Interview with Peter Exley: “The best architecture offers a sense of place and dignity to the citizens who need it most”

The UNESCO-UIA Rio World Capital of Architecture presents an interview with Peter Exley, co-founder of Architecture Is Fun, an architecture and design company based in Chicago (USA). This is the second of the special series MY CITY, organised  in partnership the International Union of Architects – UIA, which interviewed prominent architects about their relationship with cities that marked their lives and previously hosted the World Congress of Architects. Learn more  about Chicago, which hosted the 18th World Congress of Architects in 1993 through the eyes of Peter Exley.

I arrived in Chicago at the end of the summer of 1985 to take a one year position at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill before returning to graduate school.  On my first day I stood in the entrance of Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott building which had adorned my student copy of Henry Russell Hitchcock’s History of Architecture. The second day was spent on a pilgrimage to Oak Park to walk in the shadow of Frank Lloyd Wright. The third day was spent in the realization that one year would not be long enough, and I have spent the subsequent thirty five years in Chicago riding the coat tails of the architects who solidify the city’s reputation as the epicenter of modern architecture.  Chicago’s legacy as the first city of architecture traces to the Great Fire of 1871. This timing coincided beautifully with the emergence of technologies that enabled the high rise. One hundred and fifty years on I practice, teach, and serve in a design community that maintains its mantle as a leader in technology, incubating architects who lead in firms of every size, whose work is respected in every neighborhood, and whose reputation for innovation ripples around the world.  It is a privilege and honor to be an architect in this city


Peter’s house


My home. Architect unknown. 1893

I live and work in the Old Town neighborhood on the south side of North Avenue, the northernmost bounty of the Chicago fire at the beginning of Lincoln Park. My four story building dates from 1893 and is unremarkable among the cannon of commercial and residential building stock of the era.  From my corner turret I see the Sears Tower to the south, fabulous sunrises and sunsets to the east and west, and the famed Second City comedy club to the north. Bill Murray allegedly was a previous resident.


Sullivan Centre

Schlesinger & Mayer/Carson Pirie Scott. Adler and Sullivan. 1899-1904.

At the corner of State Store and Madison Avenue in the heart of the Loop, this department store sits at the apex of Chicago’s street numbering system – literally at 0,0.  Today the commercial base is topped with the Chicago office of Gensler, an assortment of corporate and city service tenants, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where architecture students appropriately sit directly alongside Sullivan’s twelfth floor loggia.  It is a profound place to begin one’s architecture training.


McCormick Tribune Campus Center

McCormick Student Center. OMA. 2003.

This Rem Koolhaas building sits curiously right under the El train tracks in the heart of the campus at IIT designed by Mies van der Rohe.  In contrast to the rectilinear, steel, and brick campus, the student center is a celebration of polychromatic, intersecting public spaces, hangouts, and student services.  It’s the wittiest, most dynamic building in the city – is curiously right at home next to the rigorous Mies’ neighbors, and even manages to silence the CTA trains that rumble and clatter overhead.


Poetry Foundation

Poetry Foundation. John Ronan Architects. 2011.

If the McCormick Student Center is the wittiest building in Chicago, then the Poetry Center’s intersecting indoor and outdoor public spaces are the most serene. As I see it, this building is invitational, accessible, and is literally a poem taking visitors line by line through a series of calibrated, rhythmic, spatial experiences. It’s one of Chicago’s most elegant places.

SOS Children’s Village Lavezzorio Community Center

SOS Children’s Village Lavezzorio Community Center. Studio Gang Architects. 2009.

The best architecture delivers a sense of place and dignity for the citizens who need it most.  This center epitomizes an instance where the creative conversation between community, architect, patron, and builder brings beauty, function, and heart to a neighborhood and its children.  It embodies the ambitions of every building created for the public good.


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