Rumbling around in what used to be the amphitheater at the University of Illinois at Chicago is a huge yellow machine whose front end resembles the head of a tyrannosaurus rex. As the driver seated in the cab manipulates the controls of this monster, the steel jaws lock around a 15-foot-high, two-ton concrete column and take a large bite, which is accompanied by a fearful crunching noise. Two more bites and the column collapses, leaving clouds of dust in its wake. Then the jaws begin to chew it up, breaking the column into small chunks, in the process liberating pieces of the steel rods that reinforced it. The behemoth piles the concrete pieces to one side and the broken, twisted rods to another, and then, insatiable, it treads slowly over to another column to repeat the process.

Observing the activity with keen interest is architect Daniel Coffey. The machine, he explains, is called a concrete crusher and rents for about $1,000 a day. But it’s worth the cost, he notes, because the scrap concrete and rods are recyclable if separated, whereas they’re worthless together.

Dressed in a dark blue suit with his red tie blowing in the wind, Coffey looks out of place at this dirty demolition scene; his black dress shoes are acquiring a fine coat of dust. But Coffey, a chunky, sturdily built man of 39 who speaks with a slight south-side accent–his Harvard education notwithstanding–visits the site regularly. He knows every inch of the territory and every column that is supposed to come down.

The columns originally supported what was known to everyone at UIC as “the forum,” an 11,000-square-foot area paved with granite and linked by walkways to others parts of the university. The forum served as a kind of overhanging roof for six classroom buildings beneath it, with the open-air amphitheater in the center. Now the forum is gone; the 16-ton, 10-by-25-foot granite slabs that paved it have been hoisted one by one onto flatbed trucks and driven away. Gone with it is the dark, labyrinthian system of walkways underneath the forum, which, according to critics, had all the charm of Lower Wacker Drive.

Dan Coffey is the architect in charge of a $7-million face-lift at the school, a project that has attracted considerable interest and some criticism. For many years the dreary forum has been in a sad state of disrepair. Of the several solutions proposed, the most radical was the one agreed on: a complete turnabout from the brutal architectural style of the original, designed by Walter Netsch for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Some, including Netsch himself, insist Coffey’s design will destroy the university’s deliberately grim, urban look and give it the appearance of a cheap suburban shopping mall. But Coffey seems comfortably immune to the criticism. “When we were first discussing what should be done,” he says, knocking some of the dust off his shoes, “I brought my daughters down here and we walked around under the forum. Right away my three-year-old grabbed my hand and said, ‘Daddy, this is a scary place.’ And you know, just about everyone else I talked to, including students, faculty, and administrators, said the same thing. I don’t see that we’re cheapening the university. If anything, the style is going to be more urban than it ever was.”

Coffey is not lacking in self-confidence–with good reason. In the nine years since he formed Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, his rise in the world of readaptive architecture has been suprisingly swift. Coffey-renovated buildings already anchor downtown State Street at the north (the Chicago Theatre) and the south (the DePaul University revamp of the old Goldblatt’s building). His plans will be used in the forthcoming restoration of downtown State Street itself. All this has been achieved at a time when many major architectural firms have either been toppling like the columns at UIC or eking out modest existences with reduced staffs.

It used to be that the route to architectural success was “through anointment,” explains Ross Miller, program director of the Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism: if you went to a fine Ivy League school and then came to the notice of someone in the profession’s “House of Lords”–best of all if it was the grand lord himself, Philip Johnson–then the really desirable jobs might be handed your way. But as the high-priced, high-powered advocates of high design grow old, and the colossally budgeted projects become hard to find, a new generation of architects is emerging. These architects still hold design in high regard but are more mobile, more maneuverable, and more acutely conscious of all the contingencies of the business, like tight budgets and strict timetables. Miller cites Chicagoans Paul Florian, Dan Wheeler, and Doug Garofalo as examples of this new breed. Perhaps the most successful of the breed, if not most visible, is Dan Coffey.

There is a certain unflappable quality about Coffey, a kind of cool, controlled reserve that resists any great display of emotion. Asked to describe himself, he says, “I’m very intense.” He is very direct in conversation, saying exactly what he thinks, no more and no less.

“I like his gutsiness,” says real estate executive Seymour Persky, a longtime student of Chicago architecture. “He’s rational but also quite creative. He’s got this marvelous ability to take beautiful old wine and put it in new retrofitting bottles.” At bottom, Coffey’s success may be due not just to his skill as a designer and his controlled, rational approach but also to a combination of remarkably fortuitous occurrences in his life.

The son of a south-side bricklayer, Coffey says he was a “mediocre student” until he spent part of his junior year at the University of Illinois abroad, studying architecture at Versailles. “I was struck with the beauty of the buildings and the tremendous attention to the smallest detail,” he says. “Even the horse stables were extraordinary. I decided then architecture was what I wanted to do.”

He went on to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University and won a Fulbright scholarship, which allowed him to spend the year of 1977 in Germany with architect Gottfried Bohm. That arrangement proved to be fortuitous experience number one.

Bohm had been a major figure in European architecture since World War II. His attitude toward historic buildings damaged by battle was that they should neither be leveled and replaced with modern structures nor slavishly restored in their original style. Rather, he preached, historic and modern styles could be blended to create something new.

Traveling with the master through Germany, Coffey marveled at how Bohm rebuilt theaters and churches using the bombed-out shells of the buildings as outer walls for new structures in which he tried to reflect the image of a new, more open German society. Decaying castles along the Rhine were transformed into restaurants and hotel complexes while their outer architectural details were preserved. The center of an ancient pilgrimage church in Dusseldorf was renovated to resemble a public square, emphasizing the connection between the sacred and the secular. A badly damaged castle in Cologne became a new city hall with the council chambers surrounded by glass walls to suggest that governmental decisions are best made in public view.

“Bohm was seriously concerned about conservation,” says Coffey. “He believed that if you don’t know the past, you’re going to repeat its mistakes. This sustaining aspect of his work really impressed me.”

Also appealing was Bohm’s effort to create new buildings that complemented their natural environments. An orphanage he designed that was recently built in a forest near Cologne takes the form of a medieval village, with small wooden cottages set among the trees, suggesting a community of families rather than an impersonal institution. Bohm’s work has been widely praised; in 1986 he won the Pritzker Prize, which is regarded as the Nobel Prize of architecture.

Meanwhile, Dan Coffey earned his master’s degree at Harvard and began a four-year apprenticeship in the real world with a succession of jobs at Chicago architectural firms. He served briefly at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, then took a position at Metz, Train & Youngren. (He was the last architect hired by that company before it dissolved in 1982.) Coffey had a couple of other short stops over the next two years, during which time he received a considerable amount of advice from veteran architect John King, whose mentoring proved to be another stroke of good fortune.

“He took me under his wing,” says Coffey, “made me do things I wouldn’t have ordinarily thought of.” King stressed, in particular, that anyone who wanted to succeed as an architect during the recession of the mid-1980s had to do more than draw great designs; he had to understand marketing and budgeting and scheduling, and he had to be flexible. Many large, established firms were struggling, Coffey came to see, because they were too big, too rigid–like dinosaurs unable to adjust to a changing environment. King and Coffey had worked together on several projects in Florida, and it was through those associations that Coffey landed his first client when in 1984 he launched his own company, Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, with fellow architects Jim Gallagher and Fred Romano.

That first assignment, remodeling a hotel in Saint Petersburg, Florida, went well, and the new company quickly picked up other renovation jobs in the Saint Petersburg-Tampa area. Small and hungry, the firm learned early how to handle varied assignments in widely distant locations. In connection with one of the Florida projects, Coffey was summoned to testify in court as an expert witness on the condition of an old building scheduled for demolition. He decided he needed help from a specialist on real estate economics, so he called on a person he had met in his earlier positions in Chicago. That person was Margery al Chalabi, who, by coincidence, was one of the principals in the group attempting to save the Chicago Theatre from the wrecking ball. Al Chalabi came to Florida, testified, and was so impressed with Coffey that she persuaded her partners to hire his fledgling firm as architects for the daunting project, even though the company had no real track record in Chicago.

Coffey says he approached the task with a mixture of humility and excitement. The theater was, after all, the grand old lady of Chicago, and threats by Plitt Theatres (which then owned it) to raze the building had been all over the news. Built in 1921, the Chicago Theatre was the first of a whole genre of palaces “expressly intended to showcase films as well as live performances,” according to Interior Design magazine. It could seat an audience of 3,800, attended by a veritable army of 125 ushers. The Chicago designers, Cornelius and George Rapp, could well have moonlighted as French pastry chefs: the interior was a splendid maze of ornate plasterwork, elaborate murals, stained glass windows, and grand chandeliers. The theater lost some of its original splendor when it was redecorated in 1932; a more radical, modernizing face-lift (called by Architecture magazine “a disfigurement”) came in the 1950s. This time murals and walls were covered over with drywall, light fixtures were removed, and much of the interior was painted pink. By the 1980s the old lady was both unsightly and an economic liability.

Plans to put her and her older neighbor, the Page Brothers Building, out of their misery as part of the North Loop Redevelopment Project were canceled, however, when a coalition of developers emerged who were interested in saving it. Besides al Chalabi, who was part of the Chicago Theatre Preservation Group directed by attorney Marshall Holub, the coalition included the Rodman & Renshaw capital group. It cost $26 million to acquire and renovate the two buildings, about 40 percent of which was raised by Rodman & Renshaw. The rest came from federal loans guaranteed by the city of Chicago, and work commenced in 1985.

“The partners were not so easy a group to deal with,” says Richard Rice, who was president of the Rodman group at the time. In fact, he adds, a certain tendency toward “fractiousness” among them may be one reason better-established architects were not all that anxious to get involved. “Coffey was a remarkable choice,” says Rice. “He is difficult, if not impossible, to fluster. He’s one of these people who stays tranquil in a storm–very diplomatic, very focused.” Even more important than Coffey’s technical expertise, in Rice’s view, was his ability to put out fires and keep the project on schedule, all while making sure it largely conformed to his own ideas.

Coffey, of course, viewed his job as one of integrating new and old into some kind of harmonious whole. The lobby was greatly enlarged, new seats and new fixtures were installed, spectator boxes were built, and the old, three-tiered lighting dimmer (as “big as a house,” says Coffey) was replaced with a laptop computer. At the same time the drywall was stripped away and the old plaster ornamentation, murals, and windows were repaired and restored to their original luster.

But the most challenging task was not the theater itself; it was the relatively unnoticed, six-story Page Brothers Building, which sits at the southeast corner of State and Lake in the shadow of the el and abuts the theater on two sides. Built in 1872, soon after the Great Fire, the building is listed in the National Registry, mainly because it has a decorative cast-iron facade on the Lake Street side and is the only surviving downtown building with such a facade. The coalition wanted to remodel the building so they could use its renovated office space to subsidize the theater’s fluctuating income. “Without the Page Building, the economics of the whole project wouldn’t work,” says Coffey.

He spent sleepless nights trying to figure out how to revamp the 116-year-old wood-frame building without damaging its brittle old facade. As the wood interior was removed so it could be replaced by concrete (as required by the building code), Coffey realized the delicate front would have to be heavily braced with scaffolding on every floor, and the cost of such bracing was well beyond anything allowed for in the budget. For a time that problem nearly doomed the whole project. At the same time it totally intrigued Coffey. If ever there was a Gottfried Bohm-type challenge, this was it: finding a way to create a totally new building inside of a fragile old shell.

One morning Coffey says he awoke with a solution as simple as it was ingenious. Instead of trying to brace the front while the building’s framework was removed, he realized he could use the existing wooden frames as the temporary forms for the concrete, then remove the wood after the concrete set and fill in the holes with steel and more concrete. Thus the iron facade would remain supported while the work proceeded.

And that’s the way it happened. Interior Design magazine called Coffey’s innovation “a major feat of architectural engineering.” In its new incarnation, the second floor of the Page Brothers Building was aligned with and opened up to the mezzanine section of the Chicago Theatre, creating a huge open restaurant area serving both buildings.

The Chicago Theatre reopened on schedule in December 1986, with Frank Sinatra crooning to a house packed with celebrities. The redesign subsequently won awards from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the International Association of Lighting Designers, thus providing Coffey with an instant reputation–and a springboard to other projects.

Unfortunately, the theater and its companion building have not fared as well. “We opened strong,” says Richard Rice, who personally raised over $1 million for the project. “In ’86 and ’87 the theater was among the top-grossing houses in the country.” But a new operator who took over in 1988 declared bankruptcy six months later, and the partners have been unable to eat into the principal or even pay any of the interest on the estimated $16 million still owed to the city. Currently, the city is negotiating a takeover of the theater and looking for an operator competent enough that taxpayers won’t be stuck with the unpaid bill. Some hopes may be stirred by a new production opening at the theater in September; just as the biblical Joseph rescued his brothers from famine, so Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat may help bail out the beleaguered partners.

“The theater is worthy of a better history than it’s had,” says Rice. “We all knew it would be a tough go economically, so we can be at least content that the place was saved.” He adds, without a hint of envy, “Dan Coffey came out of this whole thing better than anyone else involved in it.”

Attired as usual in a conservative dark suit but this time wearing a construction worker’s hard hat, Coffey walks briskly through the first floor of the old Goldblatt’s department store at State and Jackson. The place is awash in workers and dust; it’s scheduled to open September 14 as DePaul University’s downtown flagship building, housing its School of Commerce. Coffey is delighted, though not surprised, at the progress. He inspects the shiny terrazzo flooring, the customized mahogany trim and brass ornamentation, the oversize elevators (to haul hordes of students arriving for classes at the last minute), the renovated columns, the furnishings that are just arriving. Inside, you can see clear from the building’s main entrance on Jackson to the doors on Van Buren, a view framed by two rows of tall pillars. This first floor will serve as a lobby for the building, with retail shops on the State Street side and classrooms and offices on the upper floors.

“It’s a marvelous building,” observes Coffey, “a great example of the Chicago school of architecture.” It’s also a great opportunity to blend old and new–a blend which is most obvious on the outside. More than $1 million was spent replacing or repairing the crumbling terra-cotta panels on the State Street side. That work was finished in July, and the barricade that protected pedestrians from falling chunks for more than nine years was finally removed. Also gone is a small building that abutted Goldblatt’s on Jackson, and in its place at the street level is a small park and an entry plaza. The ugly brick fire wall that used to make up the north side of the building has been replaced with a new wall featuring windows that are larger than, but not incompatible with, the original windows on the State Street side. Coffey says he believes the contrast is harmonious.

He came upon this assignment as the result of a fortunate telephone inquiry. Norman Elkin, a board member of the Greater State Street Council, called Coffey in 1988 and asked for ideas on what could be done with the deteriorating building. City plans were afoot for its demolition, and Elkin believed the 11-story, 84-year-old relic deserved a better fate. Coffey thought so too, and several days later a meeting was arranged between Elkin, Coffey, Sara Bode, former president of the State Street Council, and Kenneth McHugh, executive vice president for operations at DePaul University. McHugh had been eyeing the building for some time. DePaul, which had grown to be the second largest Catholic university in the United States (the first is Saint John’s University in New York), had a downtown campus bursting at the seams, while across the alley from its major classroom center at Jackson and Wabash Goldblatt’s was sitting empty and idle. McHugh believed DePaul could use about half the space in the building, and the rest could be rented out to someone.

Wheels started turning in Coffey’s head. McHugh wanted to finish the project by this fall, and Coffey loves the challenge of coordinating a major project quickly. Only months before, his firm had fully revamped an old bank building in Saint Petersburg within a six-month deadline. “We just got intensely involved at all levels with the contractors, the suppliers, the owners,” Coffey recalls. “It was great, like a hockey game where you’re changing lines on the fly.”

The group agreed that the city, which was looking for additional office space, would be the most likely partner in such an enterprise. Over one weekend, Coffey put together a master plan to be presented to acting mayor Eugene Sawyer. The city liked the idea, a deal was eventually agreed on, and Coffey was assigned responsibility for the exterior renovation, the lobby, and the core mechanical system, with three other architects handling classroom and office planning. The acquisition and renovation cost was in the area of $60 million. As the plan developed, it was determined that DePaul would use 60 percent of the building, the city’s aviation and finance departments 30 percent, and retail stores 10 percent.

Coffey walks out of the building and stands on State Street for a few minutes, quietly admiring his handiwork. “We were careful to emphasize in the design that this is a DePaul building and not a shopping building,” he says. “We want it to look like what it’s used for, and I believe it does.”

Kitty-corner from the DePaul building stands the Harold Washington Library Center, as ornate as Harold Washington’s speeches and as massive as the man himself. In a rare moment of comment on another architect’s work, Coffey wonders if those characteristics are appropriate for a public library, which should be, he says, “an interactive, community place,” not a monument that tends to keep patrons at a respectful distance.

McHugh says Coffey got the DePaul job because of his Harvard education, his Fulbright scholarship, and his growing track record. But there’s another factor that played a critical role: “Much of our university’s enrollment is made up of first-generation college students, Chicago kids who have lived their whole life in this area,” he says. “Dan had great credentials in that department: the son of a bricklayer, a first-generation college graduate himself, a common man who’s trying to make good. Those considerations weighed in the decision.”

McHugh says he found Coffey to be anything but a yes-man when it came to nitty-gritty design and construction decisions. “He’s a listener, but he’s also quietly aggressive, and in discussions he is formidable on what is architecturally significant. But that’s what we wanted–someone who knows this city and is sensitive to the values of old structures.”

The offices of Daniel P. Coffey & Associates on the 15th floor of 205 W. Wacker are set up like a square doughnut, with large windows providing plenty of light and excellent views of downtown Chicago all the way around. There are no rooms or enclosures in this outer rim, only desks and drafting tables, models of buildings, and color drawings of past and present projects. The center of the doughnut has the files, plans, office materials, and a conference room. Coffey doesn’t have a private office anywhere, just a desk out in the open like any one of the 20 other architects who work there. For a while earlier this year he didn’t even have a desk.

“It didn’t matter,” he says. “My style is to move from one drafting group to another, listen to what they’re saying, make some suggestions, work through some differences, and then move on. I want everything out in the open. With the office set up this way we get better interaction.”

This nonhierarchical physical arrangement may have had something to do with his being hired for the current University of Illinois at Chicago job. Coffey was one of several architects who applied for the project, which is being financed by $7.1 million from the state. In 1991 a committee of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees conferred with all of the contending firms and visited their offices. When Coffey was given the nod in the spring of 1992, the trustees cited in particular his “firm’s appreciation of the participatory design process that this assignment required for exploring alternative design solutions.” In other words, they liked the way Coffey and his people worked.

Practically everyone agreed that the campus deserved a major overhaul. In 1990 former UIC chancellor Donald Langenberg called it “a concrete wilderness, an inhuman, uncomfortable campus–grim, gritty, and cold.” Various others were even less kind, calling the huge central forum “grotesque,” “disastrous,” “dangerous,” and “incredibly oppressive.”

When Walter Netsch designed the campus in the early 60s, he conceived it as a glorious representation of the so-called “brutalist” school: heroic, abstract, unadorned, in your face. The design was meant to suggest the harshness and rigor of urban life, but the forum was meant to be a kind of gathering place in the manner of the ancient Greek agoras, with circular seating areas where faculty and students might sit pondering the starkness of urban reality and what, if anything, to do about it.

Viewed from a distance, especially from the air, the gargantuan forum at the core of the university created a powerful image. Says Robert Bruegmann, UIC professor of architecture and art history, “I think it captured the awesome quality of city life, with its contradictions of love and hate, hope and despair.” The design won Netsch several awards. But his architectural concept failed to take into account Chicago’s awesome weather and the unpredictability of human events. Enrollment at the school has never come within 8,000 of what planners had predicted, so the demand for large walkways and open gathering places never materialized. Even if it had, the forum would not have served well, for several reasons: the cost of removing snow from its surface proved prohibitive, so it couldn’t be used during the winter and most of the spring; the columns supporting the forum and its upper walkways eventually began sinking into the unstable landfill on which the campus was built, creating cracks and gaps in the granite slabs through which water and snow regularly dripped; lighting throughout the area was not adequate; and general maintenance always seemed well behind the steady inroads of deterioration.

Yet Netsch was exceedingly proud of his creation; along with other members of the old guard, he believed it merited landmark status and should not be trifled with. So Coffey was well aware when he took the job that he would be handling a hotter and more public potato than he ever before had in his career. “From the beginning we tried to be very open, very deliberate about the process,” he says. He and his staff conferred for many weeks with deans, faculty, students, and alumni, gathering suggestions and opinions. “We hadn’t designed anything at that point,” says Coffey. “We listened and we kept asking, ‘What do you like about the campus core?’ and the participants kept responding, ‘We hate it, we hate it!'”

In June 1992 the school publicly displayed schematic drawings of five possible renovation schemes by Coffey. They ranged from a modest humanizing of the forum’s upper level (including repair of the columns and walkways) to a radical dismantling of the whole structure, including the walkways and the amphitheater, so that the classrooms would be fully exposed. There was near unanimity that the school should go all the way and “take the roof off,” says Coffey, “and I agreed with that view completely.”

Next Coffey created a scale model of the proposed design and prominently displayed it in the student center. The image of six separate buildings surrounding an open plaza dotted with trees and grassy areas and sporting a five-story bell tower was so different from what everyone had become accustomed to that the exhibit aroused considerable interest. It seemed, said many students, like “some other” university.

“I spent a lot of time hanging around the exhibit anonymously,” says Coffey, “listening to what people had to say as they passed. I can only tell you that the reactions were overwhelmingly positive.”

Netsch, however, did not join the chorus of approval. He approached the University of Illinois trustees and offered to provide his own redesign free of charge. He called Coffey’s plan “a kind of suburban mall revision” that “has very little to do with the character and guts of Chicago architecture.” He told Architectural Record magazine, “It is the surgical destruction of the campus’s heart.” The trustees thanked Netsch for his offer but declined it. And last January they gave full approval to Coffey’s full-scale renovation.

Netsch’s words did serve, however, to bring to the surface some of the old festering antagonism toward his original design. The renovation is “a great decision which I absolutely support a million percent,” said architect Stanley Tigerman, who was director of the UIC School of Architecture at the time. “I’m only sorry it wasn’t done ten years ago.”

The Sun-Times weighed in editorially, saying students deserved something better than a campus that is “cold, confusing and darn-right frustrating in its complexity and harshness.”

And the Tribune got quite personal in its editorial comment. It noted that the soaring spike chapel designed by Netsch at the U.S. Air Force Academy is clearly “one of the enduring knockouts of modern architecture.” But, it went on, “The Taylor Street neighborhood on the Near West Side is not the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. Something more contextual was called for, or at least something that did not simultaneously wall itself off from–and thumb its concrete nose at–the surrounding streetscapes.”

Netsch, now 73 and semiretired, is still fuming. It’s not his fault, he argues, that enrollment didn’t reach expected levels; it’s not his fault the lighting he proposed was not installed; it’s not his fault maintenance has been shoddy. “It is difficult to talk about this,” he says. “I have never been so insulted in my life.” What is occurring at the campus, he says, is “morally evil . . . a disgrace . . . and a terrible way to spend $7 million.” At the very least, he argues, the beautiful columns supporting the forum could have been retained, creating a kind of “trellis effect,” and the granite slabs could have been used for redesigned walkways; instead, everything is being either hauled away or destroyed on site.

Netsch acknowledges that Coffey did personally show him the new design on one occasion, but more, he thinks, as a courtesy or the presentation of a fait accompli than as a request for critical evaluation and input. Obviously, he says, Daniel Coffey is someone who lacks sensitivity, one who “feels no responsibility to show obeisance to the traditions of Chicago architecture. I am gravely disappointed.”

Coffey appears as unruffled by such barbs as he was when dealing with fractious contentions among the principals in the Chicago Theatre deal. “I respect Walter Netsch,” he says, “and I’m trying to be sensitive to what he has done. But sometimes what looks to be valid as an idea doesn’t work, and you have to face the fact that you’re hurting more by keeping it than letting it go.” He doesn’t think Gottfried Bohm would disagree.

Coffey is not one to wax eloquently on his achievements to date or reflect on the good fortune that has graced his career. He is too busy for that; he doesn’t even have a lot of time to spend with his family.

In addition to his Chicago work, he has continuing assignments for renovations and new buildings in places as diverse as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, and, as in the past, Florida. He has served as a consultant on the restoration of the theater district in Los Angeles and was the creator of a master plan for reorganizing the office area of the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. He’s a board member of the Globe Theatre in London, and this summer, as he has for the past several years, he’ll teach a seminar on theater architecture at Harvard.

Already on the drawing board are the designs for a new, $18-million Lincoln Interpretive Museum and Presidential Library in Springfield. It will sit at the center of the city’s historical district, and in addition to books it will include Lincoln memorabilia, interactive exhibits, and a theater. Coffey’s office has a selection of books on Lincoln that he and other staff are reading to ground themselves for the work ahead.

Still under 40, Coffey appears to have the talent and drive to leave a permanent mark. In the next ten years, he says, he wants to do “more thoughtful work, create better designs, build new buildings.” And he wants his practice to be national, “maybe international” in scope. But, he adds, his concentration will remain with theaters, museums, schools, and libraries.

“It’s very fulfilling work to be in such a rich environment of culture,” he says. “These are the institutions that enhance the quality of life for people. We’ve got to keep creating and re-creating them, because if we don’t go forward as a civilization, we go backward.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.