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The Spertus Institute

2010 May 19
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Photo Courtesy of William Zbaren

610 S. Michigan Avenue

After winning the commission to design the new Spertus Institute, in the taxi ride back to the office (according to the New York Times) Donald Krueck turned to his partner Mark Sexton and asked, “Now how are we going to do it?” It would be an understatement to say that they had a daunting task ahead of them. They were asked to design a building that looked forward in style on Michigan Avenue – a street that’s famous for its historic architecture.

That was only half the challenge. Spertus also asked that they incorporate a college, library and museum into the narrow building, not to mention including such amenities as a theater, gift shop, and a kosher café . . . all of course on a tight budget. The Spertus Institute had been operating out of a non-descript building that went mostly unnoticed, not fitting for an organization that’s home to the world’s largest graduate program of Jewish studies, a reputable collection of Jewish-related artifacts, and one of the country’s most impressive Jewish libraries. Instead of renovating their current space they chose to build a new building on a vacant lot – right next door.

It is surprising that a reflective, crystalline facade of folded glass could fit in so well on a street defined by classically inspired, masonry buildings. Facets of blue, grey and silver glass project from the building’s surface in every direction. It is architectural origami. Though inventive and unmistakably contemporary, the Spertus building manages to relate to its surroundings. The building’s height mostly corresponds with that of its neighbors. And though the glass windows come in 726 pieces and form 556 different shapes, their size is in keeping with the size of windows on neighboring buildings.

Photo Courtesy of William Zbaren

The facade is more than attractive – it’s relevant. In the original design the building had a flat roofline. Howard Sulkin, Spertus’s president, looked at the initial drawings and exclaimed, “This is not a Jewish building.” He explained that in Jewish culture learning is a limitless journey, thus the building’s cornice should reach for the stars. Now the top of the building is open and irregular, as if growing. The reflective glass references the importance of light in Jewish faith. And perhaps most importantly, the building is inviting – an important characteristic for a college, library and museum.

Krueck + Sexton made it work outside and inside. They succeeded in fitting in everything they were asked to, and created a soaring atrium up the middle of the interior to facilitate movement between its various parts.

True to many contemporary buildings, one of the its most exciting features is its least visible – its efforts towards sustainability. 550 tons of CO2 are saved per year through such measures as high performance lighting and demand-based ventilation. The building also features a 6,700 square foot green roof that manages storm water, absorbs air pollution, and cools the building during hot summer months.


Interested in visiting the Spertus Institute? Here is their website. Be sure to explore Krueck + Sexton’s Spertus building and others in greater depth here.

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