Visiting Architecture Firms in Chicago

Specialty subcontractors, like those who curve steel for construction, are often welcomed by architectural and engineering firms to give “lunch ‘n’ learn” presentations on their services.  And this is certainly the case in Chicago, home to many prestigious firms in these professions.  Most such presentations are given in the firms’ offices, many of which are quite impressive.

First of all, many of the Chicago firms locate their offices in buildings that have special significance in the history of modern architecture.  To cite just a few examples:  Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) as well as VOA Associates are located in the Railway Exchange Building (also called the Santa Fe Building);

The Santa Fe Building, Home to SOM & VOA as Well as the Chicago Architectural Foundation, Hosts of Open House, Chicago

Holibird & Root as well as Wright Heerema Architects are in the Marquette Building; Thornton Tomasetti as well as Perkins + Will are in the IBM Plaza; Nelson as well as Nagle Hartray Architecture are located in the Inland Steel Building; and Jahn is located in the Jewelers Building.

What all these firms have in common is that they opened their (often fancy) doors to the public during Open House, Chicago last Saturday and Sunday.  Organized by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, this two-day, free event allowed the general public to see 150 places in the built environment that are both interesting and normally not open to the public.  The sites included a wide and diverse group of buildings and businesses from the Colombia Model Company, which makes high end models of buildings, to the Michigan Avenue bridge tower where an operator opens and closes an extraordinary double-deck bascule bridge over the Chicago River.  Thirteen architecture or engineering firms participated in Open House, Chicago, this year.

There were certain elements common to the offices of the architects and engineers.  Many had models of the buildings they had designed.  Some built the models in house; some outsourced the models to firms like Columbia Model Company.  Most desks had stations with two monitors per individual.  And almost all firms had sleek, exquisite office design to convey the high quality of their work and to create an inviting atmosphere for employee and customer collaboration.  (Some offices downtown did not allow photography probably because their interior designs are proprietary.)

Many firms had their walls covered with their project pictures often stretching from floor to ceiling like wall paper.  Many, many designs-both built and proposed- incorporated curved steel.  And much of the work was for projects outside the United States.  A principal at one firm estimated that fully two-thirds of their work was outside the U.S.

Offices at Thornton Tomasetti at IBM Building
IBM Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Offices at Nelson in the Inlad Steel Building
Inland Steel Building Designed by SOM

Although not on the Open House list this year, a stark exception to the rule of beautiful offices located in architecturally significant buildings is the firm of Studio Gang.  The firm’s offices are away from downtown in lofts above a shoe store.  Nevertheless, business for Jeanne Gang seems brisk based on the projects her firm has been awarded and the honors they have received.

Thanks to Open House Chicago, individuals who appreciate architecture (and there are a lot in Chicago) but who are not part of the “trade,” have an opportunity to discover not only the beauty of these landmark buildings but also the beautiful offices of the architects and engineers who design them and build on the great Chicago architecture and engineering traditions.


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