What struck Young Guns panelist Mark Peters about the work of fellow Chicago architect Vladimir Radutny is its breadth, ranging from furniture design to institutional commissions to slick renovations to private, ground-up homes. "I always have an appreciation for architects who show an ability to shift scales in their work," Peters says.
"An ability to shift scales" might be an apt description of Radutny's path at large. Born in what is now Ukraine (and was then the Soviet Union), Radutny, 34, emigrated to the United States in 1989. "My parents and I are refugees, we're Russian Jews," he says, "and at that point a lot of Russian Jews were fleeing the Soviet Union to various locations." He was raised in Chicago from age 11 on, spent a couple of years at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, transferred to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spent his junior year studying architecture at a program "in the stables of the Chateau Versailles," graduated from U of I, and earned his M. Arch there, as well. From there, Radutny moved to London with his then-girlfriend (now his wife), where he joined Boyarsky Murphy Architects. He worked for Nicholas Boyarsky, whose father, Alvin, had created the Architectural Association—"that's where Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid basically came out of," Radutny says—and Nicholas' wife, Nicola Murphy.
Working in this husband-and-wife shop was just the start of things for Radutny, who opened SIDE Architecture in 2008 after cutting his teeth back in Chicago, first at Perkins + Will and then at Krueck + Sexton Architects. It was at Krueck + Sexton where he met Paul Tebben, who became a close friend and eventually his partner in founding SIDE. "We thought, well, what if we did architecture development and construction as its own entity, and we'd be our own client, so we would build things that we feel are appropriate and then try to sell the product that we created?" he says. "Unfortunately, it was 2008 and the real estate market wasn't there to take on any experimental ideas, so we were in a situation where we were on our own, and we had to buckle up and do what we're good at, which is architecture—providing services."
Some five years after its inception, SIDE, which describes itself as "an attitude; a studio fuel to innovate, design and explore," has a roster of projects under its belt; the firm has earned much buzz from digital and print architecture publications and just this year won three AIA Chicago awards. Below, Radutny talks about his experience working for Perkins + Will, why he branched out on his own, and what principles unite SIDE's rather varied oeuvre:
Going from Boyarsky Murphy Architects in London to Perkins + Will must have been quite a change for you.
I never worked for a big office, so I thought I'd try and see what it's about. One of my best friends worked there, so it was kind of a nice transition because we went to school together and we worked on some of the same projects, and then we sat next to each other for three-plus years working on pretty much the same job.
What was it like working for such an esteemed Chicago firm? What was most worthwhile about that experience?
First of all, the culture at Perkins + Will is very different than other larger firms. It's kind of community-based and friendlier, and it's not as corporate—it's a corporate structure but as a work atmosphere it wasn't. I was exposed to projects that took decades to come to fruition, and it was was unlike anything I'd experienced before. A hospital would be a $100M project, and you'd see how many people you'd need to actually develop the schematics, how many changes you'd need to go through, and so on. It's like any other project, but it's just on a much grander scale.
And I really enjoyed the experience because there's so many talented people around you, and you really get to learn a lot of things that you weren't able to learn in school—certain types of models, certain type of renderings, different drawing styles. You're just exposed to so many more resources because there's that many more people and there's so many more experiences to tap for information.
And yet you still decided to launch your own firm. Was that the move immediately after leaving Perkins + Will?
No, I wanted to shift gears a little bit because I'm more comfortable working at a smaller scale. I applied for a job with Krueck + Sexton Architects, one of the most innovative, high-profile offices in Chicago. They've done a lot of really unique work and they were plugged in with a totally different type of client base, where it allowed them to do more experimental, explorative-type architecture. I worked there for a couple of years, and after that we launched our firm in 2008.
What was that thought process like for you? Was it a eureka moment?
No, I've always a wanted to be on my own, not that I don't like working on teams or don't like to work in offices, but there's a sense of personal accountability and sense of personal attitude that you have toward anything you do, and when you are more on the production end there's a cerain amount of satisfation you get out of each and every job. A lot of times, in an office, your tasks are divided into certain responsibilities. I always thought I wanted to know where things start to how they end, from the time you meet the person and discuss an idea to the time there's a party afterwards to celebrate the completion. And that's always been my interest—we [business partner Paul Tebben and I] had an opportunity to do it, and so we just grabbed it.
Let's say you have two young guys who leave whatever it is they're doing and start their own firm—how did your former bosses respond to such a move?
It's a good question—honestly, I can only tell you what I feel, I don't know for sure. There are two ways of looking at it. One, I feel like they probably should be and could be proud that the people who came out of their office are successful and doing well and able to go on their own. The other way I see it: I've been in touch with [Krueck + Sexton principal] Mark Sexton, and he's been really informative in some of the questions we have, primarily in the financial and business end. There are so many things you have to learn that you never even come remotely close to seeing when you're working in an office—how to deal with clients, how to deal with certain situations, how to put together contracts for certain scopes of work. He's been really responsive, so I'd imagine he's doing that not out of any sort of negative reaction, but because he feels a mentor-type attitude where he wants to pass on the torch a little bit.
So you founded your firm in 2008; would you say that in the last four of five years SIDE Architecture has become known for something specific? Is there a signature thing you guys do, or is it really all over the map?
In terms of work type, we've been primarily focused on residential just because that's the kind of work you get through the doors. The competitions—where people do a design competition for a project or a building and then potentially you have the chance to win that competition and you can get that job—are something we don't actually engage with. I have a family, and competitions are great if you're able to have slow income and take a hit and work on something for three months without ever getting paid for it. Our interest is really the constructon and building aspect of architecture. There's this element of the hypothetical, which is great, but we really like to see things happen and executed. A lot of the work that has been executed is grounded in some reality, and even though we're trying to push the boundaries of some material and spatial approach we're still interested in building things.
Can you elaborate on this idea of pushing the material and space-planning boundaries?
We did four projects recently, and three of them won an AIA award from the local AIA chapter. One was this 1,500-square-foot basement space, and the project is called "Planted Environment" (below). Basically the clients wanted a Bali-esuqe spa in the most prototypical suburban neighborhood. They had an unfinished basement and we did something totally out of context and provided them an environment that's holodeck-like, where you just stepped into something that doesn't exist. We used plywood as a primary material for all the walls; there was an assembly sequence that's kind of like laying bricks, everything was curved so you're kind of going against the grain of an orthogonal structure. And these walls are all porous, so they're light and airy and we kind of took cues from Asian motifs and shoji screens.
These are a lot of renovations, but do you also do ground-up work.
Yeah, we're doing a house in the suburbs for a client that's kind of new construction. And we're just finishing up the schematic design for a religious center in Toledo, Ohio.
Would you say there's a particular aesthetic style that unites all of your work?
We approach every project with an intent to create the most appropriate solutions—those appropriate solutions come from the creative process, but they're grounded in function, and that's kind of been our thing. It's not just to do something that only has one meaning, we're trying to build mutliple meanings into everything decison that's made, whether that's a functional meaning or spatial meaning or whether it's a cost-effective measure. Also, there's a sense of continuity with the materials and how they integrate themselves into the space. With each project we try to approach it so that your eye doesn't really rest; it wants to continue moving. As you're looking around you're actually seeing all these components next to it or adjacent to it.
Going back to your recent AIA—what was it like to win?
That was a very humbling, and also a very pause-type monent, because it wasn't just necessarily winning those awards—we won three out of the four projects we submitted and one of them was an Honor Award, and we didn't realize until we got there that one of the projects was one of the top projects of the day. Then we started going through the exhibit and seeing the other local Chicago architects' winning projects—Stanley Tigerman's project was also one of the Honor Awards and Stanley Tigerman is a global figure. Getting your name announced next to him was, like, you don't necessarily dream of these things but it was like, wow, we're being mentioned next to some of the most unique people out there. It was a surprise, but at the same time it was such a good feeling. You work hard and do good work and don't necessarily think of being honored, but it's nice to see your peers honor you, because that's where a lot of the credibility come from. Clients think you might be doing well, but there's something special when you know that your equals or the community actually starts to respect your work, as well.
You were once employed by Perkins + Will, so I have to ask: obviously they have a reputation for incredible Chicago skyscrapers. Is that something you ever want to work on or hope to work on in the future?
I think I'm one of those people who would like to take one step at a time. I don't like to plan too far ahead, but I would love to do something in the city that I live and work, something significant. That's not really the intent at the moment, but if there's an opportunity to do a high rise or collaborate with another firm on a high rise, to put not necessarily a signature but a mark on the city, to capture a timeframe, why not? You only live once.