Out of Office: Eric Keune

An architect and author defends “good design” and explains how architecture is immersive in more ways than one.

May 10, 2017 · 7 min read
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Eric, a resident of Chicago, recently visited Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

​Eric Keune’s roots in architecture run deep. A design director in SOM’s Chicago office, he is also an author, historian, and expert on some of the lesser-known figures in Modernist design. We picked Eric’s brain for Out of Office, an ongoing series on the people at SOM and the places and things that inspire them.

What made you want to become an architect?
It seemed like a natural choice. My father was an architect and my mother an artist. Growing up, I was surrounded by the artistic process — by design, abstraction, and making. I was very influenced by construction-related toys, including LEGOs. Instead of having the usual bin of various LEGOs, I’d return all the sets to their original boxes, in complete form, when done — a practice that has unsurprisingly been passed on to our son.

What aspect do you enjoy the most about your job?
It allows me to be continually immersed, for two- to five-year periods, in the various “worlds” of our clients, each of which is unique and completely different from our realm of architectural practice. The caliber and diversity of our clients have, in my case, offered long glimpses into the U.S. State Department, the Archdiocese of Northern California, an automobile manufacturer, and most recently, a Swiss pharmaceutical conglomerate. There’s always another world coming!

“That can’t be done” is not a valid answer. There is always a way — it is upon us to find it.

If you hadn’t become an architect, what would you be doing?
I’d continue being a teacher, author, and zealot. I’d love to be a winemaker someday, but I am not naïve about the fact that this is a capital-intensive pursuit when done well. The “gentleman farmer” approach is more likely.

What piece of advice do you have for students?
“No” is just a challenge to find another way. “That can’t be done” is not a valid answer. There is always a way — it is upon us to find it.

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Eric, the author of a book on Paffard Keatinge-Clay, revisits one of the English-born architect’s landmark works: his 1969 addition to the San Francisco Art Institute.

What are 3 books you think anyone should read in their lifetime and why?
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. Interconnected narratives that use New York as an immersive tableau — a “character” that links three distinctive, seemingly unrelated stories, in some cases, profoundly architectural, spatial, and experiential in nature. It sticks with you.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. My introduction to Murakami’s work remains in many ways the most memorable: two linked stories, which are set in different places and times, but converge at the novel’s denouement — a recurring theme in his work.

The Power Broker by Robert Caro. Robert Moses was a singular, polarizing, and at times nearly unstoppable figure in the history of New York City. This is essential reading for anyone interested in the intersection of planning, construction, and the making of the 20th-century American city, with all the warts and often unspoken unpleasantness exposed to view. Recommended for a very long trip.

What’s your favorite app?
It’s a tie between Strut — a map-based application that makes my sometimes relentless and frequent travel schedule into something graphic, scalable, and weirdly entertaining — and Instagram, worlds within worlds within worlds, and an often surprising mechanism to find out where others are, and what they are doing. Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson are perhaps among the more prolific and noteworthy heavy users.

What experiences are on your bucket list?
Visit Scandinavia — all of it. By way of my grandparents, I am from there, but have never been to a single one of these countries. I’m hoping to make a dent later this summer.

You’re showing visitors your city, where’s the first place you take them?
Lately it has been our roof. But if it’s cold, then a drive out to the end of Museum Drive, which projects far out into Lake Michigan and offers an impressive vista back onto the skyline of Chicago set against the water.

When you think about the future, what excites you?
The aspiration that our children will inherit a better world, despite the fact that the global climate would increasingly seem to suggest otherwise.

What is most important in design right now?
The internet has raised global awareness of what constitutes “design,” and its prominence in media and culture has never been higher. The increasing speed of transmission and dissemination of ideas has had the cumulative effect of accelerating design. By extension, this has also impacted the way that we work, compelling designers to make the most of what is becoming an ever diminishing process. “Design” is increasingly reduced to only an image — in many cases, a single computer rendering. We need to make the most intelligent use of ever-more-powerful digital tools in order to maintain the integrity of the process. The path of least resistance must itself be resisted.

Who is someone you admire?
Olafur Eliasson, the Icelandic-Danish artist known primarily for his large-scale artworks, which frequently involve optics and geometry. I find his work conceptually intriguing and viscerally engaging. However, I regret having seen only very few of the largest and most famous pieces in person. Their ambition is formidable, seeming at once to be of this time, while also recognizing influencing factors and issues outside the practice of contemporary art. A friend of mine recently gave me one of his “Little Sun” solar powered LED lamps — a charitable undertaking to bring light to communities not served by electricity. This self-initiated project was a complete surprise to me. This line of inquiry continues in the form of solar powered chargers and a forthcoming tabletop lamp, as well. He has created a unique practice facilitating exploration of topics, projects, themes, and issues of personal interest, such as The Kitchen, a vegetarian cookbook documenting the meals made, served, and eaten by his staff.

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Eric prepares for liftoff in the 27-story atrium of Nanjing Keyne Centre, in Nanjing, China.

What is the most awe-inspiring space you’ve been in?
I once had the good fortune to visit a dry dock in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, before it closed. I stood beneath the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, which was inside the dock being serviced atop an immense series of solid concrete blocks. From beneath the ship, with daylight pouring down, reflected off the cantilevered hull (which was overhanging the dock walls on all sides), the experience of scale was humbling and sublime. I was able to touch the enormous blades of the propulsion screws and the rudders.

What is the most important quality for an architect or engineer to have?
A willingness to hear another idea, or consider a problem from another approach or perspective. The relationship between architecture and engineering is so fundamental, especially to how we work. Both disciplines must be in synchronous and continual dialogue with one another, and not siloed, or reliant upon “the usual way” of doing things. Frequently, there is a better way. Tangibly, one of the most important things for an engineer to have is a sketchbook — and intangibly, the willingness and ability to draw in it, not just taking notes or using it to make calculations. This is where ideas reside.

Define good leadership…
• Hire people smarter than you.
• Give people enough rope to hang themselves. Few will.
• Expect the best, prepare for the worst.
• Never forget the long view — tactics are not strategy.
Semper preperatus: Luck favors the prepared.
• If you want something done right, do it yourself.

Define good design…
Our calling as architects and engineers. Good design is a process, a language, a way of living and being. It is the fonts, the utensils, the clothing, the eyewear, the vehicles, the lighting, and the tools we use every day. Transcending typologies and scales, good design speaks to everyone. It improves our lives, and by extension, the world we live in, by leaving the smallest possible footprint and utilizing the minimum amount of resources. Charles Eames said that spending more money one time on a chair that will be used for your entire life is far better than buying four chairs and throwing each one away. Good design is not product.

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