In 2014, Chicago’s GREC Architects made the expansionist move into a background building on the Magnificent Mile. It was a sign of health and ambition—that a firm cut to half its 2007 size by the recession was back on the warpath. From a generic office floor, GREC is spinning a symphony of modernism that threatens to infect the building’s common areas.
Founded in 1989, GREC counts a growing staff of 30. The three managing principals hail from corporate America, easing the courtship with large clients like Related Midwest, John Buck Company, and Chicago newcomer Gerding Edlen Development. Every client large and small gets principal involvement from start to finish.
Their work fans out programmatically, with hospitality and multifamily residential as the sweet spots. “We’re trying to find the strengths of living in an urban high-rise and bleed that into our hospitality work,” said principal Don Copper. “Conversely, we want to bring hospitality’s social component into our residential work. How can we promote people coming out of their units for a greater sense of community?”
Both sectors are amenity centric, but GREC believes an integrated design has to get at variety and a sense of discovery. Rather than consolidate lounges, coworking spaces, game rooms, fitness rooms, and pool decks all on one floor, dispersion is
seen as oxygen for community. In particular, GREC has nurtured a symbiosis between their high-rise projects. A handful of fresh Chicago projects and one in Los Angeles exemplify this approach.
This first look at a 200-unit apartment building planned for Desplaines Street behind the Haymarket Memorial is GREC’s second project with Gerding Edlen.“It won’t be branded by its proximity to the memorial, but we have designed in deference,” Copper explained. “It gives us something to organize around without going into political gestures.” The developer, acknowledging a scarcity of green space, incorporates a public pocket park with benches for memorial visitors. A meandering walkway and multifaceted lobby promote a gradation from public to private space, with a cleanly layered sequence of memorial, park, lobby, and artwork. GREC will partner with the memorial’s sculptor Mary Brogger to design the building’s lighting and sculptural elements. A third-floor deck will host an urban agriculture project from The Roof Crop. Up another 12 stories, a skeletal crown gestures to the West Loop’s converted-loft aesthetic.
John Blair Building
The John Blair Building, an anonymous Michigan Avenue office block, offered GREC a blank slate for its studio build-out. The firm gutted a drop ceiling to reveal 15-foot coffered concrete ceilings and full-height window walls. Concerned with material authenticity, the ceiling and structural columns were left alone. Free-hanging LED tubes, terrazzo floors, mill-finished steel, and midcentury walnut tables are the supplemental Mad Men elements. The space engages the hot trend of non-hierarchical office design with open circulation and the absence of corner offices. According to Copper, such collaborative design premises really do work.
“Xavier Tower isn’t far from anywhere, but it still feels like it’s in a developing area,” said Copper of the apartment tower’s Cabrini-Green location. For the time being, but perhaps not for long, this new high-efficiency tower with sustainable materials, a stormwater collection system, and rain gardens is the tallest building within a half mile. GREC put the residential entry on the calmer Howell Street and the commercial space on Division Street. The lobby bores straight through to a coworking space and garden courtyard. To cross-pollinate, a 25-foot opening connects a future food-and-beverage tenant with the residential lobby. The 240-unit project was not beholden to the special mixed-income formula applied to the development of Chicago Housing Authority–owned parcels, but Gerding Edlen included 10 percent public housing nevertheless.
Hilton Garden Inn
The recently opened 191-key Hilton Garden Inn in Chicago’s Loop wriggled into the most cramped of sites between the brutalist Seventeenth Church of Christ and Chicago Motor Club building—we’re talking 50 by 110 feet for a 27-story tower. “It was a really fun site to work on,” reflected Copper. “Not sure the contractor would agree.” Regulations for exposures at the property line forced the developer to go with a windowless west facade and posed a design challenge for GREC: How to build dynamism into a flat prominent wall without trompe l’oeil, advertising, or other familiar devices. They chose a pixilated image derived from sunlight reflecting off water in gray scale, corresponding to the vendor’s standard array of aluminum finishes.
GREC’s first experience working in Los Angeles was an adventure indeed. The boutique Ace Hotel brand scored one of L.A.’s all-time classics for adaptive reuse: The 1,600-seat United Artists flagship theater dating to 1927 and the attached 13-story art deco office tower, formerly Texaco’s West Coast headquarters. The landmark needed seismic stabilization, which required spraying a concrete frame behind the old facade. The restored movie palace now hosts dance productions, music, and Hollywood premieres. GREC and Ace are known to be at work on a Chicago venture, but neither would give details.