Her dance background shows in the way both architects choreograph space to enhance clients' daily experiences. Entry halls, for example, direct users into the heart of a house with a strategically placed column or curve, while using sight lines to deliver an understanding of the house as a whole. Ideally, “when you're in a space, you understand where you are and where you might go,” she says. “But you're seeing the bigger picture at the same time. That's always been a mark for me of a great piece of work—in art, dance, architecture, anything. So you don't just experience fragments.”house proud
Cohen and Hacker seem to have entered into a groove with their work. Every new project presents a design situation that challenges and compels them. But, when they stop to think about it, they do feel somewhat marginalized by the architectural establishment because they work in a traditional vein. “I think most people want to feel the same about their house now as they will in 10 to 20 years,” Cohen says, explaining his and Hacker's commitment to picturesque architecture. “People want things they are comfortable with and familiar with in terms of the architecture—things that exude warmth and comfort and security. That's not necessarily true for office buildings or boutiques, but it's what they want to come home to.” In a pleasant surprise for both of them, the respected local architecture writer Jay Pridmore included their 2006 Shingle House (see image gallery) in a list of “Ten Modern Masterpieces” in the September 2007 issue of Chicago magazine, placing the stone-and-shingled cottage alongside structures by such heavyweights as Gehry Partners and Murphy/Jahn. “Spaces overlap, so the room you're in depends essentially on what you're looking at,” Pridmore writes of the house. “That's Mies, Corbu, even Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Though the Chicago piece is highly complimentary, it barely mentions Hacker—a fact that upsets both her and Cohen. They design as a team, using a routine that plays to each of their strengths. Cohen does the initial drawings, establishing a general vision for what the house might look like. Then Hacker, the more detail-oriented of the two, analyzes it for geometric inconsistencies and other potential pitfalls, pounding the design into shape. “I like coming in and attacking it,” she says.
Both partners stay heavily involved throughout the construction process, in most cases visiting sites and meeting with clients together. “They really listened to me and gave me good feedback,” says one recent client. “They complement each other so extremely well.”
Back at the office, Cohen and Hacker divide responsibilities: He handles contracts and marketing, while she runs the business and human resources side of the practice. The pair currently has several houses in design or under construction, including one that features such sustainable design elements as advanced framing, high-efficiency systems, and closed-cell spray-foam insulation. “The solar orientation and cross-ventilation is stuff we've been doing all these years,” Cohen says. He also recently finished writing Great Houses of Chicago, 1871–1921 with coauthor Susan Benjamin, to be published by Acanthus Press in spring 2008.
An earlier book of his, North Shore Chicago: Houses of the Lakefront Suburbs, 1890–1940 (Acanthus Press, 2004), also co-written with Benjamin, highlighted grand mansions by the likes of David Adler, Howard Van Doren Shaw, and Daniel Burnham. In their two decades of practice together, Cohen and Hacker have assembled a portfolio worthy of these illustrious predecessors. The firm's houses quietly enrich streetscapes, neighborhoods, and the lives of those lucky enough to inhabit them.