Mike Toolis, Chairman and CEO of VOA, is a Chicago native and an active member of the city’s cultural community, so it’s no wonder that he’s got a unique perspective on Chicago design.
A global architectural design firm, VOA’s Chicago projects are stunning in their scope and impact on the city. Navy Pier, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Roosevelt University, Wrigley Field and the Old Town School of Folk Music—these are just a few examples of the work that exemplifies Toolis’s range and versatility.
2015 brought news that the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will call Chicago home. The creative team behind the museum includes VOA, which will execute designs by architect Ma Yansong’s China-based MAD Studio. VOA is also the architecture firm selected to lead the Pullman Artspace project. Chicago’s historic Pullman neighborhood can look forward to a revitalized area with artist housing and studio space. The project includes community areas for classes and exhibitions that aim to serve a new group of creative residents, alongside existing residents.
The author of “Design for a Town Center,” Toolis has been a guest critic and lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Architecture and is a longtime member of CAC’s Board of Trustees.
1. What project have you enjoyed working on the most during your career?
I always look forward to the next one.
2. Name your favorite Chicago building.
That’s almost impossible because I admire so many Chicago buildings for different reasons. Some of my favorites are the John Hancock Center, Willis (Sears) Tower and the Carbide and Carbon Building, for the strength they represent. The sense of space in the Field Museum’s grand hall and the iconic Wrigley Building are also impressive.
3. What are five things you can’t live without?
Friends and family, books, golf and my work—where I have the opportunity to create an environment in which talented professionals can thrive and produce great design on cool projects.
4. If you could collaborate with any historic Chicago architect, who would it be and why?
I think I would choose Daniel Burnham because of the significant, iconic projects he inspired that were based on his vision of what urban life could be like. I also think it would be interesting to collaborate with him during his era, when there was the absence of technology influencing design as much as it does today.
5. Why is it important for you to be engaged with CAC?
I fully support the Chicago Architecture Center’s mission. The organization promotes a level of awareness to the general public about the field of architecture and what the profession entails and the importance of great design. Their continued goal of inspiring people to understand why design matters is a great way of expressing these ideas. The education programs CAC offers are ambitious and exciting and really engage Chicagoans and visitors.
6. If you were not an architect, what would you be?
When I was younger, my ambition was to be a carpenter. I’ve always loved building things. If I had pursued that track, I think I would have eventually become a contractor. If I had not taken that route, I most likely would have pursued a career in finance.
7. What is the one project type you have not worked on yet but would like to design?
VOA has experience in most building types, but I would probably delve more deeply into high-rise offices and a wide range of single family homes, from affordable housing to high-end residential and executive housing.
8. What is Chicago’s biggest built environment challenge?
Public transportation, no question. The congestion in the city detracts people from experiencing all Chicago has to offer.
9. How does CAC inspire people to discover why design matters?
CAC does an exceptional job in celebrating Chicago architecture, and I believe that the awareness the organization creates provides the city with an important cultural advantage. Their River Cruise Aboard Chicago’s First Lady, for example, is on the top-ten list of tourist attractions in Chicago. To me, that’s impressive.
10. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright?
Frank Lloyd Wright.