Among Chicago architects, the Monadnock Building is an icon. The tower is a product of the Chicago School, half designed by Burnham and Root and half by Holabird & Roche, built in two phases. Yet it is unlike any of its contemporaries. To start, its older southern Burnham & Root half is a masonry structure, the tallest in the world. And though the southern half, built three years later, is a more typical steel structure, the similarities to other 1890s Chicago buildings end there. Notably, rather than the ubiquitous center atrium of most Chicago School builds, the Monadnock has a thin interior pedestrian street, complete with old-timey shops. The upper floors of pint-sized offices are mostly filled with attorneys and the occasional private detective, yet a few small architecture firms have set up shop in this enigmatic structure.
Among the half dozen or so practices in the building, an even smaller contingent is in their first official office spaces. For them, the move from the dining room table to a downtown high-rise was an important step in establishing their practice in the city. An added benefit has been the growing community of critical practices under one roof. Norman Kelley and Design With Company share a small office on the 12th floor, with just enough room for each to have an intern or two at any given time. Three stories below, PORT Urbanism makes epic master plans in a 300-square-foot office. The highly experimental Weathers and MANA Design/Protostudio also call the building home.
“The space complements our life,” said Stewart Hicks of Design With Company. “Before, working out of our home, there was no separation of work and life. Not that we ever stop working, but now we can walk here, and we are a short distance from the University of Illinois at Chicago where we teach. It is also just easy to find someone in the building to talk to, and bounce ideas off of.”
Having an office in the 125-year-old Monadnock is not without its drawbacks, though. The depth of the offices is governed by the distance from the central hall to the building’s envelope, only around 15 feet. Though affordable, the often-tiny offices leave very little space for producing. MANA Design/Protostudio and Weathers find themselves limited by space, unable to produce the models and prototypes with which they often work. To deal with the lack of space, the offices rely on connections they have to universities, shared spaces, and a series of specialized fabricators. Design With Company often calls upon stage-scene fabricators to build installation pieces, as it has found scene builders to be more accustomed to the scale and precision the models demand. Some of the unique benefits of the building include operable wood-frame windows and classic hand-painted doors straight out of a film noir.
Each of these firms flies steadily under the radar in a city dominated by many of the largest corporate firms in the world. Only a few blocks away, the Motorola Building, formerly the Santa Fe and Railway Exchange Building, is occupied by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Stantec, and Goettsch Partners. Despite its lower profile, the Monadnock crew has recently seen a great deal of critical and popular success. Norman Kelley was responsible for one of the Chicago Biennial’s most popular submissions, Chicago, How Do You See?, an expansive vinyl window treatment on the front of the Chicago Cultural Center. Its new Aesop skin care storefront has also garnered international attention. Along with its own contribution to the biennial, Design With Company was responsible for a playful forum-like installation at Design Miami for Airbnb. PORT’s projects tap into a very real idea of “make no small plans.” Its submission to the biennial, The Big Shift, raised ire among mainstream media critics, but thrilled visitors. Both Sean Lally, the head of Weathers, and Norman Kelley were recipients of the coveted Rome Prize, joining the likes of Richard Meier, Charles Moore, Michael Graves, and Stanley Tigerman. The more established KOO, also in the building, was recently given the go-ahead from the city to move forward with a new hotel on Navy Pier.
The Monadnock represents the possibilities of Chicago architecture, from its original soaring masonry ambitions to some of today’s most experimental young practices. If there is an argument to be made about the power of space and adjacency, the Monadnock may just be the model to prove the point. Expect more exceptional things from this exceptional building.