Mark Lamster | Essays

Remembering Gene Summers, 1928–2011

Gene Summers and Mies van der Rohe during the construction of the Seagram Building. Photo: Image courtesy Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal

At one point during the construction of the Seagram Building, one of the project architects felt his authority was being undermined and threatened to walk off the job. Mies, who was averse to confrontation and not keen on personal management, took the man to dinner and when the matter came up, offered a little advice: "Nobody gives you authority, you just take it." The man stayed on. Gene Summers, who was Mies's own chief deputy, was a fly on the wall for that conversation, and by all accounts absorbed the lesson. Sadly, he died last week, at the age of 83. 

Summers, who was born and trained in Texas, was a project architect for Mies from 1950 to 1966, working on such key works as Seagram, the Toronto Dominion Centre, and the National Gallery in Berlin. Careful and gentlemanly, he was one of the architects who made Mies Mies, especially when the master was not around, as with Seagram. 

McCormick Place. Photo: Murphy/Jahn

He got his own chance to "take authority" in 1967, when Mies recommended him to the firm C.F. Murphy as architect for Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center. This enormous Miesian shed is a wonder of brooding architectual engineering, an unmissable landmark along Lake Shore Drive. The roof covers 19 acres and extends 75 feet beyond the wall line. Inside, the convention floor is broken by only 8 columns. For all its structural genius, however, it cuts the city off from its waterfront—"one of Chicago's biggest planning gaffes," according to the AIA Guide to Chicago. The center has since been expanded, by SOM, and there has been some question about the future of the building. 

Summers and Phyllis Lambert, in the 1970s. Photo: Fonds Phyllis Lambert, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal

Summers later became the director of IIT, and partnered with Phyllis Lambert (the two became friendly during the construction of Seagram) on several projects, including the restoration of the Biltmore Hotel, in Los Angeles. His legacy includes the continued success of the Murphy firm, now Murphy/Jahn, under the direction of Helmut Jahn, who began with the company as Summers's deputy. 

Condolences to his friends and colleagues.

UPDATE: A statement from Phyllis Lambert:

The design of a spoon and the design of a building were of equal importance to Gene, but expressly on condition that they were done well. The book Gene Summers: Art/Architecture shows his work at these two scales, both imbued with the same intention: powerful buildings at the leading edge of technology for which he was responsible, and with equal dedication and research, the design of the carefully crafted bowls and furniture, watercolors and sculpture that he has made with his own hands.

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