Talking SCB: Bullish on South Loop, Bearish on Balconies and Wagering on Chicago’s Next Supertall Skyscraper

John Lahey, Chairman and Design Principal at Solomon Cordwell Buenz

John Lahey, Chairman and Design Principal at Solomon Cordwell Buenz

Every year we drop by the Magnificent Mile offices of Solomon Cordwell Buenz, one of Chicago’s most visible and prolific architecture firms, to catch up on what it’s been up to over the last year.

Chairman and Design Principal John Lahey once again sat down with us to look both back, and forward, at the firm and the architecture industry.

Editor: Things really seem to be cooking in Chicago. Some of the local architecture firms we’ve spoken with are calling 2015 their turnaround year. Is that true for SCB?

John Lahey: Our turnaround year was 2010, and we’ve been busy ever since. We’ve been consistently busy on a variety of things since then. We were fortunate that when things came back, institutional and university sectors lead the way, and we do a lot of them.

You know why I think it’s been good? Because it’s harder to hire good people. The labor pool is stretched.

Editor: Isn’t there a backlog of talented people from so many firms not hiring for so long?

625 North Michigan - 001a

SCB headquarters is at 625 North Michigan Avenue, a building only an architect could love

Lahey: There is, but a lot of people got out the business. A lot of people just go out and never came back. We had the same thing in the 90’s, and there was a dead zone that followed for a number of years. There were no people with six to seven years experience, and then there were no people with seven to eight years experience, etc… There was just a void. People go into different fields, and when I look at my [graduating] architecture class, 45 years later there’s probably a quarter of them who are still in architecture.

We do most of our work in the United States, therefore some of the stress on the international markets doesn’t really affect us. It’ll affect us when the people who have been working in China want to come back and work in the United States again.

Editor: You didn’t take that big leap to the Far East, and now you don’t have to deal with the consequences.

Lahey: We didn’t. And we would have been late coming to the game anyway. But it’s a big country, and right now we really do work across the United States a lot. About a third of our work is in the Chicago area. 15 years ago that would have been around 90%. And we still do a lot around here, we’ve just increased the amount of work we do in other places.

Editor: Your latest building in the Transbay development in San Francisco just got approved.

Lahey: We’ve got a number of buildings in Transbay and Rincon Hill and up and down Market Street. Now in L.A. we’ve got some — Eighth and Olive. A lot of university stuff out there with Riverside, Meced, Berkeley, and other campuses. We’re working on a new law school for Santa Clara University.

Editor: So opening that San Francisco office was a pretty good idea.

Lahey: It was terrible and great. We opened it and got it running, and then the bottom fell out [of the economy]. But we hung in there and when it came back, we came back strong. I feel now that we’ve got deep enough roots that we’re good there.

It’s pretty neat the dialog between the people who work in Chicago and in San Francisco. It’s really enriched the firm in terms of the input you get. It’s different than what you see in your own little orbit.

Editor: And your Austin, Texas project building a skyscraper on the site of an old wastewater treatment plant has just topped out.

Lahey: I was just down to see it, and it’s very nice. Austin, as booming as it is, is still pretty small. You can say it’s a “boom town,” but when you compare Chicago and Austin, it could grow 100% for a number of years and still be behind. But it’s a fun down with a lot of vitality. And Nashville is a city where we’re doing more and more. We’ve got a lot of stuff that we’re looking at and working out. It’s funny how Austin’s got U.T. and music, and Nashville has Vanderbilt and music. These two cities that seem to be gelling, and have a combination of entertainment and tech.

Editor: Is it time to open an office in the South?

Lahey: No, no. I think right now we have the two offices. We do think about an office on the east coast, but not in the very immediate future. [Being in Chicago,] we can get almost anywhere in just a couple of hours. When you do work in Texas, you’re in the same time zone. And if you do work in DeKalb, you’ve got an hour and a half drive. So, it’s not that much different. And so much is done electronically now. I think the hard part is when you’re working on a design, and there’s a certain communication that happens person-to-person when you’re with a client, that you only get face-to-face. But we do a lot of the meetings electronically.

Lahey: In Chicago, they say there isn’t job growth, there isn’t population growth, but people must sure be moving around because the central districts feel pretty vibrant to me.

We’re working in Milwaukee now, Nashville, Cleveland, Baltimore, Boston, Palm Beach area, Philadelphia, Houston, Austin, Denver… It’s just a lot of places. Arizona, the Phoenix area. L.A., San Francisco, Sacramento…

We talked to someone from Cincinnati the other day who has a site [for a residential building]. You wouldn’t think of downtown Cincinnati as a place where people would be, but they want a higher-density residential building.

Someone asked me the other day what project am I excited about. There’s maybe a project here and there, but it’s really being part of that redevelopment of urbanism. Being a really big part of cities becoming vibrant again. This started in the 90’s, but now it’s really cooking, and it’s really neat to be a part of that. I remember being younger and cities were just dying. You were wondering what is going to be left there. And now it’s the exact opposite. And if someone asks what’s exciting to me, it’s exciting that when you see the city, you see people walking around at night and having this urbane lifestyle.

Editor: You’re the grand pooh-bah in the chairman’s chair now, how much hands-on time do you really get with the designs?

Lahey: We have many partners in the firm who design buildings. I do [a lot of high-rise mixed-use work], and I do some other things, too. I still work on buildings, but I work on just a portion of them. I do not work on every building; not even close [-laughs-].

But I work with some of the clients that we’ve worked with for a long time because that’s just darned fun. But it’s mostly high-density, urban, mixed-use projects.

Editor: Do you ever see a project and think, “Wow, that looks like a lot of fun,” and then inject yourself into the project.

Lahey: Yeah, I do. But so does everybody else! [-laughs-] The firm’s got three names on it, none of whom work here, and that’s intentional. It’s meant to be more of an exchange. There are firms that are one person and everyone else is serving them. Ours is more of a collaborative environment. People get their own room. They get the latitude to do what they want. We started that 30 years ago. That’s the reason we do pretty well and are successful — because the leadership isn’t from one person or one place.

It’s fun, too. It keeps everyone from getting too much of themselves because there are other people doing what you do, too.

Devon Patterson, here in Chicago, he also works on high-rise mixed-use stuff. Today in architecture you do end up with some specialties. It’s hard to be a total generalist these days. Buildings are very complex, and require a lot of knowledge even in the simplest building types.

Editor: SCB has thoroughly conquered Streeterville, and now you’ve got your sights set on the South Loop.  So much so that there’s a new city model in your lobby just for the South Loop.  

Lahey: [-laughs-]

Editor: Your first beachhead is 1326 South Michigan.  Was that one of the “fun” buildings, or was it hard to get all those angles right?

Rendering of 1326 South Michigan (Courtesy of SCB)

Rendering of 1326 South Michigan (Courtesy of SCB)

Lahey: This was relatively simple to do, technically, but it gave such a lot of character to it.  It seemed like a fresh way of doing it.  And you know, buildings when they’re simpler we look at them alone and think, “There’s not much going on there at all; it’s simple.”  But you put the building out in the city and there’s all these other things around it.

Why does Chicago’s skyline look so great when you’re coming south on Lake Shore Drive?  Because the buildings are all simple, and they’re all recognizable.  They’re not all fussy and broken up.  If you go to Vancouver, each building is broken into four parts, and then they’re all right next to each other.  So when you look at Vancouver, you can’t tell where one building starts and the next building ends.

Editor: And they’re all covered in a million balconies.

Lahey: A million balconies, and interlocking forms, and they’re so unclear.  I still think when you come up on  Chicago, and you see CNA Center, and you see some of those simple, recognizable buildings — Sears Tower, Aon — they’re so nice and clear, it makes a great city.  So, we like them to be simple.

500 Lake Shore Drive

500 Lake Shore Drive

But we have another one that’s just opened at State and Chestnut that’s a fun building.  It grew out of solving some programmatic and technical issues, but the result was something that was fun.  500 Lake Shore is very sophisticated and New York.  This one is a little more fun.  It’s gotten a great reception.

Editor: Was designing a New York-calibre building for Streeterville a different challenge?

Streeterville is almost built out now, so when you get a site in Streeterville, you’re at the point where you do what’s right for that one site.

Certainly when you get up into the Gold Coast, that is different, because you’ve got much more of a historic context to work with, like the one we’re doing at State and Elm.  It has this base that’s much more integrated with the neighborhood on the first four or five stories. We were very conscious of that.  And then as it goes up above, it is a very elegant tower.

Editor: Is it hard to make that decision to go with so much glass in a neighborhood that is so much brick?

Lahey: No, because we really worked hard on the base, which is stone, and worked it in with the neighborhood.  [The previous building] was the traditional masonry building, stone walls and small windows. It wasn’t contemporary; it was done at a different time when you lived where you lived.  Now, where you live is an extension of how you live.  When you’re in one of these taller buildings, the view is such a great thing.

Editor: Speaking of Streeterville, you had a very dramatic proposal for 465 North Park Drive that didn’t get built.  The design from Pappageorge Haymes was approved by the city a few hours ago, and like your proposal it deviates from the traditional Streeterville rectangle and goes all curvy.  How does that happen?

Lahey: I forget exactly what it was, but there was some [directive from the developer] that they said they didn’t want to be another box.  There was some line in their brief that affected us both.  And it is good.  We ended up with a building under construction for Golub on McClurg that’s sawtooth bay windows.  We were conscious of doing some things to get away from [the usual designs].  There’s a lot of blocky buildings in Streeterville.

Rendering of 1001 South State Street (Courtesy Golub & Company

Rendering of 1001 South State Street (Courtesy Golub & Company

We’ve actually been doing more curved buildings lately.  We’ve got one at 1001 South State Street that’s under construction now.  But again, blocky buildings are on one side, but it’s diagonal and glass.  The other side is a curve that looks out toward the Museum Campus.  It’s turning out nicely.

Editor: Is it harder, or more expensive to do curves?

Lahey: A box is probably the simplest thing to do.  So, in absolute terms, yes, it is harder.  But, how much harder?  Not much harder.  Generally, you can do it when it’s a concrete structure.  You make the form and if you’re going straight up, the fact that it’s a curve is not that big a deal.  The windows aren’t curved, they’re segmented, so there’s a curve, so it’s not that hard.  With the planning, you have to do the plans first, and then do the curves.

In an office building, you have more liberty because each floor is going to be different.  But in a residential building, you have to work with that floor plan, because once that’s built, it’s hard to change that because they’re all interlocked.

Editor: The Streeterville neighborhood group SOAR recently testified in front of the Plan Commission that it wants more, larger, three bedroom plus homes in the neighborhood.  Are you seeing a rising demand for larger urban homes?  

Lahey: Right now rental is still strong.  But we are designing more condos, and the condos are either really small condos that are entry-level, or they are very large condos.  For example, State and Elm.  Those are 3,000 square-foot plus, each.  And so they’re expensive and they’re luxurious and they’re for families.  A lot of people want to stay in the city and have some money.

We’re also designing in Honolulu a bunch of condos.  Some San Francisco, where where the smallest unit is 3,200 square feet.  They’re very, very expensive.  New York certainly has its share, but some of the other cities are coming around.  And in Chicago you’re seeing more condos.

What happened was in the crash everyone said home values went down, so I’m going to rent.  Well, that was OK because rents were about $2.20 a square foot.  Now rents are about $3.50 a square foot.  Well, you’re going to rent until that rent gets so darned high that I’m sick of seeing [money] just go out the window.  Then people say, “Well, even if I don’t make money on a condo, I’m not losing money.”  So I think that the death of the condo was premature.  It’s not quite dead.  And coming back, we think.

Editor: Chicago has several skyscraper proposals pushing 900 or 1,000 feet.  Do you ever end up wishing for just a few more feet and asking a developer for just a little more money to reach a certain height?

Lahey: Numbers are not important.  A tall, slender building is usually a very good looking building.  It’s neat to do tall, slender buildings, and the opportunity doesn’t come around all the time.  But they’re hard to get built.  They’re fun to draw, and they’re really good looking, and in some ways they’re easier to design because you’d really have to blow it to make them not good good.  Technically, they’re not simple, but if you know what you’re doing, you can do one.  But they’re hard to get built because they’re expensive.  And how much of a premium do you pay to live on the 34th floor of that building versus another building?  But it costs more to build the tall one.

Editor: The three biggest towers on the drawing boards these days are Jeanne Gang’s Wanda Vista Tower (1,144 feet), the Raphael Viñoly towers at 113 East Roosevelt Road (829 feet), and Helmut Jahn’s 1000 South Michigan Avenue (1,030 feet).  Those are some pretty big names for some big buildings.

Lahey: One of those three will get built.  I don’t know if two will. I would be shocked if all three get built.

Editor: Because of the economics?

Lahey: Yes.  If I had to handicap it, I’d say that Wanda has a team that’s more experienced, and has a better track record of getting things done; which would be the Magellan group.  The others just haven’t pulled it off as many times.  But Crescent Heights is a big company, and very successful.  They’re good businessmen.

It’s very neat, and it’s very exciting.

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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