John Donald Cordwell was born in 1920 in London, England. He studied architecture there at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture from 1936 until 1939. His education was interrupted by military service in the Royal Air Force from 1940 to 1945. He returned to study at the Architectural Association (1945-46) and the School of Planning and Regional Research (1947). Cordwell's work experience began in the London office of Sir Herbert Baker (1936-40), followed by jobs with Sir Howard Robertson (1945-47) and in the office of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew (1947-50). He immigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago in 1951. In that year Cordwell took a job with PACE Associates, but soon left that position to direct the activities of the Chicago Plan Commission (1952-56). In 1957 he formed a partnership with Louis Solomon, now known as Solomon Cordwell Buenz and Associates. He retired from that firm in 1988 to practice independently. He held honors as an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects and an Associate of the Town Planning Institute and was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1970. Cordwell died in Chicago in 1999.
Cordwell speaks about his early years; the pre-war years in London; study at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture and the Architectural Association; problems of class distinction; the office of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew; immigrating to the United States; PACE Association; the Central Area Plan for Chicago; Fort Dearborn project; McCormick Place; Louis R. Solomon; building Sandburg Village; working with Arthur Rubloff; Presidential Towers.
Sandburg Village; Chicago, 1960-1975. Photo by John Zukowsky.
"Well, architecture in itself, to me, wasn't enough. It wasn't a total understanding of the whole society, and planning gave me that background. It gave me the background of the environment and what had to be done. That was terribly important to me, to understand more than the building, but also the grounds on which the building stood and the environment in which the building was to be placed....One building is not enough. You've got to create the whole ambience that the building is in: the society of the people that are going to live in these buildings and how they lived, who they are and how you are going to improve their lives. I want to leave the place a better place than I found it. I think that's the biggest thing, to make life just a little better than I found it, and I'm trying to do that." (p. 282)
Funding for this oral history was provided by Harold Schiff, of Schal Associates.