The Turnaround Artist

For years, Laurence Booth, one of the city’s most widely acclaimed architects, championed low-scale buildings and decried “antihuman” high-rises. Now he has designed three towers and has a fourth under construction. Why? “We have to make some huge changes in this country,” he says.

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The architect Laurence Booth in his West Loop office with a model (right) for his proposed Evanston high-rise

 

If architects have their own version of hell, it probably resembles the community meeting that Laurence Booth, a principal of the architecture firm Booth Hansen, attended earlier this year in Evanston. One evening last spring, a hundred or so residents lined up to debate the pros and cons of one of the largest commissions of his career. The previous day, Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, had published an item on his blog criticizing the project—a 38-story skyscraper on a prominent downtown block—for what he termed its “squat” and “uninspiring” proportions.

Meetings of this kind have their own dynamic, starting with the fact that supporters of the buildings rarely bother to attend. The result is that aggrieved opponents tend to dominate the podium. As the evening wore on, the residents criticized every aspect of the project—the aesthetics, the financing, the parking arrangements, “the way it will change downtown Evanston forever.”

“No one feels a need for this tower,” said one woman. “This project should never be approved,” said another person. “Let the people of this city decide what their downtown is going to look like,” said a third.

Booth, 72, a slight, energetic man in a tailored navy-blue suit and clear plastic glasses, stood up a little wanly at the end. “I don’t know what just happened here tonight,” he said. Then, referring to the project, he added, “I guess it’s a wounded duck at this point.”

Not yet. As of presstime, the tower was still under discussion and may eventually be built. But the experience highlights the odd crossroads at which Booth, one of the city’s most respected architects, now finds himself. After more than 40 years as a premier designer of single-family houses, schools, churches, and low-rise commercial buildings, he is pursuing what for many years he insisted he never would: the high-stakes world of downtown skyscrapers.

In the late 1970s, Booth was a founding member of the Chicago Seven, a group of rowdy young architects who helped usher in the postmodern era with a series of groundbreaking exhibitions and manifestoes that questioned—and occasionally ridiculed—the received orthodoxies of the International style. At the time, Booth opposed all high-rises, calling them “antihuman” and the “product of greed and hubris and technology.”

And now? “My feelings have changed,” he says.

Since the beginning of the decade, Booth has designed three residential high-rises, with a fourth currently under construction just south of the intersection of North and Clybourn avenues. The Evanston project, if approved, will be his fifth. And two years ago, Booth supervised the renovation of the 37-story art deco Palmolive Building on North Michigan Avenue into a luxury condominium.

The clear winner, at least among the completed buildings, is 30 West Oak Street, a 24-story condominium tower with an elegant curved-glass façade. The building recently was named the best new building of 2007 by the Friends of Downtown, an activist group. Indeed, the success of 30 West Oak was a major factor in Booth’s selection for the Evanston project. “We really liked what he did there and thought it was the kind of image we’d like to create in Evanston,” says Tim Anderson, the developer.

Reactions to Booth’s other high-rise buildings have been mixed. The most recent, a 31-story multiuse project at the corner of State and Randolph streets, is anchored by the headquarters of the Joffrey Ballet. Known as MoMo (short for Modern Momentum), the building garnered faint praise from Blair Kamin, who labeled it a “strong but decidedly imperfect work of architecture.” Typically self-deprecating, Booth says, “I don’t think we’ve built any really obnoxious high-rises yet.”

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The question for many, though, is why Booth is building any high-rises at all. “It’s about the main chance,” says Stanley Tigerman, a principal in the architecture firm Tigerman McCurry and Booth’s first employer in the 1960s. Tigerman also drafted Booth into the Chicago Seven, and the two have been friends for more than 40 years. “Larry wants a piece of the big action.”

“He’s got a big office to support,” says Ben Weese, a fellow member of the Chicago Seven and another longtime friend.

Booth, however, insists that there is more to it than that. “We have to make some huge changes in this country,” he says. “This has been gnawing at me for a long time. The United States accounts for five percent of the world’s population and uses 30 percent of the world’s resources. It’s not sustainable.” The key, he believes, is rethinking development patterns. “In order to have a Jewel or a Starbucks within walking distance of your house,” he says, “you need density, you need—in a word— high-rises.”

The second reason is more personal. Over the years, Booth and his family—his wife, Pat, and their four children, now grown—have led a fairly peripatetic existence. By Booth’s count, they have lived in six houses or apartments, including a row house on West Fullerton Parkway and a townhouse in Dearborn Park. But three years ago, the couple moved into an apartment on the 15th floor of the Palmolive Building. “I had never lived in a high-rise, and I thought it was time to try it out,” Booth says. “Actually, it’s amazingly comfortable.”

This almost casual reversal of a long-held belief is highly characteristic of Booth. In fact, it defines his personality as an architect. “I’ll try anything,” he admits. “Some architects, they’re into style, and you know what you’re going to get. I’m not a stylist. I’m free. I’m looking for freedom.” Then, in one of those stream-of-consciousness remarks that are a leitmotif of his conversation, he adds, “Frank Gehry has this thing in his head that he wants to get out there. I don’t. Life is a treasure hunt. It’s not a crusade. I want to be surprised.”

That is evident in Booth’s buildings, which cover a broad stylistic range from traditional to modern and beyond. About the only thing that ties them all together is a certain precision and economy in terms of forms and proportions. The adjectives that come to mind are words like “neat” and “trim.” Nothing looks overdone.

“Larry does very solid, quietly elegant buildings,” says Michael Tobin, a developer who worked with Booth on the restoration of the Hampton Majestic hotel above the Shubert—now the Bank of America—Theater. “They’re not flashy. There’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘That looks like a Larry Booth building.’ But they have a sort of joy of life about them that is rare in architecture.”

“He remains vulnerable to circumstance,” says Tigerman. “He’s not sufficiently dogmatic to have one overarching way of doing things.”

Until now, Booth has had one of the more satisfying career arcs in Chicago architecture. The only child of a patent attorney and a housewife, he grew up in suburban La Grange and graduated from Stanford University in 1958. He went on to do graduate work at both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When he was 24, he married Pat, whom he had met in high school, and they spent a year traveling through Europe. In Athens, Booth happened to meet Walter Netsch, then at the beginning of his celebrated career as a designer for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago. Months later, Netsch steered him to Stanley Tigerman’s then fledgling firm.

“Larry had very defined opinions,” Tigerman recalls, “and he drew almost like Korean nuns might weave sweaters underwater—tiny little drawings that were very precise and compelling.”

James Nagle, a Stanford acquaintance of Booth’s, also worked for Tigerman. Eventually, the two decided to go out on their own. Over the next 20 years, the firm of Booth & Nagle became a major player in the burgeoning Lincoln Park renovation scene. Booth traces his interest in historic architecture, and in particular the work of such 19th-century Chicago masters as Louis Sullivan and John Wellborn Root, to the dozens of vintage structures he restored and renovated in those years. “I’m not uncomfortable with history,” Booth says. “You deal with those old buildings on a daily basis and you realize they’re beautifully made. They work.”

The architecture world is informally divided into residential and everything else, with the latter tending to overshadow the former. Frank Lloyd Wright notwithstanding, architects rarely become household names on the basis of their residential work. Booth is one of the exceptions. Over the years, he has done it all—everything from public housing to yuppie loft conversions to Gold Coast and North Shore mansions—and has been acclaimed for both his craftsmanship and his stylistic virtuosity.

“Houses are a lot of fun,” Booth says. “Commercial projects tend to be more about problem solving. But housing is about individual clients and their wants and needs. You wind up getting to know people very well. Some become friends. There’s a lot of satisfaction there.”

Photograph: Nathan Kirkman 

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