The List

(page 6 of 10)

PRITZKER HOUSE (2007)
Wheeler Kearns Architects; Dan Wheeler, designer
1800 block of North Orchard Street

The new house built for the Pritzker-Traubert family touches upon yet another thorny problem for urban architects: the balance between privacy inside and a graceful presence on the street. The challenge is not new. Built in 1887, Glessner House on South Prairie Avenue pieces together amazing light-filled spaces inside a quiet, civilized façade.

But design from the inside out is not easy; in fact, some architects don’t even bother. In Lincoln Park, teardowns have been replaced by ghastly geometric concoctions that enclose big spaces inside, and also by miniature manor houses fronted by columns the size of redwoods. Both appear motivated by the need for self-affirmation. Neither gets the privacy-publicity thing even remotely right.

For the “Pritzker House,” as it is called in the neighborhood, architect Dan Wheeler set a standard of refinement down to the last detail. The house is big: the property runs across an excessive five city lots. But its front door is modest and at street level. A bronze fence with vertical louvers affords glimpses of the side yard, glassed-in first floor, and serious sculpture—but not showy panoramas. Ecologically conscious design touches include aerated concrete, which mitigates thermal swings. Above all, privacy is maintained.

Because of an offensive Chicago Tribune Magazine article last fall about Orchard Street—that called it “Gazillionaires Row” and that took particular aim at the Pritzkers’ unfinished house—the clients have not invited the press in. But interest remains high, in part because the Pritzker family backs the Pritzker Prize, highest honor in architecture. So a few of Wheeler’s architectural colleagues have been invited to see it, and the praise of one is notable.

That colleague is the Evanston-based architect Thomas Rajkovich, a confirmed classicist who says his “stomach normally churns” in the presence of modern structures. But he insists that Wheeler’s unabashedly modernist house was influenced by “classical composition.” Rajkovich describes the “axiality” of the design, wherein rooms and windows are aligned in orderly ways. He admires how “light draws you up the stairs.” And he marvels at the rhythm of light and dark, of large and small spaces that make the interior endlessly interesting.

These features “link the house to classical heritage,” Rajkovich says. “Yet they’re abstract enough to make the building seem new, unique, and modern.”