By Jay Pridmore, courtesy the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Dan Dry

It’s the swerve that defines the architect as the building’s author.”
—Jackie Koo

Chicago Tribune’s calls the Wit hotel, designed by architect Jackie Koo, AB’86, “a bolt of urban energy for State Street”

Not all architects get to put bold signatures on their work, but Jackie Koo, AB’86, recently etched one on the edge of Chicago’s Loop. She designed the Wit hotel, a sculptural building with a jagged lightning-bolt motif creased on its 27-story glass façade and an atrium lobby that overlooks the “L” tracks.

“It’s the swerve,” says Koo, “that defines the architect as the building’s author.”

Koo’s design for the Wit, which opened in late May, revives a once-desolate stretch of North State Street (at the corner of Lake Street), and not just with flashy gestures. The real action of the Wit is inside, where Koo fit 298 guestrooms, two restaurants and a rooftop lounge, and conference and banquet spaces on a narrow urban site. The more startling aspects of form followed Koo’s command of the high-rise’s function.

“A Bolt of Urban Energy for State Street”

The architect, who started Koo and Associates in 2005, has had a good year. Her Wit design won the Chicago Tribune’s praise as “a bolt of urban energy for State Street”—this while many of her contemporaries are submerged in an economy notably unkind to architects. She’s designing another hotel, in the South Loop, which could be completed as early as 2011.

Koo didn’t plan to become an architect when she arrived at the University in 1982 with intense “intellectual curiosity” but no particular idea of what came next. She remembers being impressed by the stately Collegiate Gothic quadrangles. “The campus was so amazing architecturally,” she says. “It looked like my idea of a university.”

She majored in philosophy, she explains, “at a time when the whole deconstructionist movement was in vogue.” Koo insists she has not embraced deconstruction’s endless complexity, mixed meanings, and the notion that words and ideas are rarely as they seem. But deconstruction provided “a natural segue from philosophy to architectural theory.” Architecture was having a similar movement, called deconstructivism, often focused on distorting traditional elements, leaving abstract and even jarring forms behind.

Practical Elements Solved with Creativity

Rather than sticking with strict requirements, says Koo, “it’s the swerve that defines the architect as the building’s author.” As the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin writes, Koo gives the Wit’s lofty lobby “a facade of ultra-transparent, low-iron glass. By doing so, she turns passing Chicago Transit Authority trains into kinetic sculpture.”

She solved even practical problems with creativity, like the arrangement of elevator cores on this narrow site. But it’s the swerve that makes the building “fresh and unexpected,” she says. “That was what the owner was looking for in the Wit, and that was the design’s concept from the very beginning.”

Originally published on August 3, 2009.