written by:
April 1, 2009
Originally published in Always Modern

“I’ve had my share of so-called glamorous architecture and I found it more boring than this. You can only do so much to an office building. Here, no matter how tedious the job is from a design perspective, there’s the great feeling of satisfaction that comes from helping someone get a building that’s better to live in.”
—George Sample

George Sample portrait
Sample (on the right) at SOM in the ’60s before he carefully considered his values and quit. Raised a Quaker, he was a conscientious objector during World War II and was used to standing apart for what he believed in.
George Sample portrait
Sample (on the right) at SOM in the ’60s before he carefully considered his values and quit. Raised a Quaker, he was a conscientious objector during World War II and was used to standing apart for what he believed in.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, modern architecture leviathan Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) defined the shape of Chicago’s skyline with buildings such as the Sears Tower and the Hancock Tower. But inside the megafirm, architect George Sample had his mind set on projects of a different scale: “After a new tall building was discussed, George would announce that he thought SOM should do low-income housing,” explains longtime family friend and former coworker, John Clark. “Though he shared SOM’s modernist aesthetic and was good friends with its main partner [Bruce Graham], he was a misfit in that architectural corporation.” After 19 years, Sample left the glass tower of SOM for gritty inner-city streets.

In 1974, parts of Chicago were plagued by blight, neglect, and riots. Following what he saw as the social mandate of modernism, Sample set up the Chicago Architectural Assistance Center (CAAC), based on the pro bono practices of doctors and lawyers. In a 1974 Chicago Tribune interview, Sample explained that “the Center is not the solution to the problems of the ghetto, but it can provide answers, acting as catalyst to involve the whole architectural profession with the needs of the inner city.” Those answers included free blueprints and interpreting building codes for rehabilitation projects for low-income tenants, expert witness services in court, and help fighting to defend whole blocks from demolition. Eventually, the CAAC won support from the city, the AIA, and the University of Chicago, but like many of the design assistance centers that popped up in the late ’60s and ’70s, it doesn’t exist today.

“George is a modernist in a sense that has largely disappeared from the contemporary architectural scene,” says Clark, who started his career with Sample at the CAAC. “He believes that people’s lives can be improved by improving their physical environment. This was once a dominant current of modernism. And while in many ways the modernist aesthetic has gained new currency—is thriving—this social concern is not.” Sample, now 84, is no longer practicing, but his motto remains: “Every man’s fortune is, or should be, the business of architects.”

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