No one would call Stuart Cohen, FAIA, or Julie Hacker, AIA, shy. The encyclopedic Cohen, a former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, never seems more comfortable than when eloquently expounding on all things architectural. Hacker, his wife and business partner, asserts her views on design with the same intensity she applies to competing in triathlons. The Evanston, Ill.-based couple make a formidable duo—a fact their elegant body of work, mostly concentrated in Chicago's leafy North Shore suburbs, ably demonstrates. Informed by both modern and classical principles, their traditionally styled homes inhabit these genteel neighborhoods like fine pieces of furniture.
Cohen's penchant for challenging the status quo emerged in the 1970s, when he and six others joined forces to revive Chicago's architectural culture by staging bold exhibitions and symposia. The group—comprising Cohen; Tom Beeby, FAIA; Larry Booth, FAIA; James Ingo Freed; Jim Nagle, FAIA; Stanley Tigerman, FAIA; and Ben Weese, FAIA—called itself the Chicago Seven, after the 1960s political radicals. At the time, Cornell University-educated Cohen—a veteran of the offices of Richard Meier and Philip Johnson—was experimenting with postmodern work. During the 1980s, he practiced with fellow Chicago architect Anders Nereim while also teaching at UIC and raising two daughters from his first marriage.
Meanwhile Hacker, who studied modern dance at Wesleyan University and in New York City, had returned to her native Chicago for architecture school at UIC. She worked in the offices of Booth and Beeby, moving to Cohen and Nereim's firm after she and Cohen married in 1986. “I thought Stuart just had this really interesting way of looking at space,” she says. Nereim and Cohen eventually parted ways, and in 1991 Stuart Cohen & Julie Hacker Architects was formed.
According to Cohen, the pair “backed into” the rigorous, traditionally rooted work they do today. He and Nereim had designed a Chicago remodel—the Carrigan Townhouse—that used generous amounts of trimwork to delineate interior spaces. As Cohen and Hacker's partnership gained strength, they delved deeper into this idea of defining rooms within rooms by using trim, beams, columns, and ceiling height changes. The notion of juxtaposing modern spatial concepts with traditional detailing fascinated them, and with each project they gained confidence that this path was right for them. They also realized that they loved designing houses—both remodels and new construction. “For me, on the list of 20th-century architecture, so many of the high points were houses,” Cohen says. “The thought that somehow houses were an art form always appealed to me.” In time, custom residential projects became their exclusive focus.
guiding principles When their son was born in 1995, Cohen and Hacker moved their practice from downtown Chicago to be closer to their Evanston condominium. Now their commute consists of a five-minute drive or 15-minute walk to the office—a former Oriental rug warehouse on a side street. Homey painted-wood furnishings and sunlight streaming in through an east-facing storefront window help give the open studio a casual vibe. “I always wanted an office where you could have intellectual discussions,” Cohen explains. He and Hacker are quick to cite the skill and importance of their staff, who appreciate the encouraging atmosphere. “The level of communication in the office now is the best it's ever been,” says designer Gary Shumaker.
Informality aside, the six-person staff faces a demanding work load. The firm creates about 50 sheets of drawings for a typical project and up to 90 for a particularly large commission. It builds numerous foam-board models in addition to computer ones. Like most successful architecture, Cohen and Hacker's completed residences seem effortless, but the designs behind them tend to be quite complex. All the drawings and models help the two keep each little piece of the building process under control.
Certain elements appear in each of their houses: classical axial layouts, custom trim that organizes spaces, views through glass cabinetry or French doors into other rooms. Influences as diverse as Michelangelo, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Edwin Lutyens, and Cohen's Cornell professor, Colin Rowe, affect the work in ways that aren't always obvious. “I think of all the trimwork we do, and the way it works spatially comes out of Frank Lloyd Wright,” Cohen says. “Substitute Georgian moldings for flat boards ... the moldings either define spaces or connect them to one another.”
Though the firm designs buildings rooted in various historical idioms—Shingle-style and English Tudor new houses and a Prairie-style remodel are a few recent examples—each project represents a new exploration into how older styles can be pushed to accommodate modernist affinities for natural light and open floor plans. “For me, Corbu was so monumental. How can you pretend it never happened?” Cohen asks. “We could,” Hacker adds, “but it wouldn't be as interesting.”