Sarah Dunn and Martin Felsen moved to Chicago “sort of accidentally on purpose,” said Dunn, having graduated from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York. The Windy City afforded them the better chance, the couple decided, “to build and build earlier,” along with more opportunities to get involved in urban policy and put their ideas to the test.
They established UrbanLab in 2000 as an architecture and urban design firm equally dedicated to the practicalities of construction and to research into the postindustrial issues of cities like Chicago.
That city’s sprawl, its traditions, and its political system dovetailed with the way Dunn and Felsen work. “We wanted to create a multi-scale practice,” said Dunn, “and there’s a history of doing that: Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies, and Burnham are only the most famous. People here can do both buildings and neighborhood-scale communities.” Even shaping the political landscape is within reach. “Basically, the city is ruled by a dictator,” Felsen said, but also a “class of leaders who really look to architects to help solve problems.” Participating in task forces on matters of zoning, housing, and infrastructure has provided what feels like “a very direct link to the mayor,” Dunn said. In 2008, Felsen and Dunn also became directors at Archeworks, the multidisciplinary design school.
In an office that’s six-committed-people strong (plus the couple’s toddler, who has been assigned her own job number), UrbanLab has followed through on projects large and small. Currently one of the most challenging is Growing Water, an investigation (funded by both the mayor’s office and a 2009 Latrobe Prize) into ways to channel street runoff back into the Great Lakes while threading a skein of linear parks throughout the city. “We want to use the grid to get off the grid,” said Dunn. For a competition in South Korea called Central Open Space, the designers generated a plug-and-expand approach involving some 50 different programs that can expand and adapt to fill a space eight times the size of New York’s Central Park.
At the smaller scale, the architects have designed over a dozen residences. While most are in the Chicago area, the Echo Park house is in Los Angeles and has a dual personality. An upper section of private spaces expresses all the cantilevering drama of a Case Study project, while an indoor-outdoor living room melds into the ground like “a landscaped object.” (The project is currently in permit review.)
Through design and research, teaching and political activism, Felsen and Dunn want to show that architecture can shape the world not only from the ground up, but also from inside the system and out.