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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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Booth’s condominium tower at 30 West Oak Street

A rendering of the building for downtown Evanston

MoMo, a multiuse project in the Loop

The interior of an apartment in Booth’s renovated Palmolive building

An exterior view of the Palmolive

The restored Old St. Patrick’s in the West Loop

Booth’s first house, designed in 1967, was a modernist glass-and-brick box in Hyde Park. Since then, he has evolved into a generalist. “Now it’s all about how things feel, what’s the actual human experience of walking into a space,” he says. “Because one of the things I think has gone wrong with architecture is that rationality has trumped feeling. Solving functional problems is relatively easy. The challenge is the emotional part.”

During this period, Booth became friends with the late Harry Weese, one of the most protean architects Chicago has produced. “Harry could intuit where things were going,” Booth says. “He understood the unseen forces and people that shaped the city.”

“[Harry and Larry] both had a very freewheeling, let’s-do-it-and-the-devil-take-the-hindmost kind of attitude,” says Ben Weese, Harry’s brother.

Over the years, Booth and Harry Weese collaborated on a number of projects, most notably the redevelopment of Printers Row in the late 1980s into the city’s first loft district. This, in turn, jump-started the redevelopment of the South Loop, where Booth also played a leading role by designing and developing the 200-plus townhouses that constitute the first phase of Dearborn Park.

Booth’s other defining influence was the Chicago Seven, a classic case of Young Turks storming the citadel of the Establishment. In addition to Booth, Tigerman, and Weese, the Seven consisted of the architects Thomas Beeby, Stuart Cohen, James Freed, and James Nagle. The Seven—and the principles they championed—are generally remembered as the last time the city was at the center of a national architectural movement.

“Chicago’s importance to the world of architecture has always been as much about ideas as about buildings,” says Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian. “That’s what the Chicago Seven were about.”

“We wanted a place at the table,” says Tigerman, who by most accounts was the main organizer of the group. “Chicago was very tightly held in those years. The Miesian succession held sway. The Seven didn’t have a replacement for that dogma, but we wanted to open a dialogue. And we accomplished that.”

“We kind of pulled the thread that helped untangle the Mies cult,” says Booth. The irony is that today, Booth and his remaining Chicago Seven colleagues—James Freed died in 2005—are integral members of that selfsame establishment. And Booth is even having second thoughts about Mies. “It’s important to have Mies around,” he says. “He’s like a rock, a lighthouse in the middle of a storm. He’s so elegant and reductive.”

(But only up to a point. Several years ago, Booth and his wife attended a charitable auction at which they won the opportunity to spend a night at Mies’s Farnsworth House in Plano. “I remember one of my daughters and her husband and son came out for dinner and brought bags of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is a normal, perfectly legitimate thing to do,” Booth says. “But it doesn’t really work there. It’s a cocktail-party house. That’s all you can do there. Anything else violates it.")

In 1978, Booth and Nagle were joined by Jack Hartray, and the name of the firm was changed to Booth, Nagle & Hartray. Two years later, however, the partnership broke up and the three agreed to go their separate ways. Shortly afterward, Booth started a new firm with Paul Hansen, who oversaw business operations while Booth continued focusing on design. That relationship lasted until the early 1990s, when Hansen temporarily retired from architecture to explore an online opportunity. (He has since returned to the profession and now works for VOA Associates, another Chicago firm.) In the aftermath, Booth decided to retain the firm’s name—Booth Hansen Architects—in part because his wife’s maiden name is Hansen.

Today, Booth has three partners—George Halik, Charlie Stetson, and Sandy Stevenson—but he remains the firm’s chief of design. The practice also has about 45 design associates and other employees. “It’s a wide-open office,"  Ste- venson says of the firm’s headquarters in a vintage loft building in the West Loop. “Larry sits out in the middle of the floor. There aren’t too many offices with doors here.” Indeed, in a sea of desks, the only objects that distinguish Booth’s workspace are two neo-baroque table lamps by the Italian designer Ferruccio Laviani.

Booth reached a turning point in the late 1990s with a project that allowed him to restore and complete one of the city’s most important historic structures. That building, Old St. Patrick’s in the West Loop, is the city’s oldest church and one of a handful of properties to have survived the Chicago Fire. Old St. Patrick’s was completed in 1856 to house Chicago’s growing West Side Irish community. The problem was that the church never had enough money to finish the interior.

Early in the 20th century, a Chicago artist named Thomas O’Shaughnessy had added some decorative stenciling to the sanctuary as well as a series of magnificent stained-glass windows. Both the stencils and the windows incorporated motifs from the Book of Kells, an eighth-century illuminated manuscript detailing the life of Christ and a key document in the evolution of the Irish Catholic Church.

Old St. Patrick’s started declining in the 1950s, and by the early 1980s the congregation was down to only four members. By then, the stencils had been painted over, and the church was in shambles. But a few years later, a remarkable resurgence began when Father Jack Wall was named the pastor. By the late 1990s, Old St. Patrick’s was one of the fastest-growing churches in the diocese, with a congregation that included Booth and his family, as well as notables such as Mayor Daley and his wife, Maggie. At that point, Father Wall decided that a restoration was needed and asked Booth to propose alternatives. Old St. Pat’s represented that rarest of opportunities for an architect in less-is-more Chicago: a chance to create an explosion of color and ornament.

“Thinking about it,” Booth says, “it became clear to me that the last thing you wanted to do was clear everything out, paint it white, and make it modern.” He did the opposite. “We started where O’Shaughnessy left off." 

The highlight is a spectacular two-story altar screen executed by Booth in white plaster that incorporates motifs from the Creation story, beginning with plants, fish, and animals and ending with the Trinity. “It has content” is the way Booth dryly describes it.

“There’s a deep humility on Larry’s part to honor both O’Shaughnessy and the Book of Kells,” says Father Wall. “It’s a restoration and then a completion of the task of creating a space that totally reflects the Celtic worldview. It’s very organic and expresses the interconnectedness of nature and man. It’s very powerful and very modern.”

More than just about any project Booth has completed, it also sums up his approach to architecture. “It’s not functional,” Booth says. “It’s about the poetics of architecture and human life. But it starts with the people who are going to use the building. You find what’s important and what’s real and then you build on that.”

Photography: (Image 1) Wayne Cable; (Image 2) Courtesy of Booth Hansen Architects; (Images 3 and 5) Michelle Litvin; (Image 4) Chicago Tribune; (Image 6) Courtesy of Booth Hansen Architects


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