The dome that glows over the southeastern corner of Lake Shore East Park doesn’t just protect the swimming pool on the seventh floor of 400 E. Randolph Condominium. It is a testament to architect and New Eastside resident Rada Doytcheva’s commitment to design with the community in mind.
“How can people live better walking by the swimming pool?” asks the founder of RADA Architects, located in Illinois Center. “I’m not even talking about the microworld of people who live in the building, but the whole neighborhood.”
By Doytcheva’s design, the dome’s shifting hues illuminate the formerly dark “museum fixture,” reminding us that “there’s life there.” The kinetic light fixtures inside the dome radiate upward and interact with the transparent structure.
“It becomes like a diffusing glass,” she says. “So instead of letting the light go through and disappear in the sky, it glows.”
This was part of the first phase of RADA’s total rejuvenation of 400 E. Randolph, which began in 2005. Over the next decade, her influence extended to the entire complex.
“They hired me to redo, rethink, everything,” she says.
Rada was uniquely qualified for the job long before her firm won the contract, and it’s not just because she was a resident in the building at the time. Born and educated in Sofia, Bulgaria, she grew up in a “dense and muscular city” where a number of buildings were inspired by the same Modernist principals as 400 E. Randolph. She became familiar with the style from her father, a visionary architect who introduced Modernism to Bulgaria and inspired her to enter the field.
“He was one of the premiere healthcare architects in Bulgaria,” she explains.
Doytcheva came to the States by way of the American Planning Association, which recognized her language skills and architectural education. After spending six years working for someone else, she struck out on her own.
“Architecture should be less of a business, more of an inspiration and of making peoples’ lives different, better,” she asserts. “This is my primary goal.”
Modernism was all the rage when 400 E. Randolph was completed in 1963. Emphasizing practicality over decoration, the democratic style’s basic tenets continue to guide today’s architects. “Don’t do long corridors where you can do compact,” says Doytcheva. “Don’t mix unrelated functions and make peoples’ lives difficult.” But though Modernist theories remain the same many Modernist buildings are ready for a facelift.
Doytcheva convinced the board to reconfigure the seventh floor of 400 E. Randolph — which contained a health club, a swimming pool and several small offices — into a resident-friendly open plan that boasts an environment flooded with nature and sunlight.
“They were thinking, like, a few weight rooms and that was it,” she says. “Now we have winter gardens, we have children’s rooms, we have a pizza place, we have party rooms…I mean, we have all kinds of things going.”
The easy access to everything on the 7th floor reflects Doytcheva’s enthusiasm for egalitarian design. She employed the same philosophy as architect and developer of Clybourn Point, a mixed-use facility in Old Town that combines residential units with office spaces and a club. “Everybody had access to the rooftop green garden,” she says. “It was my vision of giving people an opportunity to live equally well, to enjoy the amenities.”
The revitalization of the main lobby at 400 East, completed in 2014, includes large lights that Doytcheva calls “lanterns.” Besides drawing the attention of residents and passersby to the “beautiful new front desk area,” they complement the panorama of Maggie Daley Park and the row of modern high-rises along Randolph Street.
“If I go to the Chicago Jazz Festival,” says RADA Senior Architect Doug Boldt, “that whole wall of residential buildings, when it turns dark, is one of the most beautiful sights in all of the city.”
Making such a contribution to Chicago’s skyline has been a dream of Doytcheva’s since her school days.
“Being a student in Bulgaria in architecture means that you study a lot of history,” she explains. “Chicago was really central to this, with the first skyscraper, the Frank Lloyd Wright ideas about organic architecture and all the innovation…To me, it was like a God-given, almost, gift to [come] here and to explore Chicago architecture.”
— Daniel Patton