, since we’re reusing an existing space.
Editor: What’s the difference between you and Ratio? What competencies do you have that they don’t, and vice versa?
Valaskovic: We’re doing a lot of mixed-use international work–large scale core-and-shell. A lot of design front-end work. They do a lot of higher education work, museums, interiors, and own a landscape group. So some of the things they have we don’t have, and some of the things we have, they don’t. It seems to be working well. We complement each other’s work.
Editor: What does the SMDP stand for?
Sarver: A lot of us met at S.O.M., and on to DeStefano Partners. So when we formed the firm, we consciously didn’t want to put names around it, so it’s not necessarily “Sarver Minn Design Partners.” But names are inherently unsustainable.
Editor: I noticed from the portfolio on your web site that the majority of your work is in South Korea. How did that come about?
Sarver: It started at S.O.M. They were working in the Middle East, and had a lot of work in London, and shortly after followed that up with work in Asia. Through work there, I met Dae-Hong Minn. He was a project manager on a 90-story residential tower in Korea, so through that we developed and established a lot of connections in Korea. And in about 2001 we left and went to join DeStefano Partners, and expanded their international presence there.
Korea was a good place to work. We felt comfortable with our clients there, and they knew us. Since then, like many other people, we’ve been working more in China lately. And there’s a certain synergy [between Asia and Chicago]. In Korea every unit has to face south and have flow-through for ventilation, so you bring that back to Chicago, and two sides for ventilation is not a bad idea. Except, instead of facing south, maybe they have a limited lake view.
Editor: So things you learned there translate well here.
Sarver: We’ve probably seen over 100% G.D.P. growth in ten years over there, so it gives you a little foresight when you come back to Chicago. You squint your eyes and look up high, and you can see how the city [of Chicago] might change.
Editor: Residential towers in Seoul, and most other Asian cities all look the same. [Minn giggles knowingly.] The only way to tell some apart is by the giant designations painted on the side: Samsung 12… Samsung 13… Samsung 14… and so on. How do you distinguish them visually? How do you put your mark on your work in an environment like that?
Sarver: That’s what we’ve been doing. After the war they were very economical slabs. A stair and an elevator and a unit on both sides. That model is changing to more tower-like elements to consume less land and provide more space around the buildings.
Editor: Is that just the modernization of the society?
Editor: You mentioned the Middle East. Is that a new direction that you’re going?
Sarver: We’ve worked there before, like many people worked in Dubai. But we’re trying to limit our scope to what we can do well, and not try to do everything.
Editor: What about Chicago?
Sarver: There hasn’t been much of one. And we’re very interested in getting involved, and bringing some of the lessons we’ve learned back here. That was part of the whole West Loop proposal.
Editor: Is the challenge economic, or because you’re a new firm? You know how developers like to stick with the names they know.
Sarver: It’s both of those things. The economics was non-existent. And we are a new firm. The economics are now moving in a positive direction, and we’re trying to increase awareness of us and what we do.
Editor: You’re still a small firm, with less than two dozen employees. Where do you see your company in five years?
Sarver: I’ve been around large firms before. Bigger is not better. Better is better. We’re interested in trying to better work, so 50 or 60 people might be a limit where things start to lose control.
Editor: We’ve seen at a lot of Chicago architecture firms that there’s a small group of three or four or five senior partners with big offices, and then there’s a bullpen filled with very very young people doing the grunt work. Do you think this is because of the backlog of talented young people coming out of architecture schools who just can’t land jobs these days?
Sarver: Yes. But there’s still a lot of talent not working in the field these days at all levels. The young people and recent students seem to be the most prominent because of volume, and they have no place to go and they’re inexpensive. So when we established the firm we had 15 people who were highly experienced–with ten years or more [experience]. The idea was that we should have a diversity of capacity in our people.
Editor: What trends are you seeing these days? Are you noticing a push towards glass buildings, or a particular design style?
Sarver: Well, there’s a lot of apartment buildings going on. And apartment buildings have certain economic performance criteria, so you’re seeing a lot of these all-glass buildings coming out of that. But in the bigger picture I think you’ll see a move towards austerity in form. There’s also an evolution of materiality that’s coming through sustainability and evolving into new and viable building products. So while the building designs might become more austere, the materiality will change. Everybody’s come off this economic roller coaster, so they’re going to be a lot more conscious of the math of the buildings.
Editor: What’s your favorite building in the world? Or your favorite building that you designed?
Dae-Hong Minn: One of the office buildings in Korea, the Post Tower (21-1 Chungmuro). It’s a very prominent location. The reason they call it the Post Tower is because it was [built on] the location of the first post office in Korea. And then after the Korean War, that area became a core business area in Korea. And then the rent prices keep going up. And then the government decided to build an office building, but the people wanted to still have the same function. But as you know, a post office doesn’t need to be a high-rise building. So we have a program mixing a post office and office together. That was one of the difficulties–how do these function together?
We made maybe 80 or 90 schemes. A new one once a week. And maybe visually the building doesn’t look great, because they’re asking us to make a symbolic-looking building. So to satisfy both requirements, we made about nine [proposals].
Editor: What is it symbolic of?
That is a post office. But in Korea, the post office logo is a bird. But we don’t want to visualize a bird, itself. Still, we want to put some meaning there. So it’s kind of a “flying” building, and is also that shape matches with the code. Because in old Seoul, inside the four gates, the code says the long side of the building cannot exceed 55 meters at the tenth floor. So if you look at the building, it starts out as one body, and then becomes two bodies. That’s based on the code.
It was a really hard project for us to satisfy the client. Some people don’t like it, but about 70% of the people like it. People strongly recognize the building, and they all remember it. When they ask me what kind of buildings I’ve done, and I say “Post Tower” they all know that.
Sarver: I like the Hancock tower. I like the mixed use, and the elevated utilities. As a model, I like it. It’s a simple, black, strong iconic form for Chicago.
Masha Safina: I like architecture that’s ingenuous. I think that’s the best that architecture can be. Like the traditional minka houses in Japan. I think anything good needs to have time to evolve and test itself out. The best products are the ones that have evolved over many many iterations, and that’s what ingenuous architecture is. It learns from the people and their needs and the environment, and it’s very smart that way. And it’s not that a master architect came and made it happen, it’s driven by people and the environment.
Conceptually, I like Tadao Ando’s work. My favorite one is the Water Temple, which is on this island just off the coast of Osaka. I like the architecture–it’s more about experience than form or shape, because you don’t see the building. You arrive and it’s a pond, and you don’t see the building. You just see a narrow slit going down into the ground. And so you enter the temple downward, you can’t see it as you approach it. It’a a whole process or discovery of the space. The approach to it, finding the light at certain times of the day, and the space changes all the time. I appreciate the buildings that are about experience.
Editor: Are you noticing that more buildings these days are trying to blend in with the environment? Like the new boathouse at Burnham Harbor, and the work down at 35th Street Habor?
Safina: I think architecture will need to become more responsive and subtle and more considerate about the environment. More humane, not about what it symbolizes, but more about the life of the people.
Editor: Is that economically sustainable for the bean counters?
Safina: It will have to be economically sustainable. I think there are ways to design to take into consideration the future needs for the building. So the space can evolve with the user much more, rather than having to be wiped out and redone. I think eventually the architect will be in a different role, not always as a designer, but more of a consultant to the client, where he will work more in defining the needs of the client and helping them understand how the space needs to evolve over time.
Editor: And your favorite building?
Valaskovic: The Inland Steel Building (30 West Monroe Street). It’s a beautifully proportioned building. The detailing is exquisite. It’s a building that I can see 100 years from now will still be a favorite. Before that, there were no buildings like that. It was really a new generation of office building. And there’s some interesting details to it. The core is pulled out of the building, as a separation of function. There’s a core that gets people up and down and has the bathrooms and mechanical elements. And then there’s pure office space, which is a rectangle.
Another thing that’s interesting is that they pulled the columns out of the building, which is very difficult to do today; it’s very expensive. What that did is create a simple plane out of the inside space so that when you build out the offices, there are no columns in the office. A lot of detail was put into maximizing what an office could be at that time. And that was when there were corporate clients that let you work with the client to design a building that met their needs, and form an identity for the client. And the client was Inland Steel, so stainless steel was a perfect choice for the cladding of the building.
Today we work mostly with developers, and you don’t quite get to do what you did back then, but it’s a beautiful building.
Editor: SMDP is best known recently for its adventurous West Loop plan, which envisions decking over the Kennedy Expressway and building a park. Where did this come from? Did a developer come to you? How does something this big start?
Sarver: In working with Steve [Fifield] in the West Loop, continually the same obstacles would come up. It’s sort of disconnected from the city, it’s lacking amenities. We have Google Maps you can see how the city is evolving with residential moving north and moving south, and [the South Loop and Near North Side are] becoming clearly more and more not an office address every day. So it’s kind of inevitable that when office space expands, it will have to expand west. So the point was to be proactive, and get ahead of that. That will be the future of the office environment [in Chicago].
The other idea was that some places in the Midwest have re-imaged themselves. Cleveland has a medical identity about it now. If you look at the economy of Chicago right now, it’s data and fiber and high-speed trading, and those are the kinds of companies that are moving in and expanding, and their needs are not traditional needs. Google moved into the Merchandise Mart. Traders moved into the Apparel Center. It’s because of the large floor plates and high ceilings and they can do whatever they want. Therefore, you can’t re-adapt the existing buildings, it has to be new buildings. And [the West Loop] is the only area that has enough openness to accommodate the needs and create a new economy identity for Chicago.
Editor: How does this plan fit in with the city’s long-term plan for the area? Because the city envisions lots of high-density residential buildings all along the Kennedy Expressway, which is the center of your proposal.
Sarver: No matter what we say or what the city says, there’s a natural evolution that’s going to happen. And it’s going to be driven by the demand for residential and office [buildings] right now. Even in the West Loop today, which I think is an office neighborhood, there’s some residential buildings that show up. But I think it’s somewhat inevitable that there will be new office developments that cater to the desires of the new tenancy, and that’s where they’ll be accommodated because of site availability and proximity to city services.
Safina: The new companies that are potential users of the office space have very different needs. They are data-based companies, and have big data centers, so you have to think about how they have different needs, and it’s a different generation of entrepreneurship coming to the city. And it’s a district that will need to have a very different identity, and it doesn’t have one right now. And one of the reasons that developers are having a hard time attracting new companies there is because it doesn’t identify with anything. It’s a gap, essentially.
Sarver: L.A. is the city of entertainment. After the Capitol Records building there wan’t anything really significant done. So they’ve embraced it, and you can see it. Cleveland has taken on this whole medical identity, and you can see it. And that’s the opportunity we have here.
Safina: The development of downtown Chicago has naturally, from the beginning of the 20th century, was going from east to west. And then it stopped west of Clinton Street, just west of Union Station. So in the future, that’s the only place that downtown can grow. It can’t grow north, it can’t grow south, so the only place it can grow is west.
The existing Loop is old, it’s formal, it’s serious. It has a certain aesthetic and presence and identity. So the West Loop has the potential to develop a very different identity for different types of businesses.
It’s a place that’s so hard to get to. There’s just no way to get to that area of the city, so it would be a great idea to connect all the way from Greektown to Millennium Park. To bring in new types of transportation that is more sustainable. A new bike route, and new bus route, and charging stations for bikes and buses, and bus stops that will somehow tie in to existing transportation options. But it will be a new route.
Editor: There are already at least four CTA bus routes that go east-west from Millennium Park to the West Loop. 60, 14, 20, 56, 157, and probably others. Are you proposing something more advanced than what we have now? CTA’s already working on ExpressBus in that area. Is that what you’re thinking?
Sarver: We’re actually thinking that you embody the next generation of CTA. These buses are electric, and have charging stations. So it’s more proactive next-generation of what’s going to happen in Chicago. There’s bike rentals, and other things supporting that idea. So the bus routes might be the same.
Editor: So you’d replace the CTA’s hybrid diesel-electric buses with…?
Sarver: With whatever the next generation is. And incentivize the whole parking situation. Because of the L and the subway, it’s really hard to get east-west, because the city’s such a north-south system.
Editor: You’re right about the city being very north-south, but the West Loop is one of the best-served east-west areas of the city.
Sarver: It needs to expand all the way out to the United Center, but we didn’t want to be that ambitious now. Again, with the Google Maps, it’s pretty dense all along the lake. You just need that sliver going east-west to really fill that in.
Safina: We went and recorded all of the empty lots and all of the buildings that are partially vacant and partially abandoned there, and if you take a count of all that space there is the potential for about 40,000 new jobs. So there’s a lot of capacity there that’s not explored.
Editor: So you’re counting the underutilized blocks.
Sarver: There’s the opportunity for ten million new square feet of office space in one place. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. You can get a million square foot building on one lot, but you can’t get it all together anywhere.
Editor: Does Chicago need ten million square feet of office space with so many new economy people telecommuting, and working in non-traditional workspaces these days?
Sarver: It will easily build that over the next ten years, so why not get ahead of the curve and use it to identify this new economy?
Safina: What is that area about? Naturally, we’re talking a lot about office use, but just to the south is the University of Illinois, north is the Fulton Art District, there’s Greektown. So how can you leverage all of those neighborhood identities and have [the West Loop] be a tie-in to all those components and have new public space that you can give to the city? We create a more diversified district to support that new office space.
Sarver: The diversity exists at a wide scale in the West Loop, it’s just not connected and not integrated very well. The park would connect them.
What we see in a lot of our projects overseas is five or six developers and the government working hand-in-hand to do something bigger than any individual developer could do. So that’s part of the point here. With the cooperation of the city, and the cooperation of the developers – there’s at least a dozen developers with parcels over there – if you can bring these people together, everyone can walk farther than any one individual.
Editor: How do you get everyone on board? You started with Fifield, now what?
Sarver: We start with this idea.
Editor: So, you’ve submitted it to the city, or proposed it to other developers?
Sarver: We’re talking with the city and trying to get some direction. And I intend to talk to the other developers working in the area because there’s an opportunity.
Safina: If you build one 500,000-square-foot office building in the area, it will create about 800 new jobs. So the estimated tax break that you can get from the city is about $11 million. Half of that can be put toward the public park.
Editor: What’s the next step?
Sarver: There’s a lot of technical issues with it right now, and that’s what we’re looking at.
Cost. Construct-ability. In order to figure it out is not as easy as it looks. There’s dreams and there’s reality. So here’s a few dreams, now we’re working on reality.
Editor: Is there a price tag on this?
Sarver: It’s been quoted in articles at $15 million a block, but I think it’s more than that.
Editor: You’re looking at a ten year time frame to fill in all those blocks. The hard part is getting started, right?
Sarver: In ten years those boxes will be filled in anyway. But you’ve missed the opportunity of doing it in a coordinated way. So they’ll be full, no matter what we do. Our point is to get ahead of it.