Inside bKL Architecture and Design’s 3D world of ideas

By Daniel Patton | Managing Editor

bKL Architecture and Design is home to a miniature neighborhood of some of the New Eastside’s most noteworthy buildings, all contained within their offices at 225. N. Columbus Dr.

The company that conceived the GEMS Lower School and Coast at Lakeshore East presents its ideas to clients in the form of computer simulations as well as miniature physical replicas, a unique process in a time when most firms are ditching the 3D scale models and relying exclusively on digital renderings.

“A personal belief of mine,” says bKL Principal Tom Kerwin, “is that the only way to fully understand a design is by building a 3-dimensional scale model of the project.”

This dedication to old-school methodology has served Kerwin well. Since founding the firm with the support of James Loewenberg in 2010, he has expanded bKL’s size to 60 employees and spread its vision across the globe.

Besides Chicago, the company’s designs are enhancing skylines in Toronto, Texas, Miami and Asia.


bKL’s scale model of 200 N. Michigan Avenue. Photo and imagery credit: bKL Architecture LLC

For residents of the New Eastside, bKL’s most visible work-in-progress is the 42-story mixed-use tower under construction at 200 N. Michigan Ave. Named “MILA,” it is a portmanteau of the streets that form the intersection where it stands, Michigan and Lake.

When completed, MILA will have two stories of retail space and a multiple-story light sculpture that hides the parking garage. Above that, 406 residential units on the remaining 36 stories will rise 400 feet into the air, ultimately reaching a rooftop that contains a terrace and a swimming pool.

According to Kerwin, MILA’s appearance should brighten the “heavy masonry and dark steel buildings” that create a “somewhat foreboding” stretch of Michigan Avenue between Randolph St. and the Chicago River.

But all of the details on the outside, appealing as they may be, were designed to accommodate the things happening on the inside.

The longest side of the building faces Lake Street because that offers more unobstructed southern and western views from the units above. The parking garage had to be built above ground because the foundations of nearby buildings prohibited underground excavation. This resulted in a dramatically appealing retail space.

“Cars enter the parking area from Lower Michigan,” says Kerwin, “but they have to park above the retail floors.”

The solution, an oval ramp that winds around the first and seond stories, required a feat of architectural “gymnastics” that Kerwin believes is easier to demonstrate than to explain.

“If I show you a model,” he says, “you can really understand it.”

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