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An Interview with Spertus Institute Architect Mark Sexton

An Interview with Spertus Institute Architect Mark Sexton

An interview with architect Mark Sexton, conducted for the tenth anniversary of Spertus Institute's award-winning building

Architect Mark P. Sexton, FAIA LEED AP, is a Founding Principal of Krueck + Sexton Architects, the firm that designed the award-winning Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, prominently located on Chicago’s South Michigan Avenue. The firm’s work has received considerable recognition, including receiving the AIA National Honor Award twice and the AIA Chicago Design Award a remarkable 26 times.

The Spertus Institute building, 610 S. Michigan Avenue, opened to the public in the final days of 2007. Spertus celebrated its new home throughout 2008 with a yearlong series of special programs.

Marking the tenth anniversary, Sexton sat down with Spertus Director of Communications Betsy Gomberg to look both back and forward. This is edited from their wide-ranging conversation.

BG: For Spertus Institute, having this state-of-art facility was game-changing in terms of how we are able to serve our students and patrons. How was creating this building meaningful for Krueck + Sexton?

MS: This was our first cultural/educational project and one of our first projects in a high-profile location. We were appropriately excited by the extraordinary opportunity and at the same time mature enough to be a bit terrified, particularly by the importance of the site. We had thought a lot about what it means for a project to be on the same street as buildings by icons of 19th and early 20th century design [Daniel Burnham; Louis Sullivan; Holabird & Roche; Henry Ives Cobb; and Graham, Anderson, Probst & While]. But even after understanding this on an intellectual basis and exploring it in-depth for the building’s design, I still remember standing on the site and having it really sink in: “This is South Michigan Avenue. There’s no building in front of it.”

Further complicating things, this was the first new construction in the then-newly designated Historic Michigan Boulevard Historic District. As you know, there was considerable discussion leading up to the landmarking, particularly about whether the decision would force new construction in the few remaining sites to be retrograde. The City of Chicago assured that it would permit, in fact encourage, new construction to continue the tradition of architectural innovation that the now-historic buildings on South Michigan Avenue represented when built. But this was the first test and a lot of eyes were watching.

One of the things we’re most proud of about this project is the relationship with the client. Architects can only be 50%. I have tremendous respect for the Spertus Trustees and staff members who worked with us. They were forward-looking and had a sophisticated level of trust, believing in bold ideas. There were meaningful conversations about ideas. They understood that for something to be extraordinary, there needs to be an element of strategic risk. There was faith in the process, even when we didn’t have all the answers. Ultimately, it was empowering to have 100% thumbs up from the committee on the concepts for the design.

It is rare for an architect and client to have a continuing relationship the way we do with Spertus, to still be close a decade later. We talk about it when we seek and start new projects with new clients. We say, “How can this be like Spertus?” We aren’t just talking about repeating design successes. We’re talking about mission-driven projects where clients are willing to try something new. But most of all, we’re talking about a close, dialogue-driven relationship.

BG: As part of the building process, you became students of how Jewish ideas have been expressed in art and architecture through history. Sessions were arranged for your team to learn from the late Rabbi Dr. Byron Sherwin. What has stayed with you? Did this process impact how you learn about the missions or goals of other clients?

MS: I’ll never forget Dr. Sherwin starting that presentation by saying that in Judaism, buildings don’t matter!

Ultimately, we learned that buildings do matter, in that they can enable learning, which is sacred. The Spertus building is further important in that it's a gathering place for a community. We were touched by the idea that it can beckon people to come and learn, something that strongly influenced our work on this project.

This was certainly a great reminder that architecture is important because of what it can do, what it can provide. Therefore, you need to understand the culture. This isn’t just true at an organization like Spertus. It’s also something we’ve worked on with Herman Miller, Shure Corporation, and other clients.

BG: There were a number of challenges intrinsic to this project, including ambitious client goals, a tight budget, and a narrow lot wedged between other buildings on three sides. What did you learn from this experience that would be useful for other clients, particularly nonprofit organizations?

MS: Challenges can lead to innovation. For example, when working on the Spertus site, we realized that light from the east [only exposed side of the building] wouldn’t be enough. So light needed to come from the top. We brought light down from the 10th floor through the dramatic skylight in the library reading room two floors below. We used similar concepts recently on a project where the client wanted no one’s desk to be further than 30 feet from natural light.

In terms of client goals, something like Spertus, that requires a range of different kinds of spaces — classrooms, theater space, event space, gallery space — is more complex than a building where floors with similar layouts are stacked one on top of each other [office building or hotel]. We design from the inside out, with the outside a projection of the movement and purpose inside. At Spertus, this led to experiments with transparency and folds, with the idea that glass panels don’t need to be rectangles; their properties work the same if they are triangles. The folds on the front of the building make it more interesting, inviting people to come inside. It’s like origami; something that’s folded is more interesting to look at. The façade is organic in that it changes every day based on the light, creating a relationship to nature and the city.

At Spertus and in future projects, we’ve seen how soft moves on the outside create unique pockets of space inside, spaces that are visually satisfying and pleasing to be in. We’ve become known as experts on the skins of buildings, able to deliver efficiency with interest.

South Michigan Avenue, Chicago The façade also echoes the modulations in the street wall. We call it a wall, so we think of it as flat, but when you look at Michigan Avenue from Grant Park, it’s not flat at all. For example, the bays in Burnham’s Transportation Building [224 S. Michigan] and the ways the portions of the Auditorium building [430 S. Michigan] extend several feet over the street.

Yes, you had a tight budget at Spertus! We remember hearing it the first time and thinking that, like on many projects, it would drift up as we progressed. But it never budged, and we finished very close to the original amount.

Luckily there’s an affinity between sustainability and budget. Purpose-driven designs can be achieved with efficient use of materials, treating everyday materials as precious, even when they are not expensive or sourced from far away. This also fits into the school of thought that forms the foundation at Krueck + Sexton: How can you design a building using less material?

BG: The Spertus building earned LEEDs Silver status, representing its environmental sustainability. This was relatively new in Chicago at the time, but it isn't anymore, a fact that beautifully represents the city's commitment to the environment and also the values of architects and clients. Can you talk a bit about the important work you’ve been doing at K+S to build commitment in terms of sustainability?

MS: K+S principal Tom Jacobs spearheaded an initiative called Architects Advocate. To date, more than 900 firms and 2,500 individuals have joined the effort, which calls for them to incorporate environmental goals into their projects and the ways their businesses are run, as well as to speak up on the issue and support climate solution legislation.

BG: A decade later, what makes you proud about the Spertus building?

MS: I’m proud of the Chicago Landmark Award marking best construction in a historic district. It recognizes that we were able to hit the balance between individuality and fitting in, reflecting that the best buildings draw on ideas from before.

But my favorite recognition is from when the building was under construction. I was on the street and overhead two 11-year-old girls say, “Wow. Cool building!” That’s when I knew we had something that would work for the future generation.

BG: What are you working on now?

MS: We recently finished a substantial renovation of the United Terminal at LAX, where, among other things, we straightened out a circulation nightmare and brought in natural light.

On a smaller level, it was a pleasure to work with Spertus again, building on the flexibility of the space to accommodate growth in key programming areas. We transformed space initially used for other purposes into a 100-seat "smart room" for seminars and conferences, connected to a suite of new classrooms.

Farther afield, we’ve worked on a masterplan for a neighborhood residential plan in Reston, VA, and have been working with the State Department on concepts for US Embassy projects in Paris, Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, and Nairobi, Kenya.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Find out more

For a gallery of photos and more information about the architecture of the Spertus Institute building, see spertus.edu/architecture.

For more about Krueck + Sexton Architects, visit ksarch.com.

Learn about Architects Advocate at architects-advocate.com.