Until Perkins+Will’s Chicago office hired Cheryl Ziegler to catalogue and organize them, the archives of the nearly 80-year-old design firm were just a loose collection of photographic slides, yellowing sketches, and scrapbooks. “It wasn’t an archive,” said design director Ralph Johnson. “They were working files.”
Johnson said in his early days at the firm he would often go to the cluttered file cabinets to pull examples of past work for inspiration. Original documents date back to some of the firm’s first work, including the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois. Designed by founding principals Lawrence Perkins and Philip Will in collaboration with Eero and Eliel Saarinen, its “zoned” hubs of classrooms organized around common activity areas earned recognition from the American Institute of Architects as “a landmark of design for education which demonstrates that an inspired educational philosophy can be translated into an architecture of continuing function and beauty.”
Old photos, sketches and notes related to the project endure in the archives, which Johnson said might result in some sort of publication. For now, they’re happy to have someone protecting the wealth of information just sitting in storage on the 36th floor of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s IBM building. “A lot of these things could have been lost,” said Ziegler, an archivist and art teacher that Perkins+Will hired in June. “Some of it ended up in the Art Institute and some of it ended up in the dumpster.”
Other gems include the sketchbooks of C. William Brubaker, who started as an intern at the firm and became partner in 1958, and color slides of Lawrence Perkins’ Heathcote Elementary School in Scarsdale, New York.
The archives are not an encyclopedic or perfectly preserved record. Caustic glue once used to adhere photos and clippings in various scrapbooks has started to corrode one-of-a-kind material. But for Johnson, who used to pluck things from the archive to show other regional offices, comprehensiveness is not the point.
“It’s more of a personal view of Perkins+ Will,” he said. And it leads to interesting insights about their current work, like the fact that they still strive for a goal set by the original Perkins and Will: being “architects of social consciousness” who try to imbue institutional buildings with humanity.