It’s traditional for media outlets to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve looking back at the year not-quite-passed to lament society’s failures and trumpet our triumphs. Obituary roundups, Best Ofs, and Year in Reviews fill the airwaves as newsroom middle managers take a week off and turn the news machine over to the interns, the under-appreciated, and those who don’t yet know they’re about to be put out to pasture.
In the spirit of the “Year in Review,” we recently stopped by the offices of friends-of-the-blog, Solomon Cordwell Buenz for our annual visit with C.E.O. John Lahey. S.C.B. is Chicago’s second-largest architecture firm, and from its beachhead in Streeterville spreads its vision for urban America throughout Chicago and beyond.
Editor: Summarize 2014 for us. How did it go?
Lahey: We’re growing, but not as rapidly as we were. Frankly, we’re at a size where we are trying to make sure that we’re broad enough and we don’t get too invested in any one area.
The San Francisco office is doing very well. The Chicago office is doing very well. About a third of our work is in Chicago, and two-thirds of it is outside. About a quarter of it is in the San Francisco area.
Lahey: We started the San Francisco office in 2005/2006 because we had some work there. I felt that culturally there is a link between what we do here in Chicago, and San Francisco. Chicago is a great urban city, with lots of layers of urbanism, urban texture, history, neighborhoods, etc… I felt like San Francisco was a real fit for that. It is very similar in that regard. I felt that we, as a firm, would do well there. And it is more prone to the in-town in-fill and mixed-use sort of urban projects that we do.
One Rincon Hill was our project there at the time, and then the world [economy] fell apart, and we had to make it through. But we kept it going, and it’s a good thing we did, because right now there’s about 65 people out there and we’re doing a lot of work. We’re doing Hawaii, and other work up and down the [west] coast. We’re doing Riverside and Berkeley and 8th and Olive is a building in Los Angeles.
Editor: Does it seem to you that L.A. is getting its act together when it comes to urbanism?
Lahey: It is, and we’re looking to do more down there. We do a bit in Southern California on the university side. We’ve been successful there. Some on the commercial side. We had some [proposals] in Los Angeles and in San Diego, but they didn’t go ahead. But the one at 8th and Olive is mostly residential with some parking and a little retail. It’s going ahead in the downtown area.
Editor: Which is big for LA, since it had very little in the way of downtown residential development just five years ago.
Lahey: L.A.’s got a bunch of different cities, and each one of them is starting to become something on it own, especially with transit. It’s a great city, and it has a good design sense to it. There’s a lot of interesting work in L.A. It tends to be less formal, and a little more provocative.
Editor: Do you get the sense that China is cooling off?
Lahey: We never went there, so we don’t get much sense of China. We were not in international very much. We did a little work in the Middle East, but we were not really in China. There were other firms that were there way before us, and we just felt that there was enough opportunity in the United States, so we concentrated on that. And we only had one really bad year. Then things got better. And the things that came back in the United States were center-city, mixed-use, residential and we’re very good at that, so right now we’re doing stuff all over. Sure, there’s San Francisco and Honolulu and Los Angeles, but there’s also Austin and Houston and Denver and Baltimore, Palm Beach, Saint Louis, and a variety of other places.
Editor: Sounds like you need another office.
Lahey: I think about it, but when it comes to architects, you don’t want to get spread too thin. You like the synergy of people working together and collaborating and the exchange of ideas. I think for now we’re fine with the two offices because most places we can get to within a couple of hours. But I think we may look to the east coast — the Washington/New York/Boston area — that would be logical. Because we are at the very early stages of working on some things in New York, and we have work in Philadelphia and Ohio. It’s all over.
Editor: You don’t seem to spend a lot of time or money on promotion. Is that because you have so many big buildings that act as billboards for your firm?
Lahey: Well, some people think we should spend more, and maybe we should. We’ve always been focused on the work.
Thanks to Mr. Lahey for taking the time to speak with us again this year. We’ll publish more from this interview in the next few weeks, including a discussion of state of architecture education and the design of the Block37 residential tower.