Catching up with bKL: 2014 Edition


Thomas Kerwin, Principal, bKL Architecture

Thomas Kerwin, Principal, bKL Architecture

It’s hard to believe another year has passed, and it’s time once again to sit down with friends-of-the-blog bKL Architecture to find out how the firm is doing and what makes it tick these days.

bKL burst onto the scene a few years ago with its Coast tower at Lakeshore East, and has quickly followed that skyscraper up with a number of others in downtown Chicago.  We asked bKL Principal Thomas Kerwin how things are going with his most recent project, 200 North Michigan.

Thomas Kerwin: It’s going well. Obviously, in any high rise in downtown Chicago getting out of the ground is the most complicated thing. But once you get up above grade, the floors will start to be poured pretty rapidly.

Editor: It’s part of a growth spurt for bKL. You recently finished The Coast and the first phase of the GEMS Academy in Lakeshore East. Now there’s 200 North Michigan, plus 720 North LaSalle and Wolf Point West north of the river.

bKL logoKerwin: We’re, knock on wood, busy. We have some great clients, and they’re a pleasure to work with, and we’re fortunate. GEMS Phase One has recently opened and it’s doing well. Phase Two is due to start construction soon. 200 is making good progress, and Wolf Point is also making good progress.

Editor: Does it seem like success breeds success, now that your name is out there more. 40 stories of free advertising on Michigan Avenue can’t hurt.

200 North Michigan Avenue rendering courtesy of the John Buck Company

200 North Michigan Avenue rendering courtesy of the John Buck Company

Kerwin: Our buildings are tangible; they’re visible. So when people see our work as it goes up, they can see it completed. These buildings are all in prominent locations, so it’s incumbent upon us to make them really good. So we strive every day to get things right, and they do become a billboard for our firm and also for our clients.

Editor: Is it different designing for River North, which is still largely historic and low-rise, compared with the Loop, where everyone expects the next building to be a view-blocking skyscraper?

Kerwin: The site is really important in terms of its context, so we have to take into consideration what’s around it, both visually and functionally. The buildings we’re talking about have different contexts, whether it sits on the river with wide open views, or like 200 is — it’s tucked into somewhat of a canyon on that part of Michigan Avenue that’s really surrounded by dark buildings. That has an effect. Or there’s River North, which is rooted in masonry and a lot of brick, so all those things factor in.

Views are a tough thing. We try to be sensitive about where we site our buildings, so they work within the context. Both what make sense for the neighboring buildings, but also what makes sense for the people who are living in the buildings that we’re building and their views out, and how they will be impacted. So it’s a balance.

Editor: When we last caught up last year, bKL was aggressively expanding in China. Now it seems like the bulk of your work is in Chicago. Do you feel like things are coming back here a bit?

Kerwin: We’re in both places. We’re doing several projects in China. I was there just a month ago working on a new corporate headquarters in Beijing for a company called KYKY, but Chicago has been good to us. When I left SOM, one of my goals was to do more work in Chicago. I want to work in the city in which I live.

When I came out of school, I was really excited to work at a firm where I could work on projects other places, so I could travel and see the world. I think that’s still important to young architects coming out of school, but there’s so many firms doing all of their work overseas that the young architects don’t get to carry the construction documents through. They only do design documents. And because they’re only a junior in the firm, they don’t get to see the construction progress. They don’t get to tour the site. So we find that a lot of people who come to us have a civic passion. They want to see things built in the city in which they live, but there’s also this tangible component where they get to work on the drawings from start to finish, they get to do the construction documents, and then they get to tour the site while it’s being built and see it through. And that’s really attractive to all of us.

Editor: Does that sense of ownership breed better design?

Kerwin: Definitely. Interacting with the site and with things going on at the site, you can have more of an impact in terms of the end product.

Editor: 200 North Michigan went through some late-stage changes. Is that sort of thing easier to execute on a local project, as opposed to something overseas?

Kerwin: You can say that. You can be more nimble when you’re working locally— no question. But when we work overseas, we typically have good local partners and the technology component is just amazing. I was just on a videoconference last night until 10 o’clock, but how easy is it to just get on Skype and see people face-to-face. You no longer need all this expensive video equipment. You just need a camera and Skype and you’re right there with each other.

Thanks to Mr. Kerwin and the rest of the bKL team for their time and hospitality.


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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