If you don’t live in Chicago, you may not know many Larry Kearns-designed buildings, but I guarantee you’re familiar with at least one thing in his portfolio: the term ‘Greenbuild.’ That’s right, if you’ve attended or even heard of the Greenbuild conference—which this year comes to New Orleans—you have Kearns to thank. In fact, many of us can be grateful for Kearns’s work. As an architect, his efforts to design high-performance, socially redeemable projects in hard-hit urban neighborhoods will leave our built environment far more livable than before he began his career.
Kearns graduated from the University of Miami in 1985 with a Bachelor of Architecture and joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill immediately after. Within five years, Kearns was a principal alongside Dan Wheeler at Wheeler Kearns Architects. When he’s not designing award-winning buildings such as the Exelon Gymnasium, he’s usually reading, or jotting notes on how to reinvent our education system (make no little plans, and all that).
Larry and I met at Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, another award-winning project of his, and over a lunch of catfish po’boys and fried-green tomatoes, we talked about a need to understand ecosystems, the problem with buildings as money-making machines, and the stifling remnants of America’s agricultural past.
(Throughout are Larry’s Editor’s Picks. Hover over the images for text. For more, read Larry’s responses to the gb&d questionnaire.)
PART 1: not landing the ufo
gb&d: I want to chat about this place (Inspiration Kitchens) a little bit. It’s been open a few years—though it wasn’t here when my wife and I lived down the street—and I’m astounded that it keeps winning awards. What’s so resonant about this project?
Larry Kearns: It’s probably the most ambitious project we’ve had and probably the most audacious, in terms of taking on multiple problems. What struck me when I first learned of this project was that I had been to the Museum of Science and Industry’s [display on] the issue of food deserts in Chicago. And I remember the largest circle being centered in this neighborhood. So when I first heard about it I said, “Okay this is somebody who didn’t just happen to find this location, but [who is making] a very premeditated, motivated move to make change.” When they added the idea of being ambitious from an environmental point of view too, that sold us on it.
gb&d: You just jumped out of your chair—
Kearns: It’s one of those projects where you say, “We will make them succeed. We will carry this over the goal line.” I think this project has had a longer lifespan because a lot of people still don’t know about it. People are still encountering it. It wasn’t meant to be a project that has a disruptive or conspicuous presence. This was more about an incognito addition to the neighborhood, where you’re weaving fabric together—not trying to land the UFO.
gb&d: Frank Gehry style.
Kearns: Right. A lot of people can look at this project and see success, whether you don’t care about architecture and just care about the environment or if you only care about social causes. There’s a lot of facets to this.
gb&d: Were there any environmental challenges in terms of the site itself? What was the building before, and what was its condition when you came in?
Kearns: Completely dilapidated. This building was built in the same year that the [Garfield Park] Conservatory was built. So 1908. It was built as an industrial factory. They made the sensoring components for metal-working lathes. And those north-facing skylights were there in 1908, not for the environment but as an inexpensive way to light an industrial floor.
gb&d: I really liked your Discussion Board question. I want to turn it back on you. Did you have an author in mind that’s been an influence on your design philosophy, or human philosophy?
Kearns: I would say John McPhee, who I would characterize as someone who goes in-depth and makes captivating nonfiction and makes connections that somebody who confines himself to a particular discipline probably wouldn’t want to do. Like his book Uncommon Carriers—that’s the best environmental thesis you could ever have, but it’s not written that way. It’s just stories about people.
PART 2: Fishing in the Everglades
gb&d: I have environmentalism in my blood because my dad was a soil conservationist for the federal government for his entire career in Kansas.
Kearns: Oh wow. That’s a thankless job. People don’t realize how critical—I mean, their whole livelihood depends on it and everybody’s like, “I’ll do the minimum.” Right? It’s always, “I’ll do the minimum. Whatever’s required by law.”
gb&d: Oh yeah. Every day was a battle. He’s retired now. But other people have a conversion experience—like Ray Anderson from Interface where he literally goes from one way of thinking to another sort of overnight. What was your path like?
Kearns: I grew up as a native Floridian south of Miami, and I spent the majority of my time outdoors, fishing in the saltwater part of the Everglades. I spent every waking moment trying to get to really remote places. These were parts of the Everglades only frequented by fishermen or drug runners. There’s a richness to these ecosystems that most people are ignorant of, and like anything else, it’s that Inuit quote: if you don’t understand it, you don’t care. Part of getting people to care is having a working knowledge of what these places are about and why we should care. How drastically wrong my parents’ generation got it. I admire the bravado going to the moon, but obviously the pendulum swings back after you realize what you’ve wrought.
gb&d: As someone who thinks about sustainability on a project-by-project level, I’m sure you also think about the health of our city. In Chicago specifically, I’m curious how you’d diagnose us. Are we sickly? Are we on the road to recovery from past environmental injuries?
Kearns: The single-biggest hurdle in Chicago, [which is] no secret, is the school system. Because it’s the thing that will either fix the city or render it forever on its way to becoming Detroit or worse. It’s a challenge that’s uniquely rooted in human habits. I came here from a zoning hearing, and at the last zoning hearing we had people vehemently arguing against how charters are profiteering from the city’s poor and how the highest-performing charter in the city is evil. People have really closely held preconceptions that are wrong a lot of the time. Like the small school thing, the small class-size thing, which are time and time again proven not to be real factors.
What I find unusual is that the people most genuinely affected or limited by the [quality of the] education are the ones who oppose the change. It’s pretty remarkable to see. So that’s what I’ve spent most of my non-architectural time thinking about. The Tribune just issued an RFP for urban ideas, and I’ve been sitting on this idea for remaking urban education for years now, so I’m actually writing this stuff down. Maybe it gets paid attention to, and maybe it doesn’t.
gb&d: An urban issue that plagues me, because it seems so formidable, is this cycle of economic disinvestment in a community. There’s poverty, then there’s gentrification, and you slowly start to see positive development. That gentrification is good for a time, but it leads to really cheap design and bad planning, and people jump on the bandwagon to try to make a quick buck. Then you’ve made this non-place, so people leave, and the cycle continues.
For example, Whole Foods is moving into Englewood, and the city’s abuzz about that. It’s probably not 100-percent good or 100-percent bad, but you can see it being this anchor that 15 years from now will potentially displace people.
Kearns: If you look at the city as a living organism, some parts are dying, some parts are rebuilding. To a certain extent, this is a natural occurrence. But the issue that bothers me most is that problems aren’t solved, they’re moved. That’s running in place. That’s not leading to any sort of advancement.
In terms of planning, I think a lot of things that prevent progress are misconceptions, or preconceptions I should say, about where that takes place and how it takes place. The whole walking to school and taking summers off to harvest the vegetables—there are so many remnants of how the city needed to be at one time that are hampering it. So I would put education on major transportation lines, I would let kids go as far away as they could, I would have schools that are dramatically different where no kids learn the same way. If I told you right now to learn something, what are you going to do? Are you going to go find 29 other people and hire a talking head? It’s ludicrous.
I think to the extent that cities can rebuild themselves to put human-capital building projects in places of prominence, that’s on the right track. Like this park here (gestures outside), I would call that vitally important, in terms of a quality-of-life issue. This is something Chicago got right a long time ago. A lot of good stuff was done here that we can still capitalize on, which was also our thought with this project. We’re grafting on to something that was developed post-Civil War, then rebuilt or reimagined in the early 1900s and has really sustained the city. This park has always been, well largely, maintained and heavily used.
gb&d: That’s a funny thing about parks—once they are there, it would take a lot for someone to want to get rid of it, like the old Prentice Hospital—once, no one would’ve thought about tearing it down. But it’s hard to imagine that anyone would ever propose bulldozing this park.
PART 3: A Gangland Assassination
gb&d: You’re a working architect, so I don’t want to not ask you about your recent work. The Exelon Gym. Pretty close to here, right?
Kearns: Yep. Just over the tracks.
gb&d: Which is what? West Humboldt Park?
Kearns: Right. You know, the neighborhood lines, which I think were drawn by the University of Chicago in the ’30s, are immutable. When we started [Inspiration Kitchens], we were also working on the Exelon Gym, so we had talked to the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance about [putting] in an urban garden, but the reality is that it was on the wrong side of the tracks. It is extremely close physically and worlds apart politically.
During the course of working on that building, it was hit four times by vehicles, once by a city bus that actually entered the façade. The superintendent was outside when somebody was gangland assassinated, shot in the head on the sidewalk. To build that gym, they came to a détente among the drug dealers in the area. They had agreements about where they were going to conduct business because we were disrupting one of their areas of commerce. It’s a neighborhood that is contested gang [territory]. Organized crime when it’s organized is actually not that disruptive, but when you get on the boundaries is when you get a lot of problems. It’s the wild, wild west.
[The school] really struggled for students, which is a lot of the reason why the gym was pivotal in helping them attract [new students] and not being thought of as a poor cousin among the Noble campuses. They’re not near good public transportation lines. But it’s really righted the ship for them; they’ve had a lot of good results recruiting since the gym.
gb&d: And here I was going to just ask about the skylights.
Kearns: (Laughs) But socially, it’s interesting too because you have some of the wealthiest corporate titans—one black, one Anglo—on that project. John Rowe and Frank Clark, both of Exelon ComEd fame, are the name donors. And they’re not like, “Here’s my cash, send me the pictures.” They and their wives are mentoring students there, and they’re not like, “What’s your name again?” They really know the kids. That project, though it’s known as a gymnasium, is really there to host both the athletic events and the culture-building events; they call them Town Halls, but they’re pep rallies for academics and leadership, where students are recognized not for their athletic achievements but for their achievements either in the classroom or in some sort of leadership situation.
PART 4: Money-Making Machines
gb&d: 1611 W. Division pretty much transformed that corner (at Division and Ashland streets). One of the things people are talking about is that there’s no parking. That was the point: you’ve got the train right there, you should be able to navigate Chicago pretty well from here. What were some of the other green features?
Kearns: You know, just to be frank, we don’t usually do for-profit buildings, or buildings as money-making machines, as I say. In this case, the developer was a client many times over. He’s also a client who’s active in a lot of not-for-profit work that we do. He’s a rare bird in that way. But I would say [the transit orientation] is way out in front as the biggest benefit, and what I can feel good about, with an alderman who’s sort of the cool, hipster alderman who wants to do something sensible.
It is still a high-performing building in terms of its exterior wall; it doesn’t go nuts on the amount of glass. It’s also a mixed-use building. It’s got quite a number of things going on in that urban setting, with the retail and the office and the living space.
When I see a building like Aqua (Tower, by Studio Gang)—and I totally get the aesthetic excitement around that building, but you couldn’t come up with a better way to radiate the heat that you’re supposed to keep in that building. It’s built like a radiator, like a fin tube. The people on the tech side get that and make jokes about it.
gb&d: Don’t tell Jeanne (laughs).
Kearns: And I don’t need to spend my time being critical—
gb&d: No, it’s a good point.
Kearns: When buildings are money-making machines, you don’t want to put that mindset away. You still want it to be a building that’s not going to hemorrhage energy. Most people don’t give a shit if somebody else is paying for the energy. That’s just the reality. “It’s not coming out of my wallet, I don’t care. What’s in it for me?” Just like your dad in soil conservation in the middle of Kansas.
So even though we’re not obligated to wear that hat in a lot of ways, we still tried to [make 1611 W. Division] socially a redeemable building, just doing smart stuff like protecting the streetscape, providing a modicum of social space, making the roof occupiable, that sort of thing.
Generally speaking, our firm tries to do really difficult projects. The easy ones don’t require much intellectual input. We like projects with a lot of constraints and a lot of ambitious goals. I think [sustainability] has added something to our playbook and our knowledge base and a reason to pursue triple-bottom-line projects. We have two bona fide, triple-bottom-line projects completed—hopefully with more on the way—with [clients] who are focused on more than just a magazine cover. (Laughs) Sorry!