Yesterday I went on the Emerging Chicago Architecture bus tour, organized by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. We began at the CAF, with a brief presentation/introduction on the new Spertus Institute building by Mark Sexton (in the image below, with a white shirt and dark jacket) of Kreuck + Sexton.

Mark Sexton of Kreuck + Sexton

618 S. Michigan Avenue
Spertus explains their story.

21st Century Interpretation fo the Bay

Many factors of the design are definitely contributing to the community at large. First, the new facility is built on a previously vacant lot, so the land marked Michigan Avenue wall will become more contiguous. Second, the facade (under construction, shown above) is Kreuck + Sexton’s 21st century interpretation of the bay, present in many of the buildings along Michigan Avenue, and employs glass similar in size to the typical sizes of glass as it’s neighbors.

Spertus’ program encourages interaction and welcomes visitors. Unlike many of the historic neighbors along Michigan, the top two floors (9th and 10th stories) of Spertus are the public galleries and sky garden, which offer uniquely public high views of Lake Michigan, Grant Park and Millennium Park.

The architect is also pursuing a Silver LEED rating. Green Bean tells us more about the materials and systems employed.

After a brief tour of the South Side, we made our way down to the Gary Comer Youth Center, designed by John Ronan (pictured below, in the protected entry of the center)and completed and opened earlier this year. Blair Kamin gives an overview here.

John Ronan

Gary Comer, the founder of Lands’ End who grew up in the Grand Crossing neighborhood where the youth center is located, donated approximately thirty million dollars to design and build a home for the South Shore Drill Team.

Ronan spoke to the needs of the drill team and the community and how the design elevated basic needs to an architecture that is a beacon of hope for the community.

Interior Active Space

One of the important design factors of the building is safety for the children participating in the activities offered at the youth center. A largely opaque exterior is dotted with bulletproof glass, but the experience inside is anything but bunker like. Rather, Ronan designed a courtyard type building, so natural light from within permeates the active spaces. Also, he related the multiple layers of program to one another by using glass partitions, as seen in the image above. I took this from the second floor rec room which looks onto the first floor cafeteria and then on down to the gymnasium and ultimately out to the combination parking lot-practice field. This also allows for more safety, as there are always views to other spaces.

Roof garden green space

One other significant architectural highlight of the project is the roof garden, shown above. The children and elderly of the community maintain the beautiful and functional garden. The vegetables and herbs are harvested and used in cooking classes at the center. It’s also a safe place to commune with nature, the only public place in the neighborhood to experience an unobstructed view of the sky.

The last stop was the home and office of UrbanLab, the architecture firm headed by Martin Felsen (in the orange shirt, below) and Sarah Dunn, located in the Bridgeport neighborhood.

Mark Felsen

The location of their property was important because they both wanted to continue to walk to their university teaching positions (Felsen at IIT and Dunn at UIC). They found a lot near 32nd and Morgan and proceeded with their dream.


The first floor exterior is clad in COR-TEN steel plate, and the second floor living is a trussed structure clad in aluminum. The cor-ten is easily cleared of graffiti with mild sand blasting, and the desired oxidized finish is quickly restored with a mild acid wash, similar to lemon juice.



In the model above, and the picture of the backyard below, we can see the ground rising to the second floor, and it will eventually be covered in prairie grasses. The dirt is all from the site. The roof of the office volume is a green roof.


The living volume is similar to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House: a “wet” core where the kitchen and bath back up to each other, a sleeping area to one end, and the living and dining space at the other. I’ve always love Farnsworth and was really pleased with this urban expression of the same idea.

Martin and Sarah have approximately two years to pursue a basic LEED certification. Although they are living and working here, there is still a lot that needs to be completed. Martin served as the General Contractor.

Having had John Ronan and Martin Felsen as professors over the course of my education at IIT, it is really fantastic to see the work they produce. John’s affinity for architectural simplicity and spatial complexity are as compelling in experience as they are on paper. Martin and Sarah are on the cutting edge of architecture, but they are clearly rooted in its history. These architects are critical to the development of modern American architecture. I was motivated by their personalities and ways of working as a student, and continue to be inspired by the work they complete and the positive effect they have on their clients and the built environment.