Wight & Company is one of 50 design teams featured in CAC’s latest exhibit, which challenged designers to identify a physical asset in the city that could benefit from a redesign and imagine a way to transition it “between states.”
Dirk Lohan is a principal at Wight & Company, where he leads the Lohan Studio. His impressive portfolio includes the McDonald’s Corporate Headquarters campus in Oak Brook, the John G. Shedd Oceanarium and the Soldier Field stadium expansion and renovation. Dirk studied architecture under the guidance of his grandfather, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and worked closely with him on projects like the New National Gallery in Berlin and the Chicago IBM office building. His proposal for the “Between States” exhibit was to salvage what remains of Bronzeville’s Pilgrim Baptist Church and turn it into the National Museum of Gospel Music.
What drew you to Pilgrim Baptist Church?
I have known the Pilgrim Baptist Church since the fall of 1957 when I was a freshman architecture student at IIT. My dormitory was located at Michigan Avenue and 33rd Street, exactly one block away from the Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd Street and S. Indiana. I occasionally went to the church to listen to their gospel services. I also became aware of the original design as a synagogue by Sullivan and Adler, which attracted me from an architectural point of view. I was saddened to learn of the fire that destroyed almost all of the church, except of the exterior stone façade. The walls have been standing as a ruin, supported by a system of steel bracing for nearly 10 years. Even before the “Between States” concept came up, I had already talked with some preservation people about doing something for the community with the remaining walls. I thought immediately about the remnants of the church when I was approached by CAC for “Between States.”
Why do you think what remains of the church should be salvaged?
We have torn down several Sullivan buildings over the years. In this case, we still have the entire façade available to us as a historical landmark of the late 19th century architecture by one of America’s most influential architects. It is my concept to combine these relics of history with a contemporary design, as a solution that combines the old and the new in a symbiotic juxtaposition.
What similar projects are sources of inspiration?
I am inspired by the integration of old parts with new architecture by German architect Egon Eiermann for the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Here, certain elements of the World War II destruction were left in place, combined with new 20th century architecture. The design has become a symbol of the ever-evolving human spirit and serves as a reminder of the good and bad that occurs in history. The Pilgrim Baptist Church was originally a synagogue and it ultimately burned mostly down, but I feel strongly that it should be revived for future generations to enjoy.
How can architects improve the way they work with residents on community-based projects?
Architecture, whether private or public, always has a presence in the public domain and is therefore perhaps the most public art form because it cannot be easily eliminated and put “in a closet.” It is my conviction and experience that all projects, even private ones, should solicit the participation of all people that might be affected by the development of a new project. My experience has taught me to go out and solicit community input from the very beginning of the design process so that the architect can understand better what the inhabitants and users of buildings in the neighborhood are experiencing and thinking. Only then can the architect incorporate some of these concerns in his own thought process for a better design of the new building.