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Lucien Lagrange: An 'Outsider' Classicalist In A City Shaped By Modern Architecture

Lucien Lagrange said he has felt like an outsider for decades. The still-active 80-year-old architect made his mark mostly in Chicago, a city with a skyline shaped by the modern style of Mies van der Rohe and his many devotees.

But early in life, Lagrange, the French-born son of a mason, fell in love with an older Chicago, the pre-World War II city of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham and the many graceful apartment buildings that stretched north of downtown on Lake Shore Drive. He appreciates well-done modernist architecture but decided to create buildings with touches of decoration, style and the classical grace he often saw in his beloved Paris.    

“I prefer something with depth and warmth to it,” he said.

Managing Principal Alfredo Marr, architect Josh Whitener, founding principal Lucien Lagrange, architect Kellen Plutowski and Design Principal My-Nga Lam.

Although Lagrange works all over the U.S. and overseas, his best-known projects, and the ones he is most passionate about, are high-end residential skyscrapers in Chicago.

“I think it’s true that he’s something of an outsider in Chicago, given the importance of the modernist ethos there, but I think that can be exaggerated somewhat since Chicago is more pluralistic than a lot of people think,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger told Bisnow. “It’s always had a range of architectural voices, even if the modernist ones have represented more of an establishment in Chicago than in many cities.”

The type of high-end residential architecture Lagrange practices hit a number of rough economic patches over five decades. The market collapse of 2008 wiped out the condo market for years, and many developers sought refuge by transforming condos into rental apartments. But Lagrange said the desire for beautiful places to live never goes away. And although the coronavirus pandemic has in some ways caused even more economic disruption than past financial shocks, he believes developers won’t hesitate to jump back in when things settle down.

“This is not the end of the world, and there is always room for good projects,” he said.

Park Tower at 800 North Michigan Ave.

Lagrange’s designs include Park Tower, a combined hotel and condominium building that rose over the Gold Coast in 2000 at 800 North Michigan Ave. Condos in the 70-story tower have sold for record prices, and Lagrange considers it one of his most successful buildings.

“We wanted to bring back the elegance of Lake Shore Drive,” Lagrange said.

“He has brought the grandeur back into Chicago architecture,” said Jennifer Ames of Engel & Volkers Chicago, who is marketing a nearly $6M home in Lagrange’s 2550 North Lakeview, a 39-story tower on the lakefront in Lincoln Park that opened in 2012.

“We went through the ’50s and ’60s and mostly saw hellacious architecture, and then in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a lot of monolithic work, such as Water Tower Place, but Lagrange brought back the style and elegance of the 1920s but with the functionality of modern architecture. We needed that.”  

“He's taken something and struck a chord not just with the development community but also with the public,” the late modernist architect Stanley Tigerman told Crain’s Chicago Business in 2012. “There's nobody else in Chicago that does classically inclined work in condos and tall buildings as well as Lucien.”

Not everyone is a fan. Goldberger called his buildings routine, mostly echoes of older buildings rather than creatively reimagined versions of classical structures.

“They are definitely a contrast to the glass boxes of Mies; no one can disagree with that, and if getting away from the glass box is the most important thing for you, you’ll like his buildings, even if they can often seem as if they were assembled out of a kit of parts, not the product of a powerful creative vision,” he said.

65 East Goethe St.

Lagrange wasn’t always associated with classical design. After graduating from Montreal’s McGill University, he landed in 1972 at Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the iconic firm that helped popularize modern architecture.

“I did a lot of modern buildings, but I always wanted to go back to a more classical style,” Lagrange said.

But he doesn’t regret spending the first 13 years of his career at SOM. It was there, with the help of mentors such as Bruce Graham, the designer of Willis Tower, that he first understood how much work went into buildings before beautiful facades could appear. The elevators, stairwells, plumbing and other systems had to mesh with floor plans that were efficient.  

“I learned how to put buildings together,” he said.

While at SOM, he designed hotels such as Hyatt Regency Schaumburg and office towers like the 40-story One Financial Place, which houses the Chicago Stock Exchange’s trading floors at 440 South LaSalle St. But for Lagrange, who once renovated and lived in one of the few remaining Louis Sullivan homes in Chicago, designing residential buildings has been a passion.

“I’m fascinated by residential because you deal with how people actually live and what they want,” he said.

He left SOM in 1985 and started his own firm, now known as Lucien Lagrange Studio. He found that offices don’t provide the same challenge, he said. Most consist of a core surrounded by glass walls. But architects that design homes spend a lot of time sweating over seemingly small details.

“You have to worry about which way the door swings in the bedroom.”

The Butler

They also consider how the different groups of renters or buyers sought by developers will use and move through their homes. Some want their living rooms to be elegant showcases, while others have a very different approach.

“Other groups just want a place to have a beer and watch the game,” Lagrange said.

Above all, architects should keep in mind that residences need to have an emotional impact, he said, because that is where people interact with family and friends.

“When you open the door, you have to feel, ‘I’m home,’” he said. “It’s hard to explain how you achieve it, but that’s what we try to do.”

“That was the big draw for me because it’s much more challenging,” said Design Principal My-Nga Lam, another SOM veteran who, in 2017, joined Lagrange’s studio, which now has about 13 designers.      

Carefully designed windows are one way to add comforting touches to a residential skyscraper, she added. Lam helped design The Butler, a 90-unit condo building planned for suburban Oak Brook. Instead of glass walls, it includes massive bay windows for its living rooms and smaller ones for bedrooms, giving the 22-story tower’s exterior a home-like appearance.

Erie on the Park

“People recognize and value those nuances, so there is a credibility that goes with a Lagrange project,” Ames said.

The stone and limestone facade of 2550 North Lakeview, as well as its many deep balconies, helps set it off from the street’s other modern buildings and complement the surrounding pre-war architecture, she added.

That building broke ground during the depths of the previous recession and debuted when the market for condos had hit rock bottom. The developer considered offering units at deep discounts but in the end decided to wait for a recovery, Ames said.

“They finished at the worst possible time, but when the market recovered, it sold out. I would say his buildings have held their value.”

She is marketing a 35th-floor condo at 2550, owned by Bill and Sharon Kozek, for $5.8M. The Kozeks bought it for $5.3M in 2014, county records show. Other Lagrange-designed units have seen much bigger price jumps. In 2012, a unit in Park Tower bought for $3.3M in 2000 sold for $15M, then the most ever for a Chicago condo, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

“The feedback I get is always very positive, so we must be doing something right,” Lagrange said.

The studio is not wedded to a classical approach, Lam added. It has completed modernist structures like Erie on the Park, a condo tower developed by Smithfield Properties on the Chicago River at 510 West Erie St. in 2002. Although the 24-story building is mostly steel and glass, Lagrange made portions of it asymmetrical with setbacks that create large terraces for the penthouse suites, a good example of how even the firm’s modernist works will add unique twists, Lam said.

“With Lucien, we’re looking to see what the next chapter is,” Lam said.

“The key is to design it well,” Lagrange said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s modern or classical.”

CORRECTION, OCT. 9, 8:00 A.M. CST: A previous version of this story incorrectly said The Butler condo project was under construction. It is in pre-sales. The story has been updated.