dina-a-griffin-web.jpgCHICAGO — Few architecture firms get the opportunity to work with renowned architect Renzo Piano on groundbreaking design and construction of a world icon, in this case the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, but that is exactly what Interactive Design Inc. (IDEA) of Chicago did. The company is headed by Dina A. Griffin, one of only 262 black women architects in the country. 

The backgrounds of the IDEA staff are as diverse as the projects they undertake. The firm hires only licensed architects, who currently number 10, with experience ranging from 10 to 30 years and half of them are women.

“The culture of our firm is very different from that of other architectural firms, Griffin said. “We are small and decidedly not corporate.  We have no administrative staff.  We hire based on areas of expertise and personality that expand and round out our capabilities.  Each of the architects handpicks a team of consultants that reflect the creativity and goals that we have set forth for our client.”

Griffin, a graduate of the University of Illinois School of Architecture at Urbana-Champaign, knew that she was entering a male-dominated field and certainly one that was devoid of minority women. 

In high school, she opted for industrial education and learned architectural drafting, getting her introduction into the profession.  She was the only female in the class.

In an engineering class at Western Illinois University, where she was not was the only black student, a professor told her that there was no way she could major in architecture and should try “a less intense major,” she recalled.

Griffin began working in the facilities department of Montgomery Ward, which, at the time, used cutting edge technology in architecture and design. That experience led to a passion for computers.  She then moved on to Perkins and Will with Andrew Heard and Associates, but after seven months realized it wasn’t working for her. At her request, she was transferred to work in the field, getting some of the on-site construction experience she wanted, including during the construction of the International Terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. 

Griffin was recruited by Interactive Design to work on a major village hall and police station project, getting the break she was waiting for. She was groomed to take over the firm and in 1999 was made president. She also became president of the Illinois Chapter of National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and now sits on the boards of both the Illinois and Chicago chapters of the American Institute of Architects. She was recently appointed a board member of the Leadership Advisory Committee for the Art Institute of Chicago.

When the subject of the Modern Wing is raised, Griffin’s eyes light up. She recalls when the firm was contacted by long-standing client The Art Institute to become the architect of record to implement the design for the new 264,000-square-foot Modern Wing by Renzo Piano, she knew it was a rare opportunity.

While Griffin’s IDEA firm was credited as architect of record, the team, headed by Charles Young and Bob Larsen, worked side by side with both the Art Institute and Renzo Piano’s Building Workshop.  Over the course of the 10-year project, the core team, including Griffin, flew to Paris and Genoa several times per year to confer with the Workshop. 

Besides managing the project website, Griffin was very involved in the selection of the furniture, fixtures and equipment, the final touches that help shape the visitor’s experience in the museum.

“It was such an honor to work with Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Art Institute on The Modern Wing as it was truly a collaborative project,” she said.

“Most architects of record do not have the opportunity to have much input on the overall project design, so our firm was able to have an impact on the finished product.” 

Griffin’s source of pride from that project is seeing IDEA’s name as architect of record etched into the cornerstone of the Modern Wing alongside that of Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

Additionally, Griffin’s passion for technology remains unabated.  When few firms were using websites as a method of communication, she and her firm hosted and administered the Art Institute’s Modern Wing project site to ensure the project’s confidentiality and integrity were maintained and that the flow of information was instantaneous—an important aspect considering that the design team was located in three countries.

That also proved to be a good cost-cutting move that saved the Art Institute hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Currently, IDEA is working on projects for the University of Chicago, the Chicago Public Library, the Public Building Commission of Chicago and the Anti-Cruelty Society.

But Griffin remains keenly aware of the gender and racial void in her field.  “I would like to see more minorities and, specifically, more minority women in the field of architecture,” she said. “When giving lectures to students in minority institutions, I educate and encourage them to consider architecture as a profession; many do not know it is even a field of study.” 

• For more information on Dina Griffin and Interactive Design Inc., visit www.idea8.com.

Photo: Dina A. Griffin