Reader Questions For SCB. Spoiler Alert: New Chicago Supertall Coming Sooner Than You Think

On those occasions when we have to introduce the Chicago Architecture Blog to an architecture firm or developer, we often describe the publication as a link between the architects and developers and the regular people who want to know more about the people and events shaping Chicago’s built environment.

Today that link is even more deliberate, as we present actual blog reader questions for the prolific Chicago architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz.  We collected questions from readers just like you and posed them to S.C.B. C.E.O. and friend-of-the-blog, John Lahey. Here are his answers:

Where do you see SCB going design-wise in the next few years?

John Lahey

John Lahey

Lahey: Sustainability is becoming more and more of a driver. I think we do a number of different types of buildings, but in the mixed-use urban buildings, I think keeping everything in context, but something that is contemporary. We’ve had a lot of good response from the expressionistic move of [Hubbard Place], and some others, and so I think the glass box — not as much. But things that have a little more variety in their facade, and maybe use some different materials.

We’re finding that from an energy standpoint, it’s really hard to do an all-glass building. Even 500 [North Lake Shore Drive] is not an all-glass building. There’s a lot of spandrel and a lot of non-vision glass in that building.

Office buildings, those will be very contemporary. Influenced more by Europe than older American buildings. Very crisp, flexible space, in suburban and new office buildings.


For office space, so many office users want to get funky space in funky buildings. They don’t want to be in just a regular 80’s office building with a drop ceiling and stuff. They want it to be more a loft, start-up, techie feel. You can see what they’re doing over at the [Merchandise] Mart. In San Francisco, you see it all over. People want more idiosyncratic space.

Universities — The work we do is really about fitting into the campus, but there’s much less of mimicking the vernacular. There’s more reinterpretation and some modern elements juxtaposed or mixed in with the traditional buildings. So I think the movement to modernism continues to be very strong, but a little more expressionistic. Not so, let’s say rigidly rationalist.

Like Aqua (225 North Columbus Drive). Some people like it, some people don’t. But I think everybody will say that the expressionistic balcony thing has really affected people. It’s been something that people connect with. And they certainly notice it. And I think that is a thing that you’re going to see more of. It’s tactile and it’s memorable.

We’ve got a lot of talented younger architects and designers that are moving up through the firm, so what do I see in the future for SCB? I see the next generation really just doing better and better and better, and I feel good about that. This firm is not about one person or any one thing. It’s really a group.

Given that you’ve designed so many towers around Chicago, do you someday hope to do a trophy tower here?

Lahey: I would say we have done some. I think of Legacy as a trophy tower. It’s a very dominant building in the skyline. I was in Grant Park for Lollapalooza with my kids and I was looking around Grant Park, and we saw Legacy (21 South Wabash Avenue) was there, 340 On The Park (340 East Randolph Street), Heritage, and Sky55 (1255 South Michigan Avenue) down the south side. I feel like 340 and Legacy certainly are very much trophy towers.

We do a lot of different things. And some buildings have the potential and the client’s desire to be trophy towers, and others don’t. And some people want something that fits in the context. Great cities are made of a lot of different buildings that fit together into a great whole, and we are concerned that the buildings we do are great places to live and together form a great city, whether it’s here or San Francisco or wherever.

So it’s not so much to do the trophy tower, but to do the right building for the right site. And we do have some self-control when it comes to that.

Editor: Some people would say you’ve got too much self-control.

Lahey: That may be their opinion. I’ve seen a lot of buildings, and we look at a lot of buildings, and there are buildings that you look at five years later and you say, “That really wasn’t such a good idea.” And there are buildings that have aged very well and have contributed greatly to the areas that they’re in.

What non-SCB building are you most excited about?

The Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing

Lahey: I really like the Renzo Piano addition to the Art Institute. It’s so refined. And there again, you could say that is him doing what he does and has done. And I’m saying, “Yeah, that’s him doing the stuff that he does best.” I think that was a pretty exciting building.

I like that poetry building (61 West Superior Street). Aqua is a big building and people notice it, but the under-appreciated buildings like the poetry building, which was done with a lot of finesse.

Given that money is tight, how is SCB pushing developers to design the best, most unique buildings it can?

Lahey: We like our clients to be successful in their buildings. We do design within the budget and we try to get as much as we possibly can out of it. We’re fortunate that almost all of the people we work for recognize that it’s about value, not just about doing an inexpensive building. It’s about getting benefit from the dollars you spend.

500 Lake Shore Drive certainly isn’t the cheapest way of doing it. But it gets a lot of quality and value out of what was done. Hubbard Place does, too. This is not the cheapest way of doing something.

But I think we show our clients that the money that they’re spending is having a tangible benefit, and that is valuable. We would never spend money just to spend money. But we would point out that some things that might be a little more expensive have a benefit that’s worth the expense.

We’re doing a building on the south side that’s got one side that’s all curved, and the other side is flat. We’re doing a lot of different things.

When do you predict the next iconic Chicago tower will be built?

Lahey: What would you consider an iconic Chicago tower?

Editor: I think they’re thinking of something with the stature of a Hancock or a Sears.

Lahey: Well, I would say five years. I was going to say we don’t do them anymore, but things have changed dramatically in the last three years. I mean dramatically. The drop was in 2008. ’09 was horrible. ’10 was better, and people were starting to do stuff. And ’11, ’12, ’13… things are rolling again. So it’s five years ago since the drop. In five more years, self-control will have lapsed, and people will be wild and crazy again.

I think what you’re going to see soon is that condominiums are going to come back, and there will be condominiums that are more expensive, and that people are looking to get something that has more identity; and that’s where it happens. It probably won’t be an office building.

The office buildings — the new ones, the big ones — they’ve really been kind of commoditized where you look at all of them, and they almost all have the exact same floor plan.

I would say in four or five years you’re going to see one [super-tall building]. You’re going to see buildings that are more expressive.

Do SCB and its partners look at other cities and architecture firms for inspiration?

Lahey: Yes. First of all, you look at the web, and you see things from all over now, and you do get inspired. We’re working on something in Mexico City and saw some buildings and thought, “Oh, that’s really neat!” So you’re always seeing those things, so I would say yes, across the board.

In a more organized way, we have research groups where people will get assigned to go spend a weekend in New York and go through as many buildings as you can and come back and do a report.

Editor: That sounds like the best job ever.

Lahey: Some of our guys went to New York City recently and just looked at a lot of the new buildings and came back. When we look at a building, we’re not just looking at the outside, we look at the inside, too. Because what the public sees is the way the building looks from the outside, but what we do, more time is spent on the inside because that’s so critical to the client.

On the university side, we do a lot of recreational buildings, athletic buildings, student unions, student housing, and labs. And every time we’re doing one, some [of our] people go and look at some buildings.

If you’d like to be on our list of readers we solicit questions from for Chicago’s architects and developers, e-mail

Author: Editor

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

Share This Post On