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John Macsai (1926-2017)

Dates of Interview:

June 18, 19, 20, and 24, 2002

Location of Interview:

Macsai's home in Evanston, Illinois


Betty J. Blum

Length of Transcript:

207 pages
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Self-portrait by John Macsai.

Biographical Summary

John Macsai was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1926. During World War II, while Hungary was occupied by Germany, Macsai was sent to a work camp where he "built airfields, cleared forests, and starved." After liberation in 1945 he resumed his studies at the Polytechnic University in Budapest. With the help of an ORT scholarship, he soon transferred to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he obtained his B.A. in architecture in 1949. After graduation, Macsai worked for several Chicago architecture offices--including Holabird & Root, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, PACE Associates, Hyland Builders and Raymond Loewy Associates--before striking out on his own. He partnered informally with Robert Diamant in 1955, then with Raymond Stermer and Robert Hausner, and finally with Robert Hausner from 1955 until 1970. From 1970 until 1975 Macsai worked in partnership with Wendell Campbell. Macsai founded his own office, John Macsai and Associates, in 1975. Most notably, he designed and built numerous apartment buildings in prominent locations in the Chicago area for several developers. Additionally, Macsai was one of the few architects who was interested in housing for the elderly and disabled and he subsequently became an authority on the subject. Always an artist, Macsai also established a reputation early in his career for his masterful architectural renderings. He held a professorship at the University of Illinois, Chicago, from 1970 until 1996, and is now professor emeritus. In 1991 Macsai merged his office with O'Donnell, Wicklund, Pigozzi and Peterson. He retired from OWPP&P in 1999. Macsai was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1978. Macsai died of congestive heart failure at his Evanston home in August of 2017.

Interview Highlights

Macsai speaks about his experience as a Jew in Hungary during World War II; studying architecture at the Polytechnic University in Budapest and at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; projects and colleagues at Holabird & Root, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, PACE Associates, Hyland Builders, and Raymond Loewy Associates; founding several partnerships; designing highrise residential buildings for developers; teaching at the University of Illinois, Chicago; housing for the elderly; merging with O'Donnell, Wicklund, Pigozzi & Peterson; watercolor painting; his opinions and observations.

Harbor House, Chicago, IL, 1966. Photograph by Annemarie van Roessel.

Social Services Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 1969.
Photograph by Balthazar Korab, used with permission.

Interview Excerpt

"I always drew. I really wanted to be a graphic artist. I adored graphic arts... I never really dreamt of wanting to be an architect....Architecture came through the back door. But once I entered architecture, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because architecture, in a sense, is graphic design. The faéade of the building... Sure, I fully agree that the building has to stand up, has to function well, has to be economical, all that. But ultimately, as Ada Louise Huxtable says, it has to be beautiful. And, by and large, most buildings are judged from [the] exterior view. You know, I used to tell my students, "People will drive by your building and make a judgment of you by looking at the building, maybe never entering. They don't know that you did a good job on cost. And you are not able to put out a sign that says 'Dear onlooker, this building looks screwed up because of the following reasons...'" There's no second chance. They will look at it. And ultimately, it's a graphic design of the solids and voids and the projections and the shadows and whatever is emphasized on the building. It ultimately appears on your retina, you know, as a flat thing, and a judgment is made. So graphic design was, in a way, very helpful in studying elevations. It was not very helpful in being able to build well-functioning buildings within a budget, et cetera. But that you pick up later." (p. 2, 4)

Additional Resources

John Macsai images in the R&B Archives
Related archival materials in the R&B Archives
Works by Macsai in the Department of Architecture and Design

Funding for this oral history was provided by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.