Joseph M. Antunovich, FAIA, the founder and president of Antunovich Associates, has had a long career designing ground-up buildings, master planning communities and preserving historic structures. But he’s more focused on the work at hand and what’s coming down the road than past projects.
“Architects work for a long time,” Antunovich said. “An architect can be 70 years old and he’s in the prime of his youth. Our business is very deep and it takes a lot of experience.”
We sat down recently with Antunovich to talk about building the new, preserving the old and how the architectural craft had changed over the course of his career.
Historic preservation has been a touchstone in your career. Why do you believe it is so important to save threatened structures—and when do you know that a building isn’t worth saving? How would you rate Chicago’s current preservation atmosphere?
Our old buildings reflect the culture, spirit and sense of who we are as a civilization. We are stewards of these buildings and we had better take care of them because if you lose them, you in many ways lose those objects that reflect our past and what we felt were important years before. And these buildings, in many cases, were built so beautifully and so properly they are almost impossible to duplicate today. So as stewards of these great buildings, we need to actually make them live for generations to come. I often say that I’m architect number two on so many great buildings around America and I’m really proud of that. It can be more difficult; repairing these old buildings so they are sustainable for another 100 years is much more difficult than what the first architect had to do.
Look at buildings like the Reliance Building, the Nickerson Mansion [now the Richard H. Driehaus Museum], the Murphy Auditorium and the old Goldblatt’s building. Or look at what’s happening around the city now with the Wrigley Building, the Old Post Office and Cook County Hospital. It’s just wonderful what’s happening. How can you not praise historic preservation and say that this is indeed worth it? Now, you might say, what should be saved and what should not? I’m starting to think that some of our neighborhoods, the way that they are made up as collections of buildings are almost more important than the individual buildings. I love the way the city has grown and has started adopting neighborhoods.
How does master planning a site—a process that you and your firm have been involved in numerous times over the years—differ from that of designing a single building or space? Obviously the scope is larger, but are there other unique challenges?
I think that master planning allows us to design neighborhoods, and reinforce neighborhoods all over America, which is an incredible honor. We have done this in Virginia, on the South Side of Chicago, up in Lincoln Park with DePaul. Right now we’re planning the old Motorola headquarters in Schaumburg. This gives us an opportunity to create a whole new way of living. New Urbanism has helped us a great deal with scale, materials, sustainability, interaction and creating people spaces and buildings that speak the language of the community. All of this goes into our master planning process and if you do the master plan right, then you create buildings that are very much the in character with the initial neighborhood.
As we do these neighborhood plans, we are surrounded by people who have opinions. These neighborhood plans can take years to get put in place and through all of that you hear a lot of opinions from a lot of neighbors. You have to be a good listener. You have to be committed to doing the right thing. Did I say you have to be a good listener? In the end, when you and the community can come together on a master plan and say, collectively, “Yes, that’s the right thing to do,” it’s every bit as rewarding as building a wonderful standalone building. Even more so because you’re creating a new neighborhood.
What projects are you the most proud of?
There are two. The first was The Market Common at Clarendon, a 13-acre site that sat vacant in the center of Arlington, Virginia. We, with Dan McCaffery of McCaffery Interests, went back to the future and designed a whole different way of living above the store, creating 300 apartments above a couple of hundred thousand square feet of retail. We put townhomes around the outside, added a wonderful park in the center and created a real sense of space. There were people saying they hadn’t seen this before when really they had. If they just looked at the little villages that people grew up in in the 1920s, you lived above the store. This was built right next to the Metro, so you could live here and catch the train to work. You could come back and play in the park with your children and spend your whole weekend here without every getting into your car. This was a different way of living in an urban environment. Now it’s very popular, but at the time it was unique.
The second project also integrated much of what I’m interested in, which is architecture, planning and landscape design all into this one project, where it can all feed off one another for the benefit of the plan. A building that I’m most proud of is the Holtschneider Performance Center at DePaul University, a building that was over ten years in design and construction. DePaul’s music school is one of the great conservatories in America, and a lot of people in Chicago don’t know that. The call was to design something very special, to create a new front door to the campus, to create an environment where they have eight performance rooms, one of which was a special one for 500. They had a lot of trust in us since we had never done a building like this before. We traveled America with the client and our consultants—I mentioned you have to be a good listener. People can actually walk from Halsted through the building to the campus. In the center of the building is this 500-seat auditorium where we were told it had to be perfect acoustically and on the opening night Itzhak Perlman said that he heard some music from his violin that he hadn’t heard in many years. I think that was his way of complimenting us on the job we had done. DePaul has been so good to our firm for 40 years and I’d like to say that we’ve returned the favor. To do such a wonderful building for them, at the eastern gateway to their campus is indeed one of the proudest moments of my creative work.
You’ve been a working architect in Chicago for 45 years. How has the profession in this city changed over that time. Does Chicago still live up to its architectural reputation?
I do believe Chicago’s design reputation has held up over the test of time. I think it’s gotten better, believe it or not. We’ve learned from other people, other places and we have a much greater appreciation for how buildings fit into their environments. Years ago, when I first came to Chicago, we designed buildings, almost statements of their own; the proportion, the sense of them was all their own. Now we have much greater appreciation for people spaces, how the building comes to the ground, activating streets and sidewalks, how buildings can enhance the public domain. These are all things that now every architect in Chicago thinks about. The idea of parks and landscapes and sustainability around the buildings is something that has developed immeasurably, especially over the last 10 years. Look at what we’re doing in the West Loop, now the second most expensive real estate in the country, all because of implementing those things I just talked about. I think New Urbanism has had a huge effect here.
Instead of these sculptural objects, we’re building buildings that fit much better into the historic context of the urban America. We’re using and mixing older buildings with the new buildings and creating special spaces and even designing buildings that fit into the urban fabric of these historic communities. We are creating environments that are much more usable and enjoyable.
Should we have an addendum to “form follows function,” to “look at the neighborhood around you,” even if it’s a little less pithy?
It makes so much common sense that you would try to do something that fits into the community. We designed a building right in the heart of Logan Square. And we went to a public meeting where 300 people showed up and we came up there with a collection of modern buildings and some people came over to me afterwards and said, “Joe, we’ve been to your website. You can do a lot better than what you’ve done for us.” [Laughs] So we went back and designed some buildings that looked like they had always been in the community, built for the community, were of the community. I’m a biscuit approaching 300 pounds, but they picked me up and carried me out the door at the next meeting. So, I learned a great lesson there.
As you said earlier, architects only get better as they age, so at this stage in your career, what makes you excited to come in and hit the drafting table? Do architects even still use drafting tables?
[Laughs] Yes, we still have drafting tables. I’m more invigorated now than I’ve ever been. Recently someone called our firm “prolific.” I’m proud of that. I would like to think though that we turn out good buildings that respond to the collaborative needs of our clients. Architecture is a little bit different these days. Clients are far more involved in the projects than they were when I first started. So in a way, these buildings are designed together. They are a collaboration. But they are also a collaboration in house. I’m a bit older, but we have a number of people who have been with me for many years, a team of talented architects who are experienced with working together. We are just hitting our prime, we believe. We are creating good buildings all over America. I’m so proud of the colleagues that I have. They invigorate me every morning I come to work, when they come to me with questions.
What’s the role of the architect in 21st Century America?
More than a hundred years ago, when we built the World’s Fair here, architects and the city leaders joined hands and did great things. I think architects need to do more, they need to step out more, they need to be more vocal. They spend their whole lives planning and creating people spaces. We need to be more vocal in our opinions, in creating and affecting public opinions in the public domain. We need to be leaders because we have the ability to make a few sketches that can convey an image, that perhaps turns the tide of the way a community or a neighborhood might be thinking.
The ability to affect public opinion is something that we’ve gotten away from as architects. Architects used to not shirk from that responsibility years ago. They stood up and their opinions were respected. We’ve gotten away from that a little bit and I think we should bring that back because there are a lot of excellent architects here in Chicago and they should be listened to more.