Gene Summers, 1928-2012

Gene Summers, 1928-2012

Summers, left, with Helmut Jahn.
Courtesy Murphy Jahn

In the spring of 1989, architect Gene Summers, FAIA, accepted the position of dean of the College of Architecture, Planning and Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), a role that had been profoundly shaped by his former employer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Gene accepted the position during a time of worldwide economic and political changes, advancements in computer technology, environmental concerns, and diverse competing architectural ideologies, compounding the influence of the steadfast Miesian foundation of the college. In contrast, Mies arrived in Chicago in 1939 with a clear, singular vision, and when the postwar economy boomed, he was able to build the IIT campus and College of Architecture into the fastest-growing technological university in the United States.

Like Mies, Gene carried out an influential restructuring of the curriculum. Mies, however, had headed the most seminal school of its time, the Bauhaus, before coming to IIT. Gene had never taught before, so he applied his life experience and years as an architect and client in creating his own vision for architectural education.

During his four years as dean, Gene built a unique structure for teaching, which he called the “tutorial unit.” Understanding that students all learn in different ways, he selected three senior architects to lead smaller schools within the architecture school, each with its own architectural philosophy and vocabulary, all within the trajectory of modernism. He hired over 20 new faculty members within the first two years of his tenure.

McCormick Place, Perspective View looking Toward Lake (1969), Gene Summers for C.F. Murphy.
Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

While dean, Gene also served as campus architect for the main campus of IIT, producing a master plan that called for a new student center that was eventually realized as the OMA McCormick Tribune Campus Center. He also initiated the 1970s renovation of one of Mies’ most important buildings, the home of the architecture school, S. R. Crown Hall. Credited to be the first historic preservation of an important modernist building, the project included restoration of core wood walls and the construction of a previously unrealized library. Acknowledging the increasing importance of digital technology, Gene combined books with computers, creating the Graham Resource Center as both a research and design tool, with funding by the Graham Foundation.

Having been himself influenced by his travels, Gene created a study-abroad semester and founded a center in Italy to enrich the learning experiences of students and faculty alike. He selected a small, medieval walled town on a hilltop on the train line between Florence and Rome, an area rich in art and architectural history. Many IIT students describe the opportunity to study there as life changing.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, on July 31, 1928, Gene had a varied career before coming to IIT. During his 16 years in Mies’ office, among other projects, he was given lead responsibility for implementing the Seagram Building in New York. At this time, he began building an art collection and developed a close friendship with artist Jim Dine. In 1967, he became head of Chicago’s most powerful architecture firm, C. F. Murphy, where he designed one of Chicago’s most iconic buildings, McCormick Place. In the 1970s, he took on the role of client, founding Ridgeway Development in California with partner and Seagram heiress Phyllis Lambert, where he designed and developed hotel and industrial properties. During this time, Gene built a significant collection of drawings by architects that he donated to the Canadian Centre of Architecture, founded by Lambert. In the 1980s, Gene moved to the South of France, taking up sculpture, watercolors, and furniture design, which would become the great creative work of his last 25 years.

Although strong-minded, Gene was known for his modesty as well as his prolific creativity and drive. He was a role model for many, welcoming former students and colleagues to his home in Northern California, following his deanship at IIT. All his family share his creativity, notably his son Blake, an architect, artist, and curator; his daughter Ali, currently studying photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and his wife Jacci, photographer, bookbinder, and editor.

Gene Summers died in December at the age of 83. He will be honored with a public memorial on May 5 in S. R. Crown Hall on the IIT main campus.