Two Views of Architecture and Education in Chicago

Lane Tech in Chicago's North Center neighborhood

Lane Tech in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood


If you had to name a high school that has had an outsized impact on the Chicago we live in today, one of the best choices would be Lane Technical College Prep High School (2501 West Addison Street).  For decades, the North Center pile known simply as Lane Tech has been an incubator for home-grown talent that stays in Chicago and makes the city better.  From athletes and actors to politicians and news anchors, a remarkable number of Chicago’s bold faced names can list the words “Lane Tech” as the first entry on their resumes.

So it was with a measure of sadness that we read that Chicago Public Schools has decided to discontinue Lane Tech’s architecture program.  The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, can trace its roots back to Lane Tech via Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architect George Efstathiou.  But that’s not enough to keep the 100-year-old program active.

In light of this event, we asked two prominent Chicago architects what they thought of the Lake Tech decision, and their thoughts on how aspirational young people in Chicago can find their way into the profession without the help of C.P.S.

John Lahey

John Lahey, C.E.O., SCB

John Lahey

C.E.O., Solomon Cordwell Buenz

Editor: Lane Tech cancelling its architecture program. No more high school for architects.

Lahey: I took drafting in high school because that was the closest thing to architecture.

I would say that’s probably O.K. In high school you can still have an interest in architecture. But it’s important that architects be well-rounded people, too. There’s a lot of time to do the architecture and go to architecture school, but you do want a well-rounded education.

I look back, and I interned one summer as an architect. The other summers I spent doing construction, and I tell you, I learned a lot working construction. Not just about how to build buildings, but about people, and how things happen, and the world outside of architecture.

I think what would be great is if in place [of the architecture courses] they have a course on the history of art and architecture, integrating both. But kind of showing people it’s not all about being an engineer or being a lawyer. The arts are important, too.

Editor: “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) has become a big buzzword in education circles these days, and it seems most progressive schools are headed in that direction.

Lahey: I think that’s a reaction to the way a lot of the science and math had fallen down, and they’re trying to bolster it back up, which is probably a good idea. But bolstering one thing up doesn’t mean you want to toss another thing aside.

Editor:  You mentioned that art goes hand-in-hand with architecture. Do you see that more so than math going hand-in-hand with architecture?

Lahey: Oh yes. More than math. Architecture and engineering are tied some, but it’s still about people. Yes, sustainability, and the more sophisticated building enclosures, and things like that are important; and you do need to learn about that. But the arts, and not just the visual arts, but the literary arts as well, are important. Architects are creating this environment for the rest of the world to live in, and it’s important that we think those thoughts that are more altruistic, and it’s not all just about engineering and numbers. It’s about people and how they function in the world.

Editor: If someone wasn’t well-versed in history, they might not put that facade on Arkadia in Greektown.

Lahey: History is very important because you see a broader picture, and you don’t get so taken up in what’s happening today. You see it more in the context of the whole. And also, literature, and thought. They bring you to a place where you feel a sense of responsibility to the greater good.

When you’re designing a building, you’ve got a client, and you’ve got a function, and you’ve got architecture critics (laughs). But then you’ve got the public at large, and what’s this building going to be like for the people around it? How is it going to make the city a nicer city, or a not-as-nice city? Or how is it going to make these students feel? More embraced? More a part of it and ready to learn?

Editor: Let’s say that you are a kid going into college and you want to pursue an architecture track, what is the path there today?

Lahey: First of all, when you’re young and you’re looking forward, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. When I was a young man I only applied to colleges that had a five-year program because I didn’t like school much and I wanted to be done with it and get out and work.

In retrospect, I wish I was mature enough to give more value to the education that I had an opportunity to get at that time. And I would give that advice to young people today, knowing that many of them will say, “I don’t want to do that, I just want to go out and be what I’m going to be.”

I think it’s important that if you’re going to be an architect, not to be an architect because it seems interesting. You’ve got to be “No, I’ve got to be one. That’s what I’m going to do. If I didn’t do that, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Because if you don’t have that passion, it’s very difficult to have the kind of commitment you need to make a difference.

Editor: How important is the name of the school when picking a college?

Lahey: I think the name is important in that when you go to a school that’s a little more up-the-ladder, there’s a group of students that might be more committed and more interested in what they’re doing. And that’s a nice environment to be in. And it does put you in a more competitive environment, which raises the bar and makes you work a little more.

But we have very successful people from all different schools, and frankly some people form very good schools don’t do as well, and some people from schools that are not as well known do very well. So in the end, it’s what you learn there. But I think the environment — the vitality of the environment of the more well-known schools, and the sophistication of the environment is good for the students. When you get out, you’re not intimidated by anything. You’ve already been there, and you know it’s nothing you can’t handle.

Editor: What do you look for when someone is applying?

Lahey: First of all, they’ve got some work that’s good and they seem to have some skills, and there’s a certain quality to their work. It’s very hard to find, but you do look for someone who has some latent leadership skills. You can just see them [leading]. They have confidence, and they’re personable in some way.

It’s a very collaborative profession. There’s a lot of contact with people on all levels, whether it’s with a contractor, or a client, or an architect. People don’t just sit there and put the blinders on and do something alone anymore, at least in our office, because we build bigger buildings, so there are a lot of people involved. [You look for] people who can work in that environment; and not just work and get stuff done, but really could rise and be a participant and ultimately a leader.

You look at the quality of the design, but not everybody is going to be a designer. Everybody is when they get out of school, but that changes.

Editor: There’s a lot of emphasis on the portfolio.

Lahey: It’s sort of a way of gauging the quality of their work. Now, you’ll find there are people whose design work is not as stellar, but they’ve been involved in some other things that show a real propensity for technology or management or something like that.

Editor: Who do you think is one of the best architects today, not working at SCB

Lahey: I think you’d have to say that [Norman] Foster is doing some very good work today. I recently saw some stuff by Pelli’s office that seemed like they had gone to a new era with the new leadership, which is kind of encouraging. Skidmore always does some very good stuff. I think John Ronan’s work is pretty sophisticated. When I think of him I think of the Poetry Foundation Building (61 West Superior Street).

There’s a Mark Cavagnero in San Francisco who’s doing some good work. And then they’re firms like Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, who seem to continually do some good work. James Cutler out in the Pacific Northwest doing some very nice things.

Editor: There seems to be a growing number of high-profile architects who have all these fanciful renderings in magazines and lots of articles written about them, who somehow barely manage to actually get anything built. What’s up with that?

Lahey: That’s always been the case. There was this guy, George Ranalli, who was all the rage when I got out of school. He did one little store, and I never heard anything about him after that, and that was 30 years ago.

But it is true. Sometimes people get a tremendous amount of press for one building, and you see that for two years, just keep seeing that one building. I guess it’s what people want to look at.

I try to find things that show more of a wide range of what’s going on out there. You find things that are interesting, even in the work of firms that are not that notable. It’s more building-by-building; it’s not so much one person’s work.

Editor: I think about how you can see the same architect’s work over and over in magazines, but they never produce anything you can stand in.

It takes a lot of promotion, or self-promotion, to get in a magazine. The other thing is, you can get an assignment and you can draw things that are very provocative, but might not be buildable. We like to build buildings. We like to get ’em built. So, as unglamorous as it is, we do like to design within the budget and design something that is the best that we think it can be, but within the constraints of being buildable. And we have a very high batting average of projects proposed to getting built. We get some things built that I think in other hands would not.

But you make a sacrifice on that, because you know what it takes to get built; and somebody else might have that great drawing, but theirs didn’t get built and they’re done. They don’t ever have to reconcile what it would take to get it built with reality. We will reconcile that.

We may not end up with something as spectacular, but we still think we’re ending up with the best building that we can under the assignment that we have. But it’s very important to us to get it built. You do have a choice: Do you make one finely crafted object, or do remake urban America?


Thomas Kerwin, Principal, bKL Architecture

Thomas Kerwin, Principal, bKL Architecture

Thomas Kerwin

Principal, bKL Architecture

Editor: Is there a place for a Lane Tech-style program at the high school level anymore?

Kerwin: I think so.  There’s other avenues, and other schools that are focused on that.  Part of the way I got interested in architecture was back in high school.  Those woodworking classes, and drawing classes, and that’s what attracted me to it.  I would hope that our discipline will continue to be taught.  I hope there’s an avenue for kids to experience it before college, so they can hopefully go that way.

There’s still a healthy amount of people going into our profession.  Unfortunately, with these recessions, is a lot of people leave our profession, too.  It happened in the early 90’s.  It happened around 2000.  It’s going to happen again, and it has happened.  People who came out of school during this people, and people who were in this profession during this period, they get into other careers.

We’re on the cusp of having a talent problem as we get busy.  That’s what happened in those other periods.  We’re going to have a talent problem when you look three, four, five years out.  But the positive thing about that is that architecture is really an incredible degree.  And training to problem-solve is applicable to a lot of different industries.  That ability to creatively solve problems can be applied to other disciplines.

Editor: “STEM” is a big education buzzword these days.  Do you think a renewed emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math will have an effect on the people coming to you looking for a job?

Kerwin: Architecture is obviously not one of the letters in the acronym, but I think it’s a part of that.  It’s a technical degree.  It’s a tangible discipline like the others in STEM.

Editor: Let’s say there’s a hypothetical 16-year-old in Chicago with good grades who’s interested in doing what you do.  Where does he start these days?

Kerwin: He should learn as much as he can about the profession as he can.  He should visit schools that teach architecture, and try to visit firms.  Try to find somebody who knows somebody at a firm.  Try to understand what the profession is about, as much as possible.

It is a very difficult profession, so they have to be extremely passionate to do it.  I’m happy every day I wake up that I’m an architect, so I’m lucky in that regard.  But there are so many challenges.  The economy’s impact on the profession.  It takes a long time to get a building built.  There’s a lot of obstacles.  You have to be very passionate and very determined.  If you’re not, don’t do it.  If there’s other things that drive you, like money or another passion, follow that passion.  Because you have to fall back on that passion every day because there are so many obstacles to getting things done the way they should be done.

Editor: What kind of colleges should our hypothetical kid look at?

Kerwin: If they know they want to be an architect, and they’re passionate about it, I would encourage them to enter a school that offers an undergraduate degree in architecture.  There’s so many great schools out there.

If there’s somebody who’s not quite sure what they want to do, and architecture may be a choice, then I encourage them to get a liberal arts degree and explore the arts and make sure that is what they want to do.  And that is then a good background to go on and get a masters in architecture.  If they’re more technically driven, I might encourage them to go to a school that offers both architecture and engineering so that they can at at least start in a particular program to see if it’s right for them.  And then they have an avenue to switch gears if they need to.

Editor: How important is the name or brand of the college a student attends when they eventually go looking for a job?

Kerwin: Some firms pay a lot of attention to the school.  To me, what I pay attention to is the person’s portfolio, and the quality of their work.  That’s the most important component — is what they produced in school.   The quality of their thought process.

Now with the computer, there’s this ability to create pretty amazing graphics.  The graphic component of what we do, and the ability  to communicate your thoughts and ideas is extremely important. But it’s often quite easy to tell the difference between amazing graphics with no thought behind it, and seeing [solid] ideas explained [with graphics].  So the portfolio is the most important component.

People go through all different schools and avenues to get a degree, and I don’t think any one is better than the other.  Obviously, you want to go to a good school.  But I wouldn’t focus on the name so much.  Visit the school; meet the professors; see the facilities.  People have different means in terms of what they can afford.  There’s lots of different paths.  When you get there, it’s what you produce and what you do is what most people will look at when you get out of school.






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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