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Building community Featured

9:59am EDT August 16, 2004
Dan Coffery doesn’t design buildings for the honors he may garner, although the awards he’s received are numerous and bestowed upon him with regularity. Coffey, founder and principal architect of 20-year-old architectural firm Daniel P. Coffey and Associates Ltd., does it for what architecture creates for people.

“I think, at the end of the day, the enrichment of life going forward is what’s very important,” Coffey says. “I think architecture helps bring people together.”

Coffey may design buildings with the idea of bringing people together, but sometimes he must bring them together before any ideas even make it to paper.

Whether it is the DePaul Center, the University of Illinois Chicago, or any of the several theater rehabilitation projects he’s undertaken, Coffey doesn’t wait for someone to come to him. He often seeks out and brings together the individuals necessary to get a project done. It’s what he calls being a proactive architect.

Coffey has been honored for more than just his design abilities. Among the recognition he has received: Chicago Leaders Under 40 Award (1994), Crain's Chicago Business; Chicago Leaders in the Arts 1998, Chicago Tribune; and Who's Who of Chicago's Leaders 1999, Crain's Chicago Business. His organization was recently named a Chicago firm of Excellence, Among the firm’s list of projects are Millennium Park Tower, Sherman Plaza, Joffrey Ballet Center, Chicago Theater, Palace Theater and Red Line Subway. He is licensed to practice in all 50 states and has projects in more than a dozen.

When he isn’t working to bring the community closer together with his designs, Coffey participates in a number of organizations. He serves as chairman of the Chicago International Film Festival and on the boards of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, The Shakespeare Globe Center in London, The Chicago Opera Theater and the Chicago Central Area Committee.

Coffey has recently designed a theater project for Schaumberg.

“It’s going to truly be a landmark,” he says. “People are going to say, ‘Wow!’

Architecture is really one of the few specific arts in that it’s not just art it’s a business thing or a functional thing, but like art it can uplift your spirits and make your life better.”

Coffey is also involved in The American Institute of Architects, The Urban Land Institute, The Executive Club of Chicago, The International Facility Management Association, The League of Historic American Theaters and The National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Smart Business Chicago spoke with Coffey to learn more about his philosophy on architecture and how he approaches his design projects.

What is the role of a proactive architect?
It’s really an architect in a leadership position, making projects happen and putting together teams of people that might not normally be put together in order to make a project go forward, but also might not normally happen all by itself.

An example would be the DePaul Center, which was a 650,000 square-foot building that the city was going to tear down. It was right on State Street. I helped arrange the city of Chicago and the DePaul University and some other groups to come together to save the building and rebuild and turn it into a downtown Loop Campus headquarters with city offices and retail in it.

If that hadn’t occurred it probably would have been torn down and a federal office building built there instead.

How was the project initiated?
There was an interim call, which was from a civic group that said ‘what can we do about this?’ I said, ‘you need to find a user to save it. Why don’t we talk to DePaul?’ A week later we were having meetings and it all fell into place after that. It was combination of two of us prompting each other.

It’s won AIA awards and Urban Land Institute awards and all kinds of design and business-related awards for the impact it’s had on the neighborhood and the university.

You focus more on cities than individual buildings.
Usually the great cities London, Paris, Rome, Berlin are a composite of many buildings put together. Some are background and some are foreground, and the combination is what makes the place great and also makes the individual (buildings) many times greater.

Does the city’s character influence the people within it?
To a great degree. It’s the stage that regularly happens within. For instance, with Chicago you have a bolder kind of character that comes out with the people. And that’s also the case with the architecture, and also a very strong, solid kind of quality of construction and thoroughness of detail with Chicago architecture that in some ways is what Midwest leaders are all about as well. It’s a yin and a yang where the two feed off each other. They shape each other. The architecture comes from the culture and the culture is shaped by the architecture.

Why are you so involved in theater projects?
The other art that makes a difference in peoples’ lives is the performing arts, along with architecture, which is a more static building. And a lot of what I’m about is trying to get people to come together and have a better living experience. The arts are a part of that, and I’ve always found the idea of people coming together to watch a play or an opera or a ballet or a musical or a drama to be really an uplifting experience for all of the people involved, as well as the artists. Those kinds of good experiences can be clustered together with several theaters to create a district or a center. That has a tendency to spur other kinds of city life and cultural life that ranges from restaurants to living downtown on down the line. It’s a fairly holistic look at why they’re important to the cities. And they’re very fascinating buildings to work with because, almost like all other buildings they deal with all five senses in a way that’s not that typical.

How is working with a historical building different than a new construction project?
You become the original architect’s partner. And you have to think about what they were trying to do with the building both from the design standpoint, but very importantly in the technical and construction standpoint because whenever your designing a building you make decisions about how to build it. When I’m doing it for a new building, it’s one thing. When I’m doing it in relation for an old building, I have to think, ‘well, what was this guy probably thinking when he put that column or beam in that location, and was it important to the building? Is that what makes it stand up?’ Usually with an older building you don’t have all the original documents. You don’t have x-ray vision; you can’t see the walls to see exactly what all those walls are doing. Once you put yourself in the mind of being the original guy’s partner, you start to understand the building that much better.

How to reach: Daniel P. Coffey & Associates Ltd. (312) 382 9898 or www.dpcaltd.com