If you don’t know Tom Jacobs by sight, you certainly know the Riverside architect through one of the most recognizable landmarks in downtown Chicago.
Jacobs was the project architect for the Crown Fountain – two 50-foot tall glass towers backlit with an LED screen projecting gigantic human faces set across from each other in a reflecting pool in Millennium Park.
He was also project architect for the Spertus Institute, a cut crystal looking glass building on South Michigan Avenue. A principal partner in the firm of Krueck and Sexton in Chicago, Jacobs on Jan. 20 was announced as one of 13 Young Architect Award winners by the American Institute of Architects.
Jacobs, 43, will be honored at the national AIA convention in Washington, D.C., in May.
“I think, ultimately, the nicest thing about it is that the things you believe in and advocate for – that other people see value in what we try to do almost every day.”
At home in Riverside, Jacobs is probably best known for his role as founder and president of the Riverside Sustainability Council, which advocates for green solutions to be incorporated into village life. He was a champion of the Riverside bike route plan, which was established by the village board in 2010.
He has also written about sustainability issues in recent years as an occasional columnist for the Landmark. His wife, Kim, is past president of the Frederick Law Olmsted Society and a member of the Riverside Historical Commission. The couple has two children, ages 11 and 9.
While he calls the Chicago area home now, Jacobs grew up in the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland. His father, Bodo, also an architect, worked as a manager for a construction company and took Tom to job sites, which sparked an early interest in building.
“I grew up with it, in a way,” said Jacobs.
After graduating from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, he worked for a year at an architectural firm in Zurich. But it was before graduating, in 1992, that he came to the United State for the first time – a trip to New York City.
“As an aspiring architect, I was just blown away from the urbanity and density,” Jacobs said. “I just loved it and thought maybe someday I’d like to experience it again.”
He got the chance to return to the U.S. in 1996, following his then-girlfriend to Chicago.
Jacobs spent his first year in the city at a firm which was working on creating an Art Nouveau apartment, a jarring situation for someone interested in designing contemporary architecture.
“In terms of modern architecture, it’s the last thing you think you’d ever do,” said Jacobs. “In the career of every young architect you come to a point where you have to decide if you want to pursue this because of the initial reasons for doing it, or whether you’re content having a job and doing 9-to-5 work. Being involved in that apartment, I thought is there more? I had higher aspirations.”
He ended up landing a job at Krueck and Sexton and then spent a short time at Herzog and de Meuron in San Francisco, another top design firm.
But in 1997, Krueck and Sexton lured him back, mainly because of a new project – Crown Fountain.
The firm had its doubts about the fountain, which was designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. The intricacies of combining water, electricity and immense towers of thin, hand-cast glass blocks seemed risky.
“The biggest challenge was how to safely realize this wild idea and how to make it appear as effortless as possible,” said Jacobs.
It turned out to be a smashing success.
“I see that project for our firm as a real game-changer,” said Jacobs. “It creates a place in the city that is magical. It makes people smile and [promotes] positive activity. We wish that projects we do for paying clients have that effect on people.”
Jacobs was also the project architect and part of the design team that created the Spertus Institute, whose mission is to be a “center for Jewish learning and culture.” The challenge there was two-fold. First, how to translate the mission into an architectural expression and, second, how to integrate a contemporary building into a street wall lined with older buildings and which had been given landmark status.
The design team decided to go with an all-glass faade, one where the glass appeared folded onto itself, casting light and reflections differently throughout the day. When presented with the idea, Spertus’ then-chief Howard Sulkin confirmed they had hit on the right solution, said Jacobs.
“I remember what he said very clearly,” said Jacobs. “He said, ‘In Judaism there is no black and white. Everything is shades of gray.'”
The final design reflected his firm’s commitment to listening to the client, Jacobs said.
“He articulated what Spertus stands for,” said Jacobs. “Every time you see the building it looks different. That’s where it dovetails between finding an expression for the client and cooperating with the existing buildings [around it].”
The key to creating good architecture is, for Jacobs, “listening to people to find out what they need to make life better.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that architects have to be leaders. But the ultimate jury on the success of our services is really how well these buildings satisfy their needs.”