In a small conference room on the 34th floor of the old Prudential Building on East Randolph, four architects huddle around a table strewn with drawings, sketches, and photographs. Before them is their firm’s evolving plan for a 22-story office building to be constructed in Santiago, Chile. In four weeks Loebl Schlossman & Hackl’s design will be presented to the client, along with four competing proposals.

Project designer Richard Drinkwater is a 30-year-old architect who’s been with the firm for less than a year. He thinks the building should have a fourth elevator, but it seems there’s no place to put it.

“No question,” agrees Imre Langmar, who’s been on staff since emigrating from Hungary in 1963. “We definitely need a fourth elevator.”

“Is the core so fixed it can’t be moved one way to accommodate the elevator?” asks Donald Hackl, president of the firm. After some debate, they agree that moving the core would further complicate the design, so Hackl wonders if a stairwell can be “flipped” to the opposite side to solve the problem. That has possibilities, everyone nods.

Senior partner David Marks asks if the base of the crown atop the building–a huge decorative wedge the architects refer to as an “inverted potato chip”–might hold some of the air-conditioning equipment.

“Impossible,” says Langmar. “Not enough room.”

“What about the roof terrace?” asks Hackl.

“No, no,” says Langmar. “We need more space.” He argues that an entire upper floor of the building must be set aside for the cooling tower; there’s no other way. That, of course, means losing a floor of high-rent office space, but after a long conversation about other possibilities Langmar prevails.

“Well, then,” Hackl says, “we’ll just have to lose an office floor.” He quickly moves on to other matters: the proposed bluish green outer skin of the building; the connection between the first-floor lobby and the arcade; the problem of fitting the building neatly into a triangular piece of land in the center of downtown Santiago.

Loebl Schlossman & Hackl is one of the five largest architecture firms in Chicago, with some 110 architects and interior designers on staff. It’s also one of the city’s oldest firms, having been founded in 1925. Yet Loebl Schlossman & Hackl has maintained a low profile for most of its existence. It can hardly compete for name recognition with firms like Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Perkins & Will, Harry Weese Associates, or Murphy Jahn. Even within the profession it’s not well-known. When I asked one architect about the company, he said, “Well, they’re big and quite old, but I really can’t tell you more than that.”

There are several reasons for the modest standing. No stars, for one. No Helmut Jahns, Bruce Grahams, or Walter Netsches here. Decisions tend to be made by teams, and responsibilities are spread around so no one person gets all the glory–or all the shame. No overarching philosophy, for another. Its leaders haven’t left behind a body of controversial writings or gotten mired in scandals, and the company has always had a chameleonlike ability to respond to the needs of the times. Loebl Schlossman & Hackl buildings run the gamut of styles.

The firm has traditionally been “management oriented, not design oriented,” according to Donald Hackl. Design must give the client what he wants and succeed at the commercial level. It’s not surprising that the working title for their corporate history is “No Monuments to Themselves.” There’s humility here, yes, and quite a bit of pride in the humility.

There’s one other, perhaps more intriguing reason why Loebl Schlossman & Hackl has been accorded so little notice, despite a prodigious amount of work over a 70-year period: the firm has long been identified with shopping mall design. Indeed, in this area it’s one of the nation’s pioneers. Yet shopping malls have not inspired much critical acclaim. As the late Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp once observed, “It is not easy to make an architectural statement in the middle of a parking lot.”

In recent years, however, in the midst of a major construction slump, the company has become a major player both downtown and overseas, and Loebl Schlossman & Hackl has decided to aim for greater visibility. “In the past we succeeded by being very mainstream,” says Hackl. “All things to all people. Now we’re beginning to carefully develop a strategic vision of our own.” Nothing wild or crazy, he adds, and certainly no cultivating of individual stars. More of a thrust toward identifying the company with a recognizable body of classy, commercially viable work. “In this business you survive by flexibility,” he says. “You can’t get ahead by looking in the rearview mirror.”

The Santiago building gradually taking form on the meeting-room table is an innovative, almost radical design–an oddly contoured structure with a variety of interlocking shapes and an airfoil at the pinnacle. Though the design is a departure from the firm’s previous work, the time-honored allegiance to collegial decision making remains intact.

After an hour or so, Hackl is reminded of a business luncheon that starts in 15 minutes. As he reaches for his coat and his ever-present pack of Benson & Hedges, he squeezes in a few more seconds of discussion. “We can’t expect every nuance to be worked out,” he says finally, as he scurries out the door. “If there are warts they’ll be resolved.”

Loebl Schlossman & Hackl may keep a low profile, but Donald Hackl, who’s guiding its destiny these days, does not. He’s a driven man, a self-described workaholic. He leaves his home in Wilmette at 6:30 every morning, is at his desk by 7:30, and never lets up until about 8 in the evening. Then he’s home by 9 for dinner with his wife of 33 years, Bernadine. At 62, he expresses little inclination to slow down; there are too many projects still in the hopper, too many possibilities to explore. “Work and career are a celebration of life as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “This is where I get my kicks, this is my vacation.”

With his prominent mustache, substantial nose, and big mop of graying hair, Hackl looks a bit like author Kurt Vonnegut. He exudes a kind of infectious enthusiasm, whether he’s conferring with partners and clients or sitting in his office puffing a cigarette. Hackl insists he’s not driven by ego, but that’s an arguable proposition. “No, no,” he says, “I don’t care about the limelight. That’s not why I’m in this work. There are architects who are all ego. They have to make all the decisions, put their stamp on everything, who revel in the publicity. That’s not the way we operate here. I really don’t promote myself. We don’t even have a company publicist.”

So what makes Hackl run? The answer, it seems, is partly in the demands of today’s profession; architects who aren’t flexible will perish. But it’s also something personal with Hackl. He’s responsible for carrying on the legacy of an old firm that he feels has never gotten the recognition it deserves. Loebl Schlossman & Hackl has had a tremendous influence on the changing face of Michigan Avenue. Take a walk north from downtown. The boxy 37-year-old Prudential Building on Randolph, once the tallest structure in Chicago, is now dwarfed by its 64-story streamlined sister, Two Prudential Plaza. The 1992 structure and the plaza between the two are products of Loebl Schlossman & Hackl. Just off Michigan at Huron is 633 Saint Clair Place, a glass-encased, 28-story office building with towers atop its four corners; it was completed in 1990 by Loebl Schlossman & Hackl. The 40-story City Place stands on the corner of Huron and Michigan, a mixed-use tower featuring retail shops, business offices, and the Omni Hotel; it’s another Loebl Schlossman & Hackl creation, opened in 1990. Up the street at Pearson is the firm’s Water Tower Place, the economic anchor of Michigan Avenue. Erected in 1975, Water Tower Place was the original vertical mall. It signaled the transformation of the retail strip and has since spawned a host of less successful imitations. No two of these buildings are alike in architectural style.

Or tour the sprawling malls that changed the shopping habits of millions and made suburbanites less reliant on city stores. There’s Park Forest Plaza, the area’s first regional mall, opened in 1957–designed by the firm when it was known as Loebl Schlossman & Bennett. There’s Old Orchard Shopping Center, the most expensive and extravagantly planned mall anywhere when it opened in 1956. Consider Oakbrook Center, which overtook Old Orchard in size and cost at its completion in 1962 and is still considered by many to be the classiest suburban mall in the region; it’s another product of Loebl Schlossman & Bennett. The firm’s River Oaks shopping center, opened in 1966, includes large expanses of outdoor space devoted to relaxation and recreation, further developing the idea of the shopping mall as a compact, all-encompassing mini-village. And their Hawthorn Center, which opened in 1969, was the Chicago area’s first fully enclosed mall.

More recently, the company oversaw a major redevelopment of Ford City, the largest mall within the city limits, and an expansion and facelift at Old Orchard. But the firm’s mall work has by no means been limited to the Chicago area or even to the midwest. Over the past 40 years the company has designed some 30 shopping centers in the United States.

Loebl Schlossman & Hackl also has a long history in hospital design and buildings for educational institutions. The firm’s designed corporate headquarters, including Allstate Insurance in Northbrook and Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago, and has built projects in foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia and China. To be sure, a line has to be drawn somewhere. The company will never consider a strip mall, says Hackl, or one of those big boxes in a parking lot favored by Target and Home Depot.

Despite its many and varied projects, the firm has never been much of a vehicle for individual statements. Even in those years when the relatively prominent designers Richard Bennett and Edward Dart worked there, the company concentrated on pleasing the customer, not the architect.

“They’ve always tended to have a collaborative spirit on the staff,” says architect Jim Nagle, president of Nagle Hartray & Associates. “Very professional, very supportive of one another, but not showy.”

Naturally, their customer-first philosophy invited criticism, especially from those who believe architects have a duty to make personal statements or from those who think the approach leads to buildings that only serve the needs of money. Take Water Tower Place, which combines a shopping mall, a hotel, and a luxury apartment tower. The challenges here were practical ones–for example, how to entice shoppers through a narrow entranceway, up a considerable distance to the more than 100 shops on seven levels above Marshall Field and Lord & Taylor. The problem was overcome with a dazzling atrium that offered cascading water and abundant vegetation, plus a double bank of escalators set at a slight V-shaped angle, making the distance up to the shops appear shorter than it really is. Not a great leap forward for architecture but a capable exhibition of practical thinking.

Water Tower Place was a commercial success almost from its first day, yet it earned Paul Gapp’s enduring scorn because it didn’t look good. The building’s windowless marble facade gave it the appearance of “an animated mausoleum,” he said, and was completely out of place among the low, elegant buildings of the Boul Mich. More importantly, Gapp would remind readers for the next ten years, Water Tower Place signaled the metamorphosis of the street into a midway of colossal multiuse skyscrapers and new stores that brought middle-class shoppers for the first time to the once-exclusive street. In its wake came Olympia Centre, One Magnificent Mile, imitation vertical malls at 900 N. Michigan (anchored by Bloomingdale’s) and 700 N. Michigan (Saks Fifth Avenue), and a host of other new or remade structures. Many replaced venerable buildings from this century’s early years. The seeming surrender of the street to developers continues to arouse controversy, most recently in the form of developer John Buck’s plan to raze two old buildings on the 600 block for yet another vertical mall. Water Tower Place opened the floodgates; some will not forgive it for that.

Hackl refuses to be apologetic. Water Tower Place, he says, opened the Magnificent Mile to much-needed modernization and an unimagined new era of commercial prosperity: $1.1 billion in sales in 1993, almost twice that year’s take on State Street.

Water Tower Place remains the commercial flagship of North Michigan, consistently outdoing its younger competitors. When 900 North Michigan opened seven years ago, it was expected to quickly take the lead. It hasn’t. Bloomingdale’s acknowledges that sales have been steadily falling, and, in an effort to gain the toehold in this region that has so far eluded it, the company is opening a new outlet at Loebl Schlossman & Bennett’s recently rejuvenated Old Orchard. Bloomingdale’s chairman Michael Gould believes the suburban location, with “lots of openness, lots of daylight,” has assets not to be found in an enclosed mall.

Donald Hackl says Water Tower Place’s commercial superiority along Michigan Avenue is due to superior interior design. The overwhelming presence of Bloomingdale’s on the lower floors of 900 North Michigan and the awkward positioning of the elevators obscure the fact that the building is really a mall with a variety of shops and boutiques, says Hackl; people don’t see that this is a place to browse. “In a really effective mall, outdoor or indoor, the circulatory system is designed to push people past every one of the shops. That is what Water Tower Place tries to do.”

Paul Gapp called the shopping mall “the only genuinely new building type that America has contributed to architecture,” yet he remained unimpressed with its architectural significance. But Loebl and Schlossman’s early malls–Park Forest Plaza, Old Orchard, and Oakbrook Center–were artfully crafted. Park Forest Plaza represented a cross between the old idea of a neighborhood shopping district and the emerging concept of a regional mall. It was set in the midst of the Park Forest community, imitated the building style of that community, and included civic buildings and a post office among the commercial rentals. It proved not as commercially successful as the developers had hoped, and the lessons learned were applied to the Old Orchard plan. Here Loebl Schlossman & Bennett set up a pure shopping center related not to the nearby Skokie and Evanston communities but to the Edens Expressway and other automotive arteries that would channel in customers. The design was deliberately low-tech: open courtyards with extensive landscaping, mostly one-story brick-masonry buildings with slate roofs and overhangs–familiar forms and materials intended to relax the shopper. The parking lot pioneered the idea of identifying pylons to help fatigued shoppers find their cars. Shortly after Old Orchard opened in 1957, Architectural Record magazine praised its “charming and unusual personality. . . . Here is clever planning for business and a delightful environment for humans. . . . One’s view is constantly limited but never confined.”

Old Orchard proved such a commercial success that similar techniques were used in the design for Oakbrook Center, though on a grander scale. A series of extensive terraces with sunken gardens, fountains, lamps, and benches dissipated any sense of crowdedness and encouraged leisurely shopping. To disguise the bulk of Marshall Field’s three-story building, the architects employed a sloping, mansard-style overhanging roof. The Sears store at Oakbrook, which appeared almost round from certain angles, also had an overhanging roof but one supported by thin pylons. The innovations proved lasting. In 1988 Oakbrook Center received a “Twenty-five Year Award” from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

But during those 25 years malls proliferated like rabbits, becoming ever bigger, glitzier, more garish, and often more cheaply and thoughtlessly constructed. They have come to symbolize much of what’s wrong with America, and their future is uncertain. James Howard Kunstler observes in his book The Geography of Nowhere: “The conditions under which they flourished–cheap energy, cars for everyone, a credit-driven economy, special tax breaks for big real estate ventures–may be viewed as abnormal and transitory, a fragile equation that could fall apart like a house of cards if any of the factors changed–for example, if gasoline prices go up enough to erase the profit margins of mass retailers, or if citizens have to establish credit-worthiness before banks issue them charge cards. . . . One thing is certain. The malls will not be new forever. And none of them were built for the ages.”

Don Hackl doesn’t attempt to lionize malls. He acknowledges that, with their high overhead and rents, the big malls shut out used-book stores, mom-and-pop shops, and in general the sort of places that gave color and variety to the old neighborhoods. They decimated or radically transformed time-honored shopping districts in suburbs like Evanston, he admits.

But Hackl is not ready to write the obituary for malls just yet, though he concedes the Chicago metropolitan area is “malled out” and any large new project will only hurt the existing centers. What mall owners in this era must do, he believes, is renovate on a fairly regular basis to create an image of perpetual freshness. “Actually, malls should have been built more like stage sets,” he says, “with a specific useful life of ten years or so, followed by a modernizing overhaul.” That is what his firm has tried to do at Old Orchard. “The change out there is very, very visible. Whether you like it or not, you can’t ignore it.” Even so, he has qualms about the trend toward making malls ever brighter, louder, and more exhilarating. “Sometimes I wonder how far we can go before the whole thing collapses of its strobe-lighted hyperactivity.”

Yet Hackl believes other parts of the nation are “undermalled,” and the company has feelers out in growth areas such as Atlanta, Memphis, Las Vegas, and sections of northern Florida. The malling of America has its dark side, and Hackl admits that it’s deserved much of the bad press it’s gotten. But he doesn’t think blame should be laid at the feet of those architects who took their assignments seriously. They took on an idea whose time had come and did it with dignity and style.

The fickleness of architecture criticism is especially apparent in reactions to Loebl Schlossman & Hackl’s Two Prudential Plaza. The contrast between the streamlined, spire-topped Pru II and the older, blocky Pru I is startling; the two just don’t seem to go together. Some critics have suggested that this is what one gets from an architectural firm that is not wedded to a design philosophy. Pru II has also been accused of looking like a cheap imitation of New York City’s venerable Chrysler Building. Yet Building Design and Construction magazine found subtle similarities between the old and new Prudential buildings: identical “punched” windows, plus “vertical ribbons of concrete” on Pru II that “resemble the limestone piers of its predecessor.” The magazine was even more delighted with the differences: “The two bring each other into sharp relief, doing much to enhance the original Prudential’s neutral appearance. Had [Loebl Schlossman & Hackl] taken a reiterative approach, the impact of either building might well have been diluted.”

As for the comparison with the Chrysler Building, Donald Hackl says, “I think you can take any building and find some basis for comparing it to any other building. The Chrysler Building is a landmark, so if people think Pru II resembles it we’re flattered. But it wasn’t something we set out to do.” That approach–do what “we” think needs to be done and let the chips fall where they may–has been what’s kept the company in business for 70 years.

In the short but influential history of Chicago architecture, the most successful firms were started by those able to attract partners with complementary skills. Every artist like Sullivan or Root required a pragmatic engineer like Adler or Burnham.

In 1925 a couple of young Jewish architects from Chicago, Jerrold Loebl and Norman Schlossman, found they had compatible talents: Loebl was the visionary, the salesman, Mr. Outside, while Schlossman was the practical, detail-oriented tactician, Mr. Inside. They got one big early break when chosen to design Temple Sholom on Lake Shore Drive, but they remained a small, struggling company for almost 20 years. Then after World War II they landed Richard Bennett, who’d been head of Yale’s school of architecture, and the firm became Loebl Schlossman & Bennett. The trio quickly fell into a happy and profitable relationship with developer Philip Klutznik and financier Henry Crown. Klutznik, who headed the Federal Housing Administration during the war, realized the demand for new housing by returning GIs would lead to unprecedented expansion out of Chicago and into the countryside.

Their newly formed development company, KLC Ventures (for Klutznik, Loebl, Crown), attempted to set the pace with an imaginatively “planned” suburb in the far south Cook County village of Park Forest. Instead of simply buying farmland, laying down a grid, and putting up a house on each lot, they modeled Park Forest on the older towns of Europe. Residential, educational, and recreational areas were to be integrated as an organic whole. Streets were designed to curve and wander through the village; residents shared green space rather than sitting in individual backyards. When completed in the early 1950s, Park Forest attracted general praise and spawned similar ventures around the country (though far fewer than originally hoped for, because of the high costs of planning and designing such communities). Loebl Schlossman & Bennett, who’d carried off the design with hardly a hitch, finally found themselves in the limelight. Their association with Klutznik and Crown would lead them in the years ahead into housing development, commercial and educational buildings, and the series of malls with which the company became identified.

In 1965 architect Edward Dart came aboard with his staff and the name stretched to Loebl Schlossman Bennett & Dart. It stayed that way for the next ten years. Contracts multiplied and the firm grew beyond either founder’s original dreams.

“The thing about Loebl and Schlossman was they could not have been nicer people,” says John Holabird, a retired partner in Holabird & Root, the city’s oldest architectural firm, founded in 1880. “They did first-class work for a very long time. They were honest and generous, and they didn’t see themselves as stars.” Perhaps designers Bennett and Dart sometimes saw themselves as stars, adds Holabird, but their egos were restrained by the down-to-earth attitude of the original duo.

In 1975, with Water Tower Place nearing completion and a dozen other sizable projects in the works, Richard Bennett decided to leave the firm to teach architecture at Harvard. Later that same year Edward Dart was felled by a stroke while painting a watercolor in his home. He died within a few days. The loss of these two key figures precipitated a crisis that might have put the company out of business except for the quick action of the survivors, especially of the company’s new leader, Donald Hackl.

Hackl never expected to be the president of a major architecture firm, and today, some 20 years after his accession, he still seems a bit dazed. “My beginnings were humble,” Hackl says of his early years growing up with his parents and two brothers in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. “If we were middle class, it was barely middle class.”

His father John, the son of a Bavarian immigrant, eked out a modest living restoring old books at the Newberry Library. His mother Frieda, who was born in Bavaria herself, came to this country at an early age and had little formal education. She augmented the family income with part-time cooking and catering work. The Hackls faithfully attended mass at Saint Matthias Church on the north side, and the three sons went to the parish school, where the nuns propounded the benefits of hard work and sacrifice central to old-style Catholicism.

Don Hackl’s beginnings may have been humble, but his drive was clearly there from the start. He began delivering the Shopping News on his bicycle when he was 7, gradually taking on more clients until he had something like his own newspaper-delivery franchise at 15. By then he also had his first ulcer, but he took little time for relaxation. He earned his way through DePaul Academy, and on weekends his teen combo, the Music Makers, performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs. (Like a good son of Bavaria, Don Hackl played the accordion.)

The newspaper delivery work paid off big time when he was awarded a scholarship to the University of Illinois by his employers. Without it, Hackl might still be peddling papers or squeezing his accordion somewhere. He majored in architecture, a subject that had interested him since his third-grade class was assigned to make little model houses out of cardboard. Hackl says he became so “infatuated” with the project that he went home and asked his parents what you call people who design buildings for a living.

Classes at the University of Illinois proved rigorous. Of some 300 freshmen who started out with him in architecture, says Hackl, fewer than 40 stayed with it as their major for the full five years. He graduated in 1957, and then went on for a master’s degree. Hackl succeeded in telescoping the two-year program into one year, even though he spent three weeks in the hospital in the midst of one term with bronchial pneumonia, the result of exhaustion. But he was determined to stay the course. “From day one I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I never looked back for a minute.”

After graduation he needed to intern for three years before he could take the exam for an Illinois architect’s license. For a time he worked in a small north-side office that designed homes, then he moved on to a firm that had a contract with the air force, designing airplane hangars strong enough to withstand nuclear blasts. Hackl became bored with his duties, which involved a lot of engineering and no design. In 1962 he earned his license on the first try, yet the road ahead promised only low-level apprenticeships for years to come. He lacked the capital to start his own company and had no contacts in high places.

But his mother did. Frieda Hackl had expanded her catering operations after her children had grown. Among her North Shore customers was the highly successful architect Jerrold Loebl. In fact, Mrs. Hackl spent the winter months cooking for the Loebl family at their other home in California. When Loebl learned that one of Frieda’s boys was in architecture, he urged her to have him stop by for an interview. For years Donald Hackl declined. “I certainly had no intention of trading on this relationship,” he says.

Then in 1962 Hackl got married and began to think about the future. He decided to take up Loebl’s standing invitation. He remembers vividly their initial two-hour conversation at the Old Orchard Shopping Center. “I told him I was reluctant to ask for a job because these things can get awkward,” recalls Hackl. “And I didn’t want to endanger his friendship with my mother. He said, ‘Kid, if you think you could ever get between me and your mother, you’re a lot dumber than I think you are!'”

Solely on the strength of his interview and what Loebl already knew of his mother’s character, Hackl was hired on the spot for a six-month trial. He remained leery, however, especially when his mentor showed him around the company’s expansive downtown offices and introduced him to Norman Schlossman. The cofounder seemed cool and said something about “evaluating your qualifications.” But Jerrold Loebl made it clear the young recruit would work exclusively under his wing.

Loebl eased Hackl into the complexities of the business, giving him experience in contract negotiations, construction administration, and design. Hackl found himself in a whirlwind of activity seven days a week, just the sort of pace he loved. After two years he was named an associate. These were the days when the company was virtually obsessed with shopping malls, and there was little about the subject that escaped the hard-driving Hackl. George Darrell, who was executive president of Urban Investment and Development Corporation (successor to the original KLC partnership), says Hackl proved himself to be “one of the best managers, best business getters, and best designers” in the Chicago architectural community. “I’d say even more,” he adds, “but I don’t want him getting a bigger ego than he already has.”

In the early 1970s Norman Schlossman, himself in his early 70s, formally retired (though he kept a hand in the business for years after). Then Bennett resigned, leaving Ed Dart as the main designer and most influential staff member. Hackl became a managing partner in 1975, and the firm was renamed Loebl Schlossman Dart & Hackl. Ever conscious of his roots, Hackl says he was overwhelmed with the honor. “I came from nowhere,” he says. “One time I asked Loebl why he chose to mentor a kid from the alleys. He got mad and said, ‘I don’t make decisions on background, I make them on ability.'”

It was Loebl who informed Frieda Hackl that her son had become a named partner. He gave her the word in the kitchen during a dinner party she was catering. The occasion became the subject of a column by Rick Soll in the Tribune. When she learned the good news she exclaimed, “Only in America!” and began to cry. Loebl then brought her in among the invited guests, including Don Hackl, and toasted them both. “It was all my dreams coming true,” she told Soll. “Not a big thing except in our lives. . . . But it really shows what can happen in this country to someone who starts out with hardly any chance at all.” According to her son, Frieda Hackl remained a tireless booster of American opportunity until her death in 1982.

Scarcely had Don Hackl’s name been printed on the stationery and painted on the doors when Dart himself died, and a wave of panic set in. Loebl called the board members together and recommended that Hackl be named president. Hackl accepted the honor with mixed feelings. “You see, Ed Dart was the man behind the Water Tower Place,” he says. “He was the point man on a lot of other key projects too. In this business you often see what happens when the old guard goes. There’s no line of succession, so everything comes apart. Realistically, I gave our firm about a year.”

John Schlossman, son of cofounder Norman Schlossman, had joined the firm about the same time as Hackl and might have logically been in line for the presidency. Yet he says Hackl was the right choice, and it paid off after Dart’s death. “Don immediately rescued two or three of the most important commissions Dart had been working on,” Schlossman says. Hackl proved to be a natural in attracting new business. “I think we turned the corner after Dart died,” Schlossman says. “We became a second-generation company. I have to give [Hackl] credit. He lives and breathes the profession.” By contrast, he sees himself as a “lower-key, more academic” kind of person–more in the mold of his father, Mr. Inside, who died in 1990 at the age of 89.

Jerrold Loebl died in 1978, three years after Hackl’s accession. Hackl was with him throughout his last days at Michael Reese Hospital, and his voice still cracks when he recalls his mentor’s farewell: “He told me, ‘Kid, the transition is complete. You can do it. You don’t need me anymore.'”

Hackl and the younger Schlossman have become good friends as well as partners, matching their outside-inside skills in much the same way the two founders did for almost half a century.

The firm has shown an uncanny knack for successfully reading the signs of the times, shifting priorities whenever necessary. While they’ve won their share of awards, their buildings rarely make much of a media splash. A number of firms have perished, Hackl is fond of pointing out, because they clung rigidly to “too narrow a spectrum”–they specialized in an area like hospital design or university renovation and could not adjust when that particular well went dry.

In the late 80s the office-building bubble burst, and it became obvious that Chicago and most other U.S. cities were fearfully oversupplied with unleasable space. But Hackl had already started seeking foreign commissions in earnest. One early project was the design for the King Faisal Hospital and Research Center in Saudi Arabia. Hackl’s most significant obsession now is China, where the company has three projects under contract and five in progress. Hackl’s traveled to China 17 times since 1993, despite his acknowledged command of only about 25 words in Mandarin.

Speaking recently at a convention of interior designers and building management suppliers in Chicago, Hackl cheerfully described the business opportunities in China as well as the hazards. He talked of two- and three-day rides across the country on old trains whose bathroom facilities consist of a tiny compartment at the rear of a passenger car with a hole in the floor. He described the sewage systems in large buildings, which recapture all the water from sinks and bathtubs to recirculate through toilets; farmers regularly clean out the septic tanks and use the collected material for fertilizer. He related the agonizing hours of bargaining with clients and contractors because, by inviolable custom, even the simplest decisions can be made only after full discussion and consensus.

Hackl spoke of having to tailor designs in deference to the Chinese preoccupation with numbers and colors: for example, eight is a good number, four is not; green is a propitious color, red is not. As a result the Loebl Schlossman & Hackl tower under construction in Shenzhen–a city of some two million near Hong Kong–is eight-sided with a green emerald tint, and it has 68 floors. Another Shenzhen project, the Shekou Harbor building, exhibits Hackl’s move toward more distinctive individual designs. The 40-story office tower will be covered with three kinds of glass and shaped something like a lighthouse. It will have a curtain wall reminiscent of the sails of a Chinese junk–a modernist take on China’s seafaring history.

This more innovative approach to architecture will not affect the practical ingredients that have been the firm’s backbone, insists Hackl. As the second generation ages, he is thinking about the firm’s longevity. He lists the essential ingredients for multigeneration survival. “First,” he says, “you need a succession of people with good professional and business capability. Second, you need a multiple-architecture philosophy, so you’re not bound by one system. Finally, you should not have as part of the company a dominant head of design.”

On this last point Hackl can become vehement. He cites the case of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, which nearly collapsed when their star Bruce Graham retired in 1991 (Graham designed Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center and was a preeminent force in Chicago architecture for decades). “Too many people are concerned with their personal position,” Hackl says, “and the companies suffer. They’re ego driven, egocentric, interested in a personal legacy, in architecture as art. And they don’t care what happens to the firm after they leave. I think it’s almost a death wish, a self-destructive sort of thing. I really believe it.”

That will never happen to Loebl Schlossman & Hackl if he has anything to say about it. He ticks off the names of some local firms that have gone out of business in recent years (Metz Train Olson & Younger, the Office of Mies van der Rohe, Ware Associates) or exist now in diminished form (Graham Anderson Probst & White, Harry Weese Associates, Skidmore Owings & Merrill)–all affected by the construction downturn or the disappearance of an indispensable star.

For the long haul, Hackl is trying to hire people who are compatible with his somewhat revised vision of the firm’s mission. Peter Schlossman, son of John, grandson of Norman, is now with the company, and so are other young architects like Howard Lathrop and Bob Iverson.

Richard Drinkwater came to the firm because he wearied of the star-centered approach of his former employer, Helmut Jahn. “We’re more pluralistic here,” says Drinkwater. “Over there, Jahn just tells you what he wants.” He was also attracted by Loebl Schlossman & Hackl’s emerging commitment to higher-profile design. “I see this as a chance to fully exploit my abilities,” he says. “The direction here is now toward quality and a certain amount of flair, not status-quo work. I wouldn’t have come over if the place was just going to do bland, developer-driven architecture.”

Hackl doesn’t expect to see any of his own three children working at the office soon. His daughter is in college studying education, one son has a graphic design business in Florida, and the other has been a producer for Morton Downey’s TV show.

As far as his presidency goes, Hackl has a standing policy: “I’ll stay until the other partners find someone who can lead better than I can.”

Work on the proposal for the Santiago office building rushed ahead, and Hackl boarded a plane on July 11 carrying the plans and a scale model that had been completed only hours before takeoff. When he arrived in Chile, he discovered the model had broken in several places during the flight, so he spent the night patching it together. The next day he made his case before members of the Galmez family, owners of a string of successful department stores and financiers of the new building. Hackl’s building, with its interlocking shapes, was decidedly different from the other, more conventional proposals.

Noting that the Galmez family were soon to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their ancestors’ arrival from Spain, Hackl shrewdly suggested that the erection of a truly striking building, “a world-class design,” in the midst of the capital city would be an appropriate way to honor and thank their adopted country. He then returned to the United States and awaited word.

One week later Hackl’s on the telephone when a colleague interrupts him with the news that the firm’s proposal has won the building competition. “Hooray!” he shouts like a kid who’s just won a Little League game, “we won, we won!”

Later Hackl reflects that the triumph helped validate his view that the firm should adopt a more distinctive approach to design. High visibility has never a goal of the company; but at this point, he believes, even Jerrold Loebl would approve.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Armando Villa, Mike Tappin, courtesy of Loebl, Schlossman & Hackl.