On Oct. 2, architect Mark Sexton spoke at the University Club in the Loop to share the 40-year history of his firm, Krueck + Sexton Architects. It is behind one of the most iconic and award-winning architecture pieces in the city: Crown Fountain in Millennium Park.
Sexton's presentation focused on connecting art with architecture and how design challenges lead to breakthroughs. He discussed how collaboration with artists and inspiration from past and present designers shape his projects.
"Our offices based on collaboration from day onewe work together," Sexton said of his business partner, Ron Krueck.
Although Crown Fountain might be the most recognizable project the firm has done, its style can be seen in buildings and houses across the country. Just like the iconic downtown gem, other buildings the firm has worked on reflect a similar philosophy: pushing the boundaries of architecture and design to challenge and grow with the modern world. The forward-thinking, minimalistic glass-themed work the firm focuses on pulls much of its design ideas from surrounding landscapes. Sexton gave a prime example of this from a project the firm did in the early 2000s called A Transparent House II in Florida's Gulf Coast.
"The inspiration came from the land of where it was put," Sexton said, describing the land around the house as having very soft and fine sand called sugar sand. "These wonderful dune grasses that sprout in the areawe used that as inspiration as we were structuring the house."
While most houses were on stilts to withstand category 5 hurricanes, Sexton and Krueck used the V-shaped root structure of the dune grass to create sturdy structures for the house, thus pulling from the nature around it and using that inspiration to make the house stand strong.
"We didn't ask the dune grass for collaboration but we actually collaborated with the dune grass," he said with a laugh.
Personal desires are also present in this project, which gave the firm another layer of detail to add to its design. The owner grew up with polio and it did not let him be outside much, so having open views with ample Florida sun and free space was important for the design, Sexton said. Bringing in personal philosophy, history and imagination made the Transparent House II a piece with incredible detail and meaning that won the Divine Detail Award in 2010 from AIA Chicago.
Similar characteristics can be seen on Crown Fountain, which Sexton talked the most about and admitted he could dish about for a long time. Designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa in collaboration with Sexton's firm, it embodies what he believes is essential to architecture: that it can inspire and improve life. Sexton said the 50-foot structure was an "extraordinary development" that got everyone thinking on how to bring Plensa's vision to fruition with fresh methods that reflected the future.
"[Plensa] wanted to find an example of a 21st-century fountain," Sexton said.
To start, the team needed to find a place to manufacture the glass blocks. After careful research and networking, Krueck connected with a glass company outside of Pittsburgh, who individually cast the 22,000 glass blocks.
"Those glass blocksyou couldn't go to home depot and pick them up because there was no glass block," Sexton said.
The projectnow a city staplehas three awards and is revered as a collaboration between art, technology and design that encompasses Chicago's diversity and architecture talent. Sexton talked about it like it was unveiled yesterday, even though it is almost 15 years old.
"We were the translators, we made it physicalthat's what architect do, they make dreams physical," he said, adding that the reception of the fountain was unimaginable. "No one who worked on this project could have imagined what it has become today. And although they've tried, we have not had one college student drown in the fountain."
Like any good creative, Sexton said the process of the Crown Fountain and his other work had bouts of "I have no idea" how to make this work. But, with help from other architects, engineers, artists and contractors, many Krueck + Sexton buildings stand out in Chicago.
Other local sites the firm created include the Chicago Children's Museum, the Franklin, Shure, Inc.'s headquarters, the UIC College of Medicine, the Spertus Institute and most recently, the I Grow Chicago Peace House in Englewood. And that project was perhaps the most touching piece that left the audience with an endearing feeling of the values Sexton encapsulates through his work. The house provides a safe space for children and youth to build community, sustainability, peace and empowerment to fight the poverty and violence in the area. What started with one vision and one house has spread to include more buildings, community gardens, sport facilities and morea literal growth of the project, which Krueck + Sexton have been working on since 2014.
"In some ways, we love working around the world but actually I think we love working more in Chicago because we want to improve peoples' lives," Sexton said. "We believe architecture, design and art [do] that, so here is our little foray into that."
The inspiration here was from past firm work but also including safety and security into "an extraordinary dot of hope for these kids," as he put it.