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Q&A: Architect Dirk Lohan: Highlights from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

Highlights from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

Dirk Lohan in his Chicago office, Nov. 2005 / Photograph by NATHAN KIRKMAN


Sunday, January 15, 2006

What follows is an excerpt from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

For more information on this issue, click here


An interview with architect Dirk Lohan

By JC Gabel

Dirk Lohan came to the United States from Germany in the late '50s as an architecture student at the Illinois Institute of Technology on Chicago's South Side. For over four decades, much like his grandfather, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lohan has left his architectural mark on the city with some ambitious projects around Chicago, most notably the John G. Shedd Oceanarium, McDonald's Corporate Headquarters Campus in Oak Brook, the Chicago Sinai Temple, the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum Sky Pavilion and the new Soldier Field with the surrounding Burnham Park redevelopment.

Late last year, after friction between principals at his former firm — Lohan, Caprile, Goettsch — Lohan and a fellow architect, Floyd Anderson (who has worked with Lohan for some 20 years) started their own firm, Lohan Anderson.

Dirk Lohan sat down with us in early November in his office on Michigan Avenue to discuss his adoptive home, his views on the future of architecture and what his grandfather would have thought about Chicago today.

Stop Smiling: You've been in Chicago over 40 years. Did you ever think you'd permanently reside here?

Dirk Lohan: No. I've been here since '62 permanently. My intention was to work with my grandfather, Mies van der Rohe. I worked with him for a number of years and then toward the end of his life, I felt an obligation to stick around until his career came to an end. I told him that I would make sure his life's work would be concluded properly, and that I would take care of the unfinished projects. You know how it is: You make contacts, you get to know people and people get to know you, and then they ask you to design this or that, and I started my own career. There was no longer any reason or any thought to leave.

SS: Most cities are forever changing, but Chicago more so than most.

DL: It's amazing. If you took pictures of the city 40 years ago — it's very different. The other fast-changing city that comes to mind is Shanghai. It was a Chinese city, now it's an international city. It's totally different. The pollution is terrible; it's not a great environment. Chicago is a good environment. It has clean air, clean water. Frankly, the fact that Chicago in those 40 years has visibly and noticeably improved and bettered itself is one good reason to stay here and make this your home. I'm very happy here. I love Chicago. I'm very dedicated to this place. There's no doubt. I feel I'm a Chicagoan. I'm an American. I'm not a German anymore.

SS: Mayor Daley seems to have corrected a lot of the mistakes his father made, socially, environmentally and most of all architecturally — public housing being a good example.

DL: I agree. I think the son sees things differently than his father did. The mistakes that were made in post-World War II American cities are obvious — the planning, for example. But there were other things that were built that we now enjoy, such as the highway system. You could bulldoze through the neighborhoods in those days. Today they could never do that.

SS: You've said that Chicago is a latecomer among great cities. What did you mean by that?

DL: It's a latecomer among world cities in the sense that it's not very old as a metropolis. One hundred and twenty-five years. That's young, that's a young city compared to the European cities.

SS: All schools of architecture and movements as they're developing seem to have to defend themselves. Will architecture ever reach a period, at least in metropolitan cities, where there won't be a need for coining an “ism”?

DL: I think we're almost there now. Postmodernism doesn't really exist anymore. Look at Frank Gehry's sculptural architecture versus some of the more business architecture, which is very rational, very technical. I think in the future there will never be one unified direction. Probably the late Modern, the Mies era, was probably the last time this happened in that way. I think it's a good thing. It means we are more pluralistic in our perception of life — we know better how to plan and build our cities. It comes from a modern democratic society, to be pluralistic. We all have to intermingle and figure out how we can find consensus. It's a mess, but also exciting.

For the complete interview with Dirk Lohan
, click here



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