Thomas Kerwin '07
Taking a firm approach to 'sustainable, vibrant' architecture
By Barbara Rose
Architect Thomas Kerwin '07 achieved success early in life. Named a partner at global architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) before age 40, he excelled at managing large, complex urban projects around the world.
Yet it took a setback to open the door to his riskiest and potentially most rewarding project so far: building an architectural firm with his own name on the door.
At SOM, Kerwin worked closely with Chicago's Magellan Development Group on plans for a lakefront Olympic Village to support Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Summer Games. But Chicago was eliminated from contention in October 2009, and a planned celebration turned into a post-mortem discussion with Magellan's president, David Carlins.
Over dinner one evening, Carlin proposed a partnership that would enable Magellan to leverage its strengths as a high-end, mixed use developer in markets such as Asia, where Kerwin, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), had worked extensively. Kerwin proposed bringing in fellow architects David Brininstool and Brad Lynch, who also worked on the Olympic bid.
Talks led to the launch in January 2010 of Brininstool, Kerwin and Lynch (BKL), a team that combines Kerwin's expertise in large-scale development with Brininstool and Lynch's reputation for innovative design and Magellan's skills and financial stability.
"This became a chance to control my own destiny and to build a team that could do great work all over the world," says 47-year-old Kerwin, who left SOM after 23 years to become the new firm's managing principal.
"It was a chance to test my business acumen and more directly apply the skills I learned at Kellogg," he adds. "Lots of people start firms without formal business education, but I'm not sure I would have had the confidence or the skills. More than starting a new architecture firm, this was creating a new business model" with a developer as a business partner.
The year-old firm, with about 45 design professionals, is already winning work. BKL is partnering with Magellan on a 50-story tower, scheduled to break ground in May on East Wacker Drive in Chicago. Among BKL's other projects are the interior renovation of O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 5, China Aviation's headquarters in Beijing and a 70-story hotel and residential tower in Shaoxing, China.
Kerwin has known since childhood that he wanted to be an architect. "I loved the tactile nature of building things," he recalls.
At BKL, he intends to build a practice that is "sustainable, vibrant and selective about what it does," he says. "Great architecture enables businesses to thrive and succeed. It is a means to strengthen the goals of business leaders and enrich people's lives."