Chicago-based architect Dirk Lohan enjoyed a career enhanced only slightly by his grandfather, Ludwig Mies Van de Rohe. Mies provided Lohan with cigars, martinis, and weekly dinners, influencing his work ethic from the beginning. After his grandfather died in 1969, Lohan took his own career by the reigns, winning projects like the design of the McDonald’s headquarters. During this assignment Ray Kroc successor Fred Turner encouraged Lohan to think beyond a Miesian style, which he did. Other career highlights include the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, and the redesign of Soldier Field. At 75, Lohan has no plans to throw in the towel. He spoke to Ashley Devick for AN.
Ashley Devick: How has your family legacy impacted your professional career?
Dirk Lohan: I grew up with full knowledge of the existence of my grandfather, who was in America—in Chicago—while I grew up in Germany. But my room as a child was plastered with pictures of his buildings. In fact, one of my favorite stories is that in 1952, after the 860/880 Lake Shore Drive buildings were done, which are really important milestones in 20th century architecture, there was a picture of an inside view of one of the apartments. Looking down you could see Lake Shore Drive with all the cars going by. As a 14 or 15 year old I said, “One day I’m going to live there.” And I do. I moved finally last year into 880 Lakeshore Drive. I have a wonderful apartment on the top floor. The view is exactly like it was when I was 15 years old. That’s a long time ago.
You have gone on to have a really successful career of your own. What tools did you learn in your younger days that you carried with you through the years and applied to your professional career?
Well, I think that perhaps the most important thing I learned from him, and the people surrounding him that had been with him for a long time, was the extreme attention to the quality of the work—the care and the attitude that architecture is serious business. As he said, you can’t invent a new architecture every Monday morning. Meaning, it doesn’t come easy. It takes awhile to figure it all out, to try it, test it, and so on. So I think it’s the approach to it that I like to think I share with him.
What was one of the biggest challenges of your career?
Really, every project in a way is a challenge because there is always something new. And I’ve really enjoyed in my career to be able to do very different buildings and not just the same hospital type of thing again and again and again. Almost everything I have done was unique—the Shedd Oceanarium, the Adler Planetarium, or Soldier Field, the football stadium. I had never done a football stadium. For the aquarium, I didn’t know how whales and dolphins had to be kept, but you learn these things.
Those are a wide variety of different projects. So would you even be able to describe your design style?
I’d like to be able to say that it is partially contextual and the other aspect is that I do think of the people that use the buildings. I like to create a feeling of comfort and warmth. Certainly I use warmer materials than my grandfather did. He was more cerebral. Contextual to me means I think about the surrounding buildings, whether it’s in the landscape or whether it’s in the city.
I know that Soldier Field was probably one of your more challenging projects because of all of the public criticism.
Looking back, hindsight being 20/20, would you do anything differently?
Not really, no. I think despite all of the initial opposition to it, particularly from the Tribune, it has died down. And a lot of people have come up to me and said, “You know, it’s really very nice. I like it.” This happens a lot with good or important architecture. People at first say this is so different and so alien or whatever and then with time it grows into the city and it becomes part of the picture. And that’s what happened with Soldier Field.
Do you have one particular building that has always inspired you?
One building I sort of also grew up with, as a young architect student is Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology, which is the architecture school. That is a wonderful building, column free—the whole floor plate has no columns in it.
What about the broader horizon? How long do you think you will keep doing it?
Me? You know it’s interesting. I never would have though that I would be doing this for so long. But it’s a good thing to have something that keeps you going. To get up and go to work is healthy. Rolling over five more times in bed is not so healthy. So I probably will do it a few more years. As long as people think I’m okay. I mean, my grandfather was 83 when he died and he had just gotten the IBM building. He was maybe 80 years old at that time. I’m not yet 80 and still pretty healthy and vital.
So what’s been the highlight of your career?
You’re not going to ask me, I hope, what is the favorite building of those that you’ve done. Because people always ask that and I never know. Generally speaking, the last one. It’s like, your last girlfriend or the current girlfriend is the one you love.
Well, I met a lot of wonderful people who were often my clients. To give you one example I did the corporate headquarters project for the McDonalds in Oak Brook, the whole campus. That was a competition and I was very young. I was in my early 30s. There were people from different places around the country all making designs. And we made a design and went through the period of interviewing with management and the executives. The CEO was Fred Turner, the successor to Ray Kroc. And one day after one or two interviews had already taken place he called. “Dirk, this is Fred Turner.” I said, “Yes, Fred.” “Can you come and see me,” he said. I said, “When would you like me to do that?” And he said, “Well, now.” So I drove out and when I get there nobody was in his office but there was a bottle of champagne with two glasses. And I thought, that’s not a bad sign. Well anyway, he gave me the job. And he said two things: My competition entry was, shall we say, still a little bit Miesian—rigid and rectilinear and things like that. He said, “I want to hire you, but not because I like your design so much. But I think we can work together very well.” That was an interesting little detail. And then he said, “I want your design, not a Mies design.” And that was only a few years after Mies, my grandfather, had died. So he challenged me. And that was wonderful, and it made a difference to me.